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The top 5 Ukrainian Jews of Hollywood

Famous, Oscar-winning, ours!

The complex history of the Jewish people has taught us to master many professions. Jews often achieve great triumphs in the process. This sense of purpose often draws a feeling of pride among those who follow the success from outside, for it is always pleasant to discover that a Nobel prize winner of successful businessman has the same ancestry as you. And if you were also born in the same country, then the level of enthusiasm at the success rises even higher.

Many people have heard the old story about a Soviet Jewish grandmother who after any film, regardless of its quality, closely studied the credits: “Oh, there’s a Jew! And another one!” she constantly exclaimed, as familiar surnames for her were a way of returning to the bosom of her people.

When discussing cinema, it is very difficult to ignore the enormous Jewish contribution to the development of the industry. We can start with the fact that one of the cult film studies which built and extolled cinema from the early 20th century could have had the name “Wonskolaser Brothers”, a rather difficult one for Americans to pronounce. But the four Jewish brothers, whose parents fled the Russian empire, decided to change their name to a more customary and harmonious sounding-one – Warner. It was this studio, together with other companies, that created the Hollywood that we know today as the center of world cinema.

In the rich history of the cinema there are plenty of successes and failures, legendary figures and legends who vanished without trace. We will tell you about those whose success story began in an ordinary Jewish family in Ukraine.

Kirk Douglas

The Odessan Herschel Danielovich moved to the town of Chausy after he married Bryna Sanglel. In 1908, after a series of Jewish pogroms, the young family decided to move to America, as many other people were doing at that time. After they moved, Herschel and Bryna had a son by the name of Issur. Soon the family decided to become Americanized. Herschel became Harry, Bryna became Bertha, and the young Issur became Izzy. The immigrants’ surname also changed – now the whole family was called Demsky.

After boxing lessons at University and service in the navy in WWII, Izzy Demsky married and moved to New York, where he began to act on Broadway. While still at school Izzy met Bettie Perske, a beautiful Jewish girl who was the cousin of the future president of Israel Shimon Peres. Starting her career as a model, Betty changed her name to Lauren Bacall and went into pictures, where she subsequently became one of the greatest film stars in the history of Hollywood. With Betty-Lauren’s help, Izzy Demsky made the transition from theater to film, where in 1946 he appeared in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” under the pseudonym of Kirk Douglas.

Three years later, Kirk played the boxer Midge Kelly in the film “Champion”. The film made Douglas a star. Of all Kirk’s roles, the role of Spartacus in the film of the same name by Stanley Kubrick in 1960 stands out. The film was so good that in 1967 it was released in the Soviet Union, where Kirk became a sex symbol overnight.

However, Douglas didn’t get such an enthusiastic reaction from film critics. The film received six Oscar nominations, and won four of them, but they were not for best actor. Douglas never got an Oscar for acting, although he was nominated three times.

In the 1980s, Kirk slowed down, making the way for younger actors. Including his son Michael, who was already quite a well-known actor by then for his role in the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco”. Interestingly enough, both father and son were involved in making one of the most important cult films in history, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. In 1962, Kirk Douglas purchased the film writers for $47,000 from writer Ken Kesey, and later Michael became the producer of the Oscar-winning film.

In 1996, the American film academy decided that Kirk Douglas deserved a personal Oscar and gave him the award for an outstanding career. At that time, he had already suffered a major stroke, but continued acting in films. Kirk has appeared in 203 films altogether. He became the father of a true cinema family – two actors and two producers.

“Life is like a second-rate screenplay. If someone brought me a screenplay based on my life, I’d probably turn it down. Sometimes it’s useful to think about where you came from and where you’re going. I prefer to look to the future, but from time to time it’s useful to sum up your life.”

Dustin Hoffman

When the family of Harry and Lillian Hoffman had another son in 1937, Dustin, they were very happy. By that time they had already moved from Kiev to Los Angeles, changed their names and tried out a series of professions. The family of the young Dustin were not religious, and later the future actor would say that he did not remember any Jewish holidays being celebrated in their home.

After long years of studying acting, Dustin spent a long time looking for success. And he found in on Broadway. After the role of the clerk Zoditch in the play “The Journey of the Fifth Horse”, theater critics awarded Hoffman an Obie for best actor. Hoffman was 29 when he made his debut in film, after which the actor swapped the stage for the film set once and for all. His first leading role in the film “The Graduate” was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.

The 1970s saw Hoffman’s fame at his peak. In 1980 and 1989 he received an Oscar for roles in the films “Kramer Versus Kramer” and “Rainman”. Additionally, Dustin was nominated another five times for the most prestigious award in the film world.

In the 1990s and 2000s, directors did not invite Dustin so much for his brilliant acting as for his celebrity name. And the level of films in which Hoffman appeared dropped in chronological order. “Epidemic”, “Sleepers”, “Joan of Arc”, “Lemony Snicket”, “Meet the Fockers” and “The Perfumer” – each of these films had local success, but no one took them seriously.

David Duchovny

If the modest Moisha from the glorious town of Berdichev had known what his grandson would be famous for in the “goldene medina”, he probably wouldn’t have moved to America after the revolution. The 17-year-old boy worked as a journalist, writing for the “Morgn-zhurnal” which was published in Yiddish. Later he married, and had a son called Amram, who followed in his father’s footsteps, also writing. Amram had rather simple attitude to Jewish self-awareness, and so he married the Scottish woman Margaret Miller.

In 1960 Amram and Margaret had a son who they decided to call David. The boy liked studying from his childhood and wanted to dedicate himself to literature. He enrolled at Princeton, received a master’s at Yale, and was interested in theater, but in the end he gave up studying and became an actor.

