And the Oscar goes to…

Ben Hecht | Paul Muni
Jack Palance | Kirk Douglas
Dustin Hoffman | Woody Allen
Robert Lee Zemeckis
Steven Spielberg | Sean Penn
Gwyneth Paltrow

The US actors, screenwriters, and directors with family origins from the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth contributed tremendously to the development of American cinema. Many Academy Awards won by them represent the best exemplification of these phenomenon.

Ben Hecht (1894–1964) was an American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist, and novelist who wrote six movie screenplays that were nominated for Academy Awards. Two of these screenplays won the award in 1927/28 and 1935. He went on to write 35 books and some of the most entertaining screenplays and plays in America. Hecht was born in New York City into the Jewish family from Minsk, the current capital of Belarus. At the age of 16, he ran away to Chicago, where, in his own words, he “haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops”. In the 1920s, Hecht organized campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan. He was also active in promoting racial equality on the Broadway stage. After the Second World War, he wrote the script for the play “A Flag is Born”, which compared the Zionist fight in Palestine to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The play was intended to increase public support for the Zionist cause in the United States. The play starred prominent actors, such as Marlon Brando and Paul Muni. The cover of the program showed three Zionists — one with a Zionist flag, one with a rifle and one with a hoe — superimposed over three American Revolutionary Patriots. Advertisements used the slogan “It’s 1776 in Palestine!” They portrayed members of the Jewish guerilla forces as “modern-day Nathan Hales”. Hale was an American Patriot and spy for the Continental Army who was captured by the British and executed in 1776. The advertisements also alluded to “taxation without representation”. Finally, they quoted Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God”.

Paul Muni, Source: Wikimedia
Paul Muni, Source: Wikipedia

Paul Muni (1895-1967) a stage and film actor was the first actor from the Eastern lands that won the Oscar. He was a five- time Academy Award nominee, with one win in the category Best Actor in 1936. Muni was born in Lviv into a Jewish family. When he was seven, they emigrated to the US. They settled in Chicago. Muni started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre in Chicago with his parents, who were both actors. He developed a great skill in makeup, which enabled him to play much older characters. Indeed, in his first stage role at the age of 12, Muni played the role of an 80-year-old man.

Jack Palance (1919-2006), an American actor of Ukrainian descent gained fame playing tough guys and villains. Indeed, in one of issues of “Lucky Luke”, a legendary comics series a villain named Phil Defer is a caricature of Jack Palance. He was nominated for three Academy Awards, all for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, finally winning the Oscar in 1991. He was born as Volodymyr Palahniuk in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, which became a home of many immigrants from Eastern regions of the former Commonwealth. His parents originated from Eastern Galicia. Palance has never forgotten about his Ukrainian roots, participating actively in life of Ukrainian diaspora. Palance’s father and himself worked as coal miners like thousands other immigrants from Eastern Europe. In 1897 Lattimer was arena of one largest massacres of striking workers in the history of the US when almost 20 persons lost life. Most of them were from the former Commonwealth. It was a turning point in the history of labor movement in the US because the United Mine Workers (UMW), witnessed a dramatic upsurge of membership and the massacre ended a longstanding myth about the docility of Eastern European miners. Just three years later, the UMW was powerful enough to win large wage increases and safety improvements for miners. Before starting an actor’s career Palance worked also as a professional boxer.

Kirk Douglas (1916-2020), an actor and writer, was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York. His parents
were Jewish immigrants from Mogilev Region, in Belarus. Douglas received an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996. He grew up in a very poor family in a Jewish neighborhood being a transplantation of conservative shtetl from the Eastern Europe. He spoke Yiddish at home. His uncle, who immigrated earlier, used the Slavic surname Demsky, which Douglas’s family adopted in the US. In consequence, Douglas was raised as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas only during the Second World War. Douglas thanks to his actor’s career abandoned the conservative environment. He described his transformation as follow: „Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y. Back then, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I did not want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very hard to get out of it. But it took me a long time to learn that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.” Indeed, in 1991 Douglas experienced an air crash in which he was injured. This near-death experience sparked a search for meaning by him. It led Douglas, to embrace again the Judaism.

Dustin Hoffman is a prominent actor who was born in 1937 in Los Angeles. He is the recipient of numerous accolades including two Academy Awards (1979, 1988). He is known for his versatile portrayals of emotionally vulnerable characters. Actor Robert De Niro described him as „an actor with the everyman’s face who embodied the heartbreakingly human”. His grandparents came to Ukraine from Ukraine. In 2016 the actor appeared on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots. Host informed Hoffman how his grandfather Frank left Chicago in 1919 to return to what is now Ukraine to find his parents, after learning that Jews were being killed in pogroms in Bila Tserkva in Ukraine. Soon after arriving in Bila Tserkva he was arrested and executed by secret Bolshevik police, having never discovered that his parents had already been arrested as well – and that his father, was already dead. After learning how his ancestors faced hardship and death, Dustin Hoffman broke down into tears, saying “they all survived for me to be here”.

