Kirk Douglas: 'I Am Always Optimistic'
Pacemaker, helicopter crash, stroke: The nonagenarian actor out with a new book, recalls brushes with death, how he broke the blacklist with "Spartacus" and his plans for a third bar mitzvah if he makes his next birthday.
This story first appeared in the June 08 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Now 95, the legendary actor with a face that looks as if it was carved of stone -- formidable forehead, jutting jaw and famously dimpled chin -- is not only still standing as the last leading actor of his generation, but, against all odds, is about to re-enter the limelight.
On May 31, Kirk Douglas, best known for his performance in the 1960 film Spartacus as the defiant slave who led an uprising against the Romans, is scheduled to be the guest of honor at a ceremony at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, where he and Steven S. DeKnight and Liam McIntyre -- the creator-producer and star, respectively, of Starz's Spartacus series -- will discuss the character's enduring appeal. On June 12, Douglas will be at Grauman's Chinese Theatre for the installation of the refurbished cement block into which he placed his handprints, footprints and, yes, chin-print 50 years ago. And on June 26, Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video will release a DVD boxed set of three of Douglas' finest films -- 1950's Young Man With a Horn, 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful and 1956's Lust for Life -- plus Before I Forget, the 90-minute one-man autobiographical show that Douglas wrote and performed at the CTG/Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City back in 2009. A portion of proceeds will go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund Home in Woodland Hills, which he and Anne Douglas, his wife of 58 years, have long supported.
During a recent two-hour interview at his Beverly Hills house, in a sunlit living room overlooking an enclosed garden, Douglas spoke with THR about everything from the Oscar that eluded him (see sidebar) and his brushes with death to admitting with a laugh that he doesn't know what YouTube is. "I have one computer that my wife gave me. All I know how to do, and I do it every day, is play Spider Solitaire," he says. "And I don't have a cell phone. I have a dinner for my grandchildren, and they're all …," adds Douglas, pantomiming someone tapping at their phone. "I feel sorry for kids."
Most important to Douglas, his 10th book, I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, will be released June 12 in trade paperback and via e-book by Open Road Integrated Media. In the 237-page volume, which features a foreword by George Clooney, Douglas -- born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 to poor Russian Jewish immigrants in upstate New York -- shares memories of the tumultuous period before the release of Spartacus. It was turbulent for him personally as the star and producer of a film with a huge budget ($12 million was a lot in those days), massive sets (in bleak Death Valley, Calif., and in Franco's Spain), a genius but eccentric director (Stanley Kubrick) and an often unruly A-list cast (including Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons). Douglas says Steven Spielberg recently read the book and told him: "Boy, the problems you had! I thought I had problems making Jaws!"
But it also was a tumultuous time for the film industry. The studios still enforced a blacklist instituted more than a decade earlier in response to the Red Scare -- that is, until Douglas decided, in one of his most lauded moves, to give screen credit for the film to blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo. The screenwriter was famously one of the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he had served 11 months in jail in 1950. "When you're young enough, you have the moxie to do it," says Douglas, who took a major career risk in taking on the studios. "I was young enough to be foolish." The period, he says, remains hard for him to recall: "The blacklist was one of the most embarrassing things in our history. When I think of it, it hurts me."
Douglas, who has acted in more than 80 movies, retired in 2004. Since then, he has devoted much of his time to reading (he just finished Rachel Maddow's new best-seller, Drift), writing and reflecting. He meets regularly with a speech therapist to try to improve his speech, which is still somewhat slurred as a result of a severe stroke he suffered in 1996, and exercises as much as he can. Douglas doesn't have many specific plans for the future, but vows that, "If I'm alive at 96, [seven] months from now, I will have my third bar mitzvah." The Torah proclaims that a "normal" life span is 70 years, which is why he had a second bar mitzvah at 83 and is planning a third. Although not particularly religious, he says: "It's important to me because I am proud of my heritage. When I read the history of the Jews -- it's a miracle! Why are we still here?" He continues: "I believe in God, but I don't know who He is. People say, 'Man was created in God's image,' but does He go to the bathroom? I just see God as some power that we can't understand. People make up stories, but did anybody really come back?"
When it comes to his mortality, Douglas -- who survived a helicopter crash in 1991 -- seems as fearless as Spartacus: "Listen -- pacemaker, crash, stroke. What does it mean? God doesn't want me now. That's all. You know, you have to have some inner philosophy to deal with adversity. But I realize how lucky I was, in many ways, years ago. [In March 1958,] I was all set to go with Mike Todd on his private plane to give him an award in New York. My wife had an argument with me, and I got so mad over it I wouldn't go. She didn't want me to go. The next morning, we heard over the radio, 'Mike Todd and all of his passengers killed!' Why was I spared? … You have to be grateful for miracles, and you have to try to do something to better things."
In his book, Douglas examines the making of the barrier-breaking film in fascinating detail; of particular value are the on-set photos, many only recently found on undeveloped rolls of film left in vaults at Universal. They illustrate how easily the movie now regarded as a classic could have turned out differently. Some show Anthony Mann, the workmanlike director imposed on Douglas by the studio. After three rocky weeks, the studio told Douglas to fire him, paving the way for Douglas' first choice, Kubrick. "I'm no Donald Trump, but I did it," says Douglas. "He was so gracious, and I said, 'I owe you a picture,' and a few years later I did a picture with him."
Other photos show Sabine Bethmann, the German beauty Douglas had "discovered" and cast in the role of Varinia before realizing her English wasn't improving and that she could barely express emotions. (She was soon replaced by Simmons.) Seen also is Eddie Lewis, Douglas' assistant, who was Trumbo's front throughout the production even though he had never written a word. Douglas says that when he showed Trumbo's drafts to Howard Fast, author of the book from which the film was adapted, he'd respond: " 'Who wrote it? … Eddie? He doesn't know anything about writing! This is a mess!' " (Fast, who stuck by Communism until 1957, also had refused to cooperate with HUAC and served three months in jail in 1950.)
