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Kirk Douglas, an iconic star who reconnected to Judaism after near-fatal crash

Kirk Douglas, the legendary actor who portrayed legions of tough guys and embraced his Jewish heritage later in life, died at his home in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. He was 103.

Over a career that spanned 87 films — 73 big screen features and 14 on television — the blond, blue-eyed Douglas, dimpled chin thrust forward, was often cast as the toughest guy around, vanquishing hordes of Romans, Vikings and assorted bad guys.

Thrice nominated for an Academy Award and a recipient of an Oscar for lifetime achievement and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Douglas evolved from an egocentric and promiscuous young man into a multi-talented actor, director, author, philanthropist and student of Torah who left a deep imprint on both Hollywood and the Jewish people.

Douglas also was the author of 11 books, ranging from personal memoirs and a Holocaust-themed novel for young readers to a collection of poetry dedicated to his wife.

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 in the upstate New York town of Amsterdam, the son of an illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrant who supported his six daughters and one son as a rag picker and junk man.

A chance to escape came shortly after his bar mitzvah, when the Sons of Israel Synagogue offered to underwrite his rabbinical studies. Douglas firmly declined, declaring that he would become an actor. He held fast to that ambition while attending Saint Lawrence University on a wrestling scholarship and during World War II service in the US Navy.

With increasing fame and fortune, Douglas showed little interest in Jewish practice, though there were exceptions.

“I always fasted on Yom Kippur,” he told a reporter. “I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

In his later years, Douglas would come to embrace his Jewishness, a shift he dates to a near-fatal collision in 1991 between his helicopter and a stunt plane in which two younger men died. The crash compressed his spine by three inches. While lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pain, he started pondering the meaning of his life.

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish,” he said.

Douglas embarked on an intensive regime of Torah study with a number of young rabbis and celebrated a second bar mitzvah at age 83, telling the Hollywood luminaries crammed into the 200-seat chapel at Sinai Temple for the occasion: “Today, I am a man.”

Neither of his two wives — the late actress Diana Dill and Anne Buydens, whom he married in 1954 — were Jewish, and none of his children were raised in the faith. But his oldest son, the actor-director Michael Douglas, has reconnected with Judaism and won the 2015 Genesis Prize, a $1 million award recognizing Jews of great accomplishment who exhibit Jewish values.

Along with his wife, Douglas has given over $100 million to charitable causes in the United States and Israel. The couple have established nearly 400 playgrounds in poorer sections of Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, and a theater facing the Western Wall featuring films on the history of Judaism and Jerusalem.

Header: Portrait of American actor Kirk Douglas as he poses with his hands in his pockets, 1950. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)