He was hired for small roles in films and TV series, and in advertisements. David was helped a great deal by his attractive and interesting appearance. At one festival he was noticed by producer Randy Stone, and advised Chris Carter to watch the young man at work. Carter had just launched a new project – the TV series “The X Files”. It was the role of agent Mulder that brought David incredible fame, and a Golden Globe award. The series ran for nine seasons, and in seven of them Mulder investigated mysterious cases along with Gillian Anderson, who played agent Scully.

In 2007, Duchovny, who had dropped out of the spotlight, showed a completely new side. His role as a Hollywood writer, the smart alec Hank Moody in the TV series “Californication”, regained audience’s love for the actor. In 2008 David gained the recognition of film critics, who awarded him a Golden Globe for best TV actor. Filming of the series came to an end in 2014.

In 2014 Duchovny found himself in a rather strange situation. Taking an interest in his family history and the events taking place in Ukraine, he wrote an interesting message on his Twitter account: “I grew up thinking I was Russian, but only now I realize that I’ve always been Ukrainian. It’s never too late to change”. In the summer of the same year, a beer advertisement appeared in Russia in which Duchovny thought about what he would have been like if he had been born in Russia. This role greatly upset Ukrainian fans of the TV series, but soon the incident dropped out of view and everyone forgot about it.

In 2015, the new TV series “Aquarius” will screen, with Duchovny in the main role as a policeman. At any rate, the descendent of Moishe from Berdichev is excellent at changing his character on screen.

Mila Kunis

Mila Kunis is probably the most famous representative of Ukrainian Jewry in Hollywood. She is certainly one of the top stars in American cinema today. And perhaps she has not played too many serious roles, but she is still quite young, and can easily make up for this gap in her career.

In 1983, the typical cultured Jewish family of Kunis in Chernovtsy had a second child, a girl who they called Milena. Milena’s mother was a physics teacher, and her father worked as a mechanical engineer at a factory. “My parents brought me up to know that I was Jewish. And when I went to school, there were anti-Semitic pranks. Once a classmate of mine came home in tears – a swastika was cut out into the back of her chair. I realized that this country clearly didn’t need me,” Mila recalls.

At the age of eight, Milena left the Soviet Union with her family, for the USA, to look for a better life. According to the actress, her parents decided to move because they wanted to give their children a more pleasant environment to live in than they could find in post-Soviet Ukraine. The Kunis family moved to Los Angeles, where Mila went to school and took acting lessons.

As is suitable for a little actress, she began by advertising Barbie dolls. Then Mila began to be invited to play bit parts in films and TV series. In 1999 Mila passed the audition for one of the main characters in the TV series “That ’70s Show”, for which she won numerous awards.

After this successful stage in her career, Mila provided the voice for Meg Griffin in the cartoon series “The Family Guy”. For her work, Mila even received an Annie award. At the same time, Mila worked on furthering her career in film.

Mila had her first prominent role in the comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” which was released in 2008. Then came “Max Payne”, based on the computer game. Another success with audiences was “The Book of Eli”, where Mila worked with actors of the caliber of Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman.

In 2010, Kunis received a role in her important film to date. At the request of Jerusalem native Natalie Portman, director Darren Aranofsky invited Mila Kunis to star in his film “Black Swan” as the rival of the main character. The film tells the story of relationships in a ballet troupe. For her role, Kunis won acclaim form critics, and just missed out on being nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. “Kunis makes a perfect alternate to Portman, equally as lithe and dark but a smirk of self-assurance in place of Portman's wide-eyed fearfulness,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote.

Mila is proud of her ancestry, although she can’t call herself religious. She constantly reminds the press of her Jewish roots. “I must say that I am a very Jewish girl. When I am in new York, I become a super-Jewess.”

Sylvester Stallone

Stallone’s name is familiar to almost everyone. And although the name of this actor, producer and director is Italian, he also has Ukrainian Jewish blood. His great-grandmother Roza-Gitel was part of the large and rather wealthy Jewish family Leibovich from Odessa. When she married, she and her husband moved to the USA.

“Sylvester and I are very romantic, and Odessa, in my opinion, is also a very romantic city, so you feel like you’re at home there. My grandmother was very rich, she wore expensive jewelry, she never worked and raised sons. She had a terrible accent, she hardly spoke English, so it was very interesting to find out where the accent came from, as she never said that she lived in Odessa,” Sylvester’s mother Jacqueline said of her grandmother.

Success came to Stallone in 1976, when the film “Rocky” was released, for which Sylvester wrote the script and played the leading role. The film was a true revelation, winning an Oscar for best film, director and editing. In another seven categories, including best actor, the film lost out to other competitors.

Stallone became a cult actor for Soviet audiences after the Rambo series of films. In the late 1990s-early 2000s Stallone’s fame dropped, in many ways because actions films became less popular, but Sylvester continued to appear in films. And he once more gained audience’s recognition when he decided to go back to his old stuff. In 2006 a new Rocky film appeared, and it was followed by “Rambo 4”. But the most attractive film for viewers from the post-Soviet region was “The Expendables”, in which Stallone gathered a whole cascade of star actors from actions films. The film returned attention to many forgotten heroes, and made $274 million, which resulted in two sequels.

It is interesting that while Sylvestor was reviving his film career, his mother Jacqueline has been searching for her roots. She even went to Odessa to look for her relatives. And she found them – the Odessa Leibovichs continue to work in trade, as they did 100 years ago.

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