Kirk Douglas has achieved much in his 94 years, but asked for his proudest accomplishment, the actor cites the breaking of the infamous Hollywood Blacklist.
Douglas did so by giving writer Dalton Trumbo — who had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 — full credit for the script of the movie “Spartacus,” normally a routine acknowledgment.
But in 1960, openly employing an accused communist or communist sympathizer was an almost guaranteed career killer, even for a Hollywood star as big as Douglas.
This year’s 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will honor Douglas’ moral courage by conferring on him its Freedom of Expression Award. Last year’s award was given to Israeli Arab author and satirist Sayed Kashua, and previous awards have gone to people such as documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner and Israeli director Amos Gitai.
A special ceremony — to be attended by Douglas — is set for 1 p.m. Sunday, July 24, at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. Douglas is scheduled to accept a statuette and then introduce a 50th anniversary screening of “Spartacus,” in which he played the title role and served as executive producer.
Meeting Douglas at his relatively modest, art-filled home in Beverly Hills, a visitor first notices the famous dimpled chin still jutting out, and that his full head of hair has turned from blond to white.
A near-fatal helicopter crash and a stroke in the 1990s forced him to relearn speaking, which he now does slowly and with a slight slur. His memory, however, is as good as ever and he clearly recalls the mood and details of the Red-hunting McCarthy era.
“I was always an impulsive guy and young enough not to pay attention to the possible consequences of openly hiring Trumbo,” Douglas recalled.
“Though people told me I was crazy and would never work in [Hollywood] again, I was so disgusted with what was going on in the country and in Hollywood, that I had to do something.”
Nevertheless, Douglas spent a lot of sleepless nights, not in debating his decision, but in cursing “the stupidity of it all, in which some of the most talented actors and writers accused of communism couldn’t work anymore.
“Then there was the utter hypocrisy, because everybody in Hollywood knew that Trumbo was writing ‘Spartacus,’ though under the pseudonym of Sam Jackson.” Trumbo later thanked Douglas, writing, “Thank you for giving me my name back.”
Douglas finally had his way, and it didn’t hurt that he was one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, the Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise of his day, and just off the box office hit “The Vikings.” The premiere of “Spartacus” in October 1960 was followed within two months by the opening of “Exodus,” also written by Trumbo and with his name openly listed in the screen credits.
Though the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s is generally named for the demagogic Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his baleful work was preceded, and continued after his 1957 death, by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Among the earliest HUAC targets were the Hollywood Ten, predominantly well-known screenwriters who refused to declare their political affiliations or denounce colleagues. They were cited for contempt of Congress and imprisoned for up to one year.
Trumbo was not Jewish, but six of the other Hollywood Ten were, and among many politicians and compilers of “suspect” lists, charges of being a New York or Hollywood “commie symp” served as the code word for Jew.
“Spartacus” had three prominent Jews,: Douglas, director Stanley Kubrick, and Howard Fast (also blacklisted), who wrote the original book.
Douglas was asked if the campaign against “politically unreliable” artists was fueled, at least partly, by anti-Semitism. Of course, he answered: “Listen, all my life I’ve always assumed that everybody I met was an anti-Semite unless he could prove otherwise.”
Born Issur Danielovitch, Douglas learned early about anti-Semitism from his boyhood fights in Amsterdam, N.Y. But as he made his way in Hollywood as a Nordic-looking leading man, he shed most of his religious upbringing.
However, he reminisced, “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”
He returned to Jewish observance in 1991, after surviving a helicopter crash that compressed his spine by three inches and killed two younger companions.
“I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be a Jew,” he said.
In his mid-70s, he embarked on an intensive regime of Jewish studies and discovered the Bible, which he calls “the greatest screenplay ever written. It has passion, incest, murder, adultery, really everything. That’s why they keep making movies about it.”
Now he maintains his weekly sessions with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He also lights candles at home on Friday nights and he celebrated his second bar mitzvah at age 83.
Yet he is ambivalent about religion in general. “I believe in God, I’m happy to be a Jew,” he declares. “But I think too much religion has not helped civilization. Caring for other people, that’s my religion.”
Douglas has embarked on two more careers: one as a philanthropist underwriting hundreds of playgrounds (in Israel for Arab and Jewish kids, and also in California) and one as an author. He has written nine books — autobiographies, novels and children’s books — with two more due to be published in late 2011 and early 2012.
In addition, Warner Brothers is releasing a DVD of his earlier one-man show in New York, “Before I Forget.”
After all that, Douglas promises at least one more book, “with lots of humor,” titled “It’s Hard to Be a Jew.”
The Freedom of Expression Award ceremony is at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 24 at the Castro Theatre, S.F. Followed by screening of “Spartacus.” (195 minutes, one 10-minute intermission). $16-$18. Information: www.sfjff.org.