Most actors hope their good looks and charisma will earn their way into the hearts of an audience. But Michael Douglas only needs to speak.
His gravelly, dignified and authoritative tone has captivated audiences over four decades. Whether playing a cutthroat Wall Street executive, a widowed US president looking for love, or a frustrated husband longing for a divorce at any cost, that distinctive baritone stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
When Michael Douglas talks, people listen.
And listen they did when he published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last March where he spoke about his son, who had recently celebrated his bar mitzva, getting his first ugly dose of anti-Semitism.
While this time the message was in print, he was still heard loud and clear.
“The op-ed kind of went viral,” Douglas told The Jerusalem Post this week in a phone interview, ahead of his arrival to Israel to receive the Genesis Prize, which honors people who inspire others in their dedication to the Jewish community and the State of Israel.
Douglas hopes that his celebrity will be able to draw attention to the prevalence of global anti-Semitism, and asserts that the Jewish people, who are waging an uphill battle against hatred, can use all the help they can get.
“I don’t profess it has anything to do with my great writing ability,” he said, chuckling ruefully, “but this is probably one of the few areas where celebrity can kind of carry the day. It quickly went from LA to around the world.”
“[The reaction] surprised me. At the same time, hopefully it will cause or create more discussion and dialogue as to what might be going on,” he added.
The piece, which was picked up by outlets worldwide, told the story of Douglas’s son, Dylan, who was harassed while on vacation with his family in Europe.
Initially confused as to why an innocent teen behaving himself could possibly be the subject of harassment, Douglas wrote, “I had an awful realization of what might have caused the man’s outrage: Dylan was wearing a Star of David.”
The piece hit a nerve and illustrated that “individual situations that might have been happening in France or in US college campuses seemed to be true in most places worldwide to some degree or another,” Douglas explained.
“It seemed like such an unfair act on a young man of 14, who even though his mother was not Jewish, and did not come from a family with a strong religious background, felt strong enough ties to the Jewish tribe to want to have a bar mitzva and to go through the studying that it took to do that. It hurt deeply to see someone attacked that early for something he was so proud of,” Douglas lamented.
The son of legendary film actor Kirk Douglas (who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family as Issur Danielovitch), Douglas lived most of his life believing he was not a welcome member of the tribe because his mother, Diana, was Anglican.
Like his father, Douglas also married outside of the faith with his wedding to actress Catherine Zeta Jones in 2000.
But anti-Semitism, he wrote, “does not make such fine distinctions.”
The actor, who celebrated his 70th birthday last September, credits his son for bringing Judaism into the family home.
“I have no formal religious background,” he said. “So this came as a surprise to some degree.”
His son, intrigued by his many Jewish friends who were going through the process of studying for their bar mitzva, spent many Saturdays observing what they learned in Hebrew school. After several months, “he came to me and his mom and said, ‘Mom, dad, I want to have a bar mitzva.’”
“’When I go to their houses on Friday night, we light the candles, I feel something. When I go there and listen to them talk, my soul feels something,’” Dylan told his father.
“I said, ‘That’s fantastic,’” Douglas recalled, the pride for his son clearly evident in his voice.
When Douglas arrives in Israel to receive the Genesis Prize, he will discuss a matter close to his heart – the importance of inclusiveness and being accepting and welcoming of Jews of different stripes and backgrounds.
When Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation, approached Douglas about being the second recipient of the prestigious prize, the actor was initially impressed by its spirit of “tikkun olam,” improving the world, but reluctant to accept for fear that “they simply got the wrong guy.”
“I told Stan, ‘Well, you made a terrible mistake. My mother is not Jewish.’ And he looked at me like I was an idiot,’” a bewildered Douglas said at the time.
That is because for years, Douglas was told over and over again that he was not Jewish and “for many of us who are not following the tradition, we just sort of gave up.”
With some 60 percent of Diaspora Jews marrying out since 2000, according to a recent Pew study, Douglas and the Genesis Prize Foundation are hoping not to lose such as vast portion of the Jewish population.
The Genesis Prize selection committee saw Douglas as a perfect symbol for such families and the need to be more welcoming to those who wish to embrace their Jewish heritage.
Douglas made a point to clarify that he isn’t focusing on enlisting large swathes of Jews with the goal of having them actively accept the Jewish religious practices and rituals overnight.
“I’m not focusing on the religious front. I’m talking about Jewish values, cultural issues, community and being welcomed. It’s an important issue as a tribe to support those in the intermarried families.”
In accepting the award in January, Douglas stated that he would re-gift the $1 million prize to organizations that focus on the issue of inclusiveness and intermarried families.
He plans to work closely with the Genesis Prize Foundation on seeking the most effective ways to allocate the hefty cash prize.
“Our collaboration with Michael Douglas this year will be unique and represent the special nature of the Genesis Prize. In creating this award, we have chosen to annually combine the exceptional profile of the laureate with an important issue which is of concern to the Jewish people and will resonate with unaffiliated young adults,” Polovets said.
Last year’s prize winner was New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who received the award for his public work and philanthropy.
The ceremony, which is scheduled for next Thursday, includes a tribute to Douglas’s career and the Jewish contribution to establishing the entertainment industry in the United States. Jay Leno will return as the night’s emcee, and after a contentious election in Israel and the upcoming one in the United States, he will have no shortage of material.
Douglas is also set to address the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and will hold a roundtable for young adults with former president Shimon Peres and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa.
While speaking with the Post, Douglas took a moment to recount his father’s harrowing near brush with death.
“I look back to my father, who as a child did not practice his religion. He also was 70 years old and he had a terrible helicopter crash. Two people killed instantly. He and his helicopter fell 40 feet, rotors still running, gasoline pouring out, and he didn’t die.
And after that he asked, ‘Why is this young man and pilot dead and I’m not?’ And he began studying the Torah and renewed his vows and rediscovered his faith,” he said.
“At least I didn’t have to have a helicopter crash at 70, but I certainly have my son to thank for this spiritual awakening.”