Bruce Dern Reflects on Working With Kirk Douglas in 'Posse': "He Could Fill Up a Doorway"

Courtesy of Everett Collection
Bruce Dern (in jean jacket) on the set of 'Posse' with Douglas, who directed much of the Western in his boxer shorts.

The late actor co-starred and directed the film in late 1974, where Dern says Douglas would always get "so wrapped up in what he was doing he forgot to shoot coverage of himself."

It was 1974, late September and October and into November. We shot Posse in Tucson, Arizona, about 12 miles from the city. It looked like the Old West — or the surface of the moon — whatever you wanted it to be. I never sat down with Kirk [who directed and co-starred] before I did the movie, never met him. But he was so courteous to me and so intrigued by the kinds of movies I’d been doing because he came out of the studio system. And what I was doing were the first of the independent movies — The King of Marvin Gardens and The Cowboys. But he had done his homework on me. He knew lines from movies that I had said.

The day-to-day work on the film was very easy; he made it easy. It was only his second time directing a movie. And I’d never worked with a director who also was starring. A couple of times he got so wrapped up in what he was doing, he forgot to shoot coverage of himself. He’d do a master, and then he’d do my coverage, and then he’d try to move on to something else and I’d have to remind him that he hadn’t done coverage of himself. He was like, "Oh shit, I always forget that." Also, it got real hot in the desert, even in September and October. It would get up to 100 degrees. And every day in the hot sun he would strip out of his costume down to his boxer shorts. That’s how he directed me, wearing his boxers and cowboy boots.

He was a gambler. He could be extremely competitive. Every day I’d come to work and we’d have some kind of bet. He liked them because they were kind of curious bets. For example, I’d get on the set and I’d say, “OK, here’s the bet: How many setups are you going to do today?" He’d be like, “I don’t know, maybe 17." I said, "Take the over or under." But he didn’t know what that meant — I had to explain it to him. But we’d bet $100. And he was a good sport if he lost. He’d just grab my shoulders and laugh.

Here’s what I can say about Kirk Douglas. I have always judged people in life by this simple credo: If you’re in a room and they walk in, do they fill up the doorway? Kirk wasn’t Gary Cooper. He didn’t have the height. He wasn’t Robert Shaw or Robert Mitchum. He didn’t have that heft. But he could sure fill up a doorway.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.