Douglas comes across in the book as he did onscreen -- intelligent, intense, brash, quick to laugh (often at his own expense) and never shy to call a spade a spade, branding, for example, the primarily Jewish studio heads who ushered in the blacklist as collaborators "like the Vichy government in France." In one tale, he remembers Vivien Leigh making an awkward pass at him ("Why don't you f-- me?") in front of her husband, Olivier, when Douglas was preparing to solicit the actor to join Spartacus.
The most colorful character, perhaps, was Trumbo, whom the studio didn't know was penning its movie. Known for writing in the bathtub, sometimes with a parrot on his shoulder (a gift from Douglas), the scribe quit at one point because Ustinov and Laughton were rewriting him. To convince him to stay, Douglas -- already contemplating the move -- promised Trumbo would be credited under his real name when the film came out. When Trumbo's involvement became known, the expected firestorm never quite materialized, and one of Hollywood's darkest chapters was effectively closed.
"We needed somebody to say, 'The king has no clothes,' " says actress-director Lee Grant, who was blacklisted for 12 years for speaking negatively about the Communist witch hunt. "He had a lot to lose, but he was the one person to get up and say it. He made a great difference." (Trumbo, who had won an Oscar for the 1956 film The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, was recognized by the Academy and given his statuette in 1975; he died a year later at 70.) Spartacus, with its timely message of freedom, brought in $30 million, making it one of the year's top-grossing movies.
Today, as Douglas monitors the news, he is pleased to learn about figures who are fighting oppression ("In Syria, the poor people are dealing with the authorities. … All over the world, they're rebelling against leaders who kill you") and disappointed that there are politicians in the U.S. who behave as if they would like to return to the blacklist days. But, he says, "I am always optimistic. I will be more optimistic if Obama is re-elected. I think he has done a good job under adverse conditions, and I think he's ready to do much more." If there is one thing Douglas hopes people will take away from his new book, though, he says, it is this: "If you're a Democrat or if you're a Republican, always do what's good for your country. I, the product of immigrants, realize what this country has done for me."
In 1956, a 27-year-old Stanley Kubrick directed his second movie, The Killing, a film noir that won praise but performed poorly. Douglas recalls that he was impressed with the film. "I called him and said, 'Do you have any other projects?' And he sent me Paths of Glory. I said, 'Stanley, this picture won't make a nickel, but we have to do it.' " The 1957 anti-war film turned out magnificently, and three years later, when Douglas was forced to fire director Anthony Mann from Spartacus, he turned to Kubrick. The two clashed frequently during production and never again collaborated. But Kubrick was suddenly on everyone's radar, going on to have a legendary career until his death from a heart attack in 1999 at 70, days after finishing Eyes Wide Shut. As Douglas reveals for the first time in his new book, he was present for the genesis of that film: "When we were having problems on Spartacus, I once took him with me to one of my regular appointments with Dr. Herbert Kupper, my psychiatrist. … I can't tell you that it helped our working relationship." But Kupper recommended a book to Kubrick, the 1926 German novella Traumnovelle, that he thought would make a good movie. Forty years later, the book was the basis for Eyes Wide Shut. Says Douglas of Kubrick, "He was a difficult guy, but he was a great director."
WHY A BEST ACTOR OSCAR PROVED ELUSIVE FOR DOUGLAS: Nominated three times without a win, the actor turned down two other Oscar-winning roles ("One of the dumbest things I ever did") and later proved too old for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Broderick Crawford (1949) Newcomer Douglas, nominated as best actor for his performance as a boxer blinded by ambition in Mark Robson's Champion, was passed over in favor of Crawford, who starred in best picture winner All the King's Men. "I was just so happy that a role my agents didn't want me to take earned me a nomination. I didn't expect to win, but my nomination ensured my standing as a top-tier star," says Douglas.
Gary Cooper (1952) As a ruthless producer in the Hollywood tale The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas showed how well he could play a bad guy, earning him his second Oscar nom. "This nomination really surprised me -- the movie didn't exactly show the film industry in the most flattering light," he says. But it was Cooper who won for his iconic performance in High Noon.
William Holden (1953) When Billy Wilder, who had previously directed Douglas in 1951's Ace in the Hole, sent him the script for 1953's Stalag 17, about a German POW camp during World War II, he read it and passed on it. After watching Holden in the film and seeing him win best actor for his efforts, Douglas realized it was "one of the dumbest things I ever did."
Yul Brynner (1956) The Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life earned Douglas his third nom, but the actor, considered the frontrunner, was upset by The King and I star. Douglas' wife had arranged for a package to be delivered to her husband, who was in Munich, if he didn't win. It was an Oscar-like statuette from her and his son Peter, inscribed, "To Daddy, who rates an Oscar always with us." Douglas, who was given an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1996, says, "it remains one of my most prized posessessions."
Lee Marvin (1965) The starring role in Cat Ballou, a comedic Western about a drunk gunfighter, didn't strike Douglas as A-list material, prompting him to reject and then forget about the part. He was reminded of it on Oscar night, when veteran actor Marvin finally got his moment in the spotlight.
Jack Nicholson (1975) Douglas bought film rights to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but found little interest in Hollywood and turned it into a Broadway play in which he starred. A decade later, his son Michael asked to develop it. "He got the money and the cast and I thought, 'Boy, now I will play my part.' " Michael had to tell Douglas that he was too old and that Nicholson had the role. "When I went to see it, I wanted to see how lousy he was, but he was brilliant. Of course, he won the Oscar."