Times: How did Jewish Actor Kirk Douglas Quit Smoking?

On occasion, we suggest to people we know who smoke cigarettes, and sometimes even to random smoking strangers, that today is the perfect day to quit smoking cigarettes.

Here is Kirk Douglas' first person account from the Times in 2003 of why today is the best day of your life to quit smoking cigarettes. (Yes he is Jewish, born born Issur Danielovitch, now 92 years old. He played the Jewish Col. David 'Mickey' Marcus in the film, "Cast a Giant Shadow.")

If you do smoke cigarettes, please do quit today.
My First Cigarette, and My Last

My father, a Russian peasant, came to this country in 1910. Like all of his pals, he smoked. It's hard for me to picture my father without a cigarette in his mouth.

After many years of smoking, my father was told by his doctor that he would die of cancer if he did not stop smoking. So he quit cold turkey. Here's how he did it: he always carried one cigarette in the breast pocket of his shirt. When he felt the urge to smoke, he'd take the cigarette out and look at it fiercely. With a growl, he would say, in his Russian accent, "Who's stronger? You ? me?"

He would glare at the cigarette: "I stronger." And he'd put the cigarette back in his pocket. He did that for a few years, but it was too late. He died of cancer at age 72.

During my college years, my Navy service during World War II, and my years as an actor on Broadway, I never smoked. Then Hollywood beckoned, and I answered. My first picture was "The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers," with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin, in 1946. I was intimidated, but proud to be playing the role of Miss Stanwyck's husband. I arrived at the set, very excited, to do my first scene with her. But I had spoken only a few lines when the director, Lewis Milestone, stopped the action and said, "Kirk, you should be smoking a cigarette in this scene."

"I don't smoke," I replied timidly.

"It's easy to learn," he said, and had the prop man hand me a cigarette.

I continued with the scene, lighting and smoking my first cigarette. Suddenly, I began to feel sick to my stomach and dizzy.

"Cut," yelled the director. "What's the matter with you, Kirk? You're swaying."

I rushed to my trailer to throw up.

But Mr. Milestone was right. It's easy to learn to smoke. Soon I was smoking two to three packs a day.

At that time everyone smoked, and the cigarette was the favorite movie prop. Many actors have trouble with their hands. Should they put them in their pockets? Should they put them behind their back? Do they have them at their sides? The cigarette answered the question. You take one out of the pack, you tap it, light it and inhale deeply. Then you exhale. If you are clever, you can learn to blow smoke rings. You can point with a cigarette. You can tap the ashes into an ashtray, and put it out gently in the ashtray or fiercely ? whatever the scene requires. Paul Henreid had a worldwide hit in 1942 lighting two cigarettes at once in "Now, Voyager."

When I became famous, tobacco companies supplied me with cartons of cigarettes every month. One day in 1950 I was in my den, smoking as usual. I exhaled and through the smoke I saw a picture of my father on my desk. I thought of him on his deathbed. I stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray. I took one cigarette from the pack and threw the rest in the wastebasket.

I held up the cigarette and studied it. My father's words came to me: "Who's stronger? You ? me?"

"I stronger." I put the cigarette in my shirt pocket and never smoked again.

Hollywood started me smoking, literally putting a cigarette in my hand. Who knows how many moviegoers have started smoking because of what they have seen on the screen? Too many movies glorify young people smoking. It doesn't have to be this way. I have done at least 50 pictures where I avoided smoking. In one film, "The Brotherhood," I played a Mafia character and chewed on a cigar. In a scene from a film I just did, "The Illusion," when offered a cigarette, I say: "I don't smoke. I have cancer."

That's not true for me, thank goodness. But it is true that, like my father, I know I'm stronger than a cigarette.

Kirk Douglas, the actor, is author, most recently, of "My Stroke of Luck."
[This is personal. Newport cigarettes first made my mother ill and then killed my mother in 2000 after she suffered for months in the hospital.](reposted from 8/31/09)


Richard said...

The best way to quit is through nicotine gum or nicotine patches. Smoking is a drug addiction like any other, not a lifestyle choice. It is best to treat it as such.

Richard said...

As a former smoker, I can say without reservation that the problem is not one of will power per se, but rather relates to nicotine addiction. The health issues arising from nicotine use relate specifically to the delivery device used to self administer the drug i.e. cigarette smoke. It is the small particulates from smoke that enter the lung that directly cause cancer. Nicotine as a drug, administered through other means - say the patch or gum - is not much more dangerous than coffee. The first step to this this health crisis should be to focus on changing the delivery device. The second step, which is harder, should be on breaking the addiction altogether.

Richard said...

One other fact to keep in mind. Cigarette smoke contains over 4000 chemical compounds; 200 of which are known to be poisonous, and upwards of 60 have been identified as carcinogens.

Tzvee, thanks for keeping the pressure on this issue.