Woody Allen is an actor, writer and film director who made multiple Academy Award winning films. He was born in the Bronx, NYC in 1935 to a family of second-generation Americans with Lithuanian-Jewish roots. His grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from the Lithuanian city of Panevėžys. His movies received in total 12 Oscars. „Annie Hall” from 1977 is the most awarded Allen’s movie (4 Oscars). The film stars Allen as Alvy Singer, who tries to understand the reasons for the failure of his relationship with the eponymous female lead. The movie touches upon the issue of Jewish identity deeply rooted in Eastern Europe. Alvy Singer is identified with the stereotypical neurotic Jewish male, and the differences between him and Annie are often related to the complexity of Jewish identity. Vincent Brook, the author of „You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Jewish Culture” notes that „Alvy dines with the WASP-y Hall family and imagines that they must see him as a Hasidic Jew, complete with payot (ear locks) and a large black hat.”

Robert Lee Zemeckis is a film director, producer, and screenwriter of Lithuanian background. He was born in Chicago in 1952. The films Zemeckis has directed have ranged across a wide variety of genres. He is credited as an innovator in visual special effects. He first came to public attention as the director of the science-fiction comedy Back to the Future film trilogy (the first part won one Academy Award), as well as the live-action and animated comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit (three Oscars). In the 1990s, he diversified into more dramatic fare, directing Forrest Gump (1994), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director; the film itself won in total 6 Oscars including for Best Picture.

Steven Spielberg, Source: Shutterstock
Steven Spielberg, Source: Shutterstock

Steven Spielberg is one of the most commercially successful directors in history. He gained recognition also as producer, and screenwriter. His movies won combined 34 Academy Awards, including two Oscars for Best Director. Schindler’s List (1993), an epic historical drama about the survival of group of Jews in Kraków, Poland during the Holocaust is the most awarded Spielberg’s movie. Spielberg was born in 1946 into a Jewish Orthodox family in Cincinnati, Ohio but grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. His parental grandparents migrated to the US at the beginning of 20th century from Ukraine. His grandfather was from Kamianets-Podilskyi, a historic and one of the most beautiful towns located in Central Ukraine and his grandmother was from a small village located near the city. His grandfather on his mother’s side came to the US from Odessa. Spielberg visited Ukraine for the first time in 2006. At a press conference in Kiev he said „I got off the plane today and said: I’m home! I have no good excuse for why this is my first visit. But growing up with his grandparents in the house, I felt like I had a piece of Ukraine in my own home, especially at dinnertime,” joked Spielberg. He attended in Kiev the presentation a of Sergey Bukovski’s documentary movie Spell your name co-produced by Spielberg. The movie presents the evidence by the Jews who survived the war and Ukrainians, who despite the deadly danger saved them from fatal end. In the movie, special attention is drawn to the massacre in Babi Yar near Kiev in September 1941, when the German invaders had executed in two days almost 35 thousand Jews. This was one of the largest mass killings at an individual location during World War II. During the visit, Spielberg was rewarded with Odessa city mayor’s Honorary Decoration for stating the highest humanistic ideals and deepening friendly relations between the people of Ukraine and US.

Memorial Menorah of Babi Yar, Kyiv, Ukraine, Source: Shutterstock

The prominent US actor and two-time Oscar winner (2003, 2008) Sean Penn was born in Santa Monica, California in 1960. His father was an actor and director and his mother, an actress. His older brother is musician Michael Penn. His younger brother, Chris Penn, also an actor, died in 2006. Seann Penn only recently has learnt about his Jewish-Lithuanian roots with his grandfather born in 1897. The History Detectives, the PBS show, helped Penn discover his Jewish-Lithuanian roots. His grandfather came from a picturesque small town of Merkinė located in the south of Lithuania (Dzūkija). At the end of 19th century Jews made up almost 75% of the population of the town. In the past, Merkinė was a popular holiday place for Lithuanian and Polish rules and aristocrats. In fact, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Władysław IV Vasa (1632-1648) died here in 1648. Vasa was originally a Swedish dynasty divided into two branches reigning in Sweden and Poland, respectively. Władysław was titular king of Sweden and tried in vain to reclaim the Swedish throne. At the same time, Sweden established colony in the US, named New Sweden. It was conquered by the Dutch in 1655, which were allies of Poland-Lithuania during one of its wars with Sweden.

Gwyneth Paltrow is an actress and writer. She has received numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1999. She was born in 1972 in a mixed Jewish-Christian family in Los Angeles. She was raised celebrating both Christian and Jewish holidays. Her godfather is director Steven Spielberg. Paltrow is keeping in touch with her Jewish roots “growing” from Eastern Europe. “I am the result of generations and generations of rabbis back in Minsk. They call it a rabbinical dynasty,” she said in one of her interviews.