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How Kirk Douglas helped to beat the anti-communist blacklist

The Hollywood star has died at the age of 103. PETER FROST recalls how he helped break the notorious ban on writers and actors during the early years of the cold war

KIRK DOUGLAS, award-winning film maker and Hollywood star of over 85 blockbuster films, died earlier this week aged 103.

Born Issur Danielovitch, the son a Jewish ragman who took the name Harry Demsky, his mother’s name was Bryna and he would use her name for his own film company in later life.

His parents were from from what is now Belarus. Issur worked his way through university as Isidore Demsky, before becoming a professional wrestler to pay for classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

He had several more name changes both in the ring and on stage. He would be over 30 when he settled on the name Kirk Douglas after fighting in WWII in the US Navy.

By the time he started his meteoric silver-screen career, Hollywood had become the most blatant example of the crude cold war anti-communist crusade dubbed McCarthyism.

One renowned screenwriter who was blacklisted and jailed in the Communist witch-hunt of the ‘40s and ‘50s was Dalton Trumbo.

Trumbo was forced to write under a pseudonym for many years. Two of his scripts, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Oscars. It wasn’t until decades later that Trumbo’s real name was put on them.

When Kirk Douglas produced and starred in the Oscar-winning 1960 epic Spartacus he bravely asked Trumbo to write the script. He publicly announced that Trumbo would be the writer and his name would be on the screen credits.

Later that year, director Otto Preminger did the same thing with Exodus, another Trumbo script. The blacklist ban was on its way to being gone.

Of course it wasn’t Kirk Douglas who broke the blacklist alone, it was combined campaigning by many people.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times in 2002 Trumbo’s widow Cleo said: “no single person can be credited with breaking the blacklist. Most of the credit for breaking the ban” she said “must go to the blacklisted writers themselves.”

I’m going to leave the last words to Kirk Douglas himself. Five years ago aged 98 he spelt it out.

“I had friends who went into exile when no-one would hire them; actors who committed suicide in despair. My young co-star in Detective Story (1951), Lee Grant, was unable to work for 12 years after she refused to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“I was threatened that using a blacklisted writer for Spartacus –– my friend Dalton Trumbo — would mark me as a ‘commie-lover’ and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle. I am so proud of my fellow actors who use their public influence to speak out against injustice.

“At 98 years old, I have learned one lesson from history: it very often repeats itself. The blacklist was a terrible time in our country, but we must learn from it so that it will never happen again.

“I have been working in Hollywood over 60 years and I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is my part in breaking the blacklist.”


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