I attended a wedding in Amsterdam, NY, years ago, but only recently learned that the groom’s father had gone to high school with the city’s most famous native son, the great Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas (though in those pre-fame days, Douglas was known around town as Izzy Demsky).
Back then, Amsterdam was an industrial hub, whose mills and factories manufactured everything from carpets to gloves, buttons to brooms (and even skivvies!). It also helped sculpt Douglas, playing a critical role in his later, monumental success. As he describes it in his riveting autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, “On our street was every conceivable nationality, a little League of Nations: Italian, Polish, Irish, Russian, German, British, Lithuanian and probably many others…Sometimes we would beg or steal potatoes from home, build a fire in the gutter and roast them.”
Indeed, Douglas’ childhood in Amsterdam was defined by wretched poverty, deprivation and anti-Semitism, a unique set of circumstances that fueled the young Izzy’s ambitions to escape. It also taught the future onscreen tough guy how to be scrappy and shrewd. The only son of seven children born to poor Russian Jewish immigrants, the often hungry Douglas survived by scrambling and pilfering, selling candy and soda pop from a wagon to factory workers and regularly getting pummeled by neighborhood bullies—all the while dreaming of becoming an actor.
When Douglas left his hometown after high school to pursue that dream, he did so almost mythically. With $163 in his pocket, he and a pal hitchhiked to St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, where he charmed his way into the school (and helped pay his tuition with a gig as a janitor). After a stint in New York City theater, Douglas eventually landed in Hollywood and went on to achieve international renown with a critically acclaimed body of work that includes Champion, Lust For Life, Paths Of Glory and, of course, Spartacus.
Needless to say, Douglas counted many greats of showbiz as close friends and colleagues—Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Billy Wilder among them—and seduced a veritable who’s who of Hollywood’s most formidable leading ladies, including the likes of Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth.
At 101, Douglas is still in the game in his own way, most recently presenting an award at this year’s Oscars with his daughter-in-law, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. A centenarian marvel, this son of an illiterate ragman who hailed from the wrong side of town remains today, without a doubt, the oldest—and quite possibly the most well-respected—living legend in Hollywood who can call Upstate New York home.