How Kirk Douglas Broke the Blacklist With Savvy and Star Power

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Blacklisted sceenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whom Douglas hired to rewrite 'Spartacus.'

Douglas made the decision in 1960 to include Dalton Trumbo's name on the credits of 'Spartacus' — bucking the ban that kept accused communists from working in Hollywood through the 1950s.

If you asked Kirk Douglas who broke the Blacklist, his answer was always an emphatic Kirk Douglas (he even subtitled one of his memoirs "Breaking the Blacklist"). And he was at least half right. His decision, in 1960, to include Dalton Trumbo's name on the credits of Spartacus — bucking the ban that kept accused communists from working in Hollywood (at least under their real names) through the 1950s — definitely put a big crack in it. "It was a terrible period, the McCarthy era," Douglas told THR's Scott Feinberg in a 2012 interview, "one of the most embarrassing things in our history."

Technically, director Otto Preminger was first, announcing months before Spartacus' release that he would be crediting Trumbo as the writer of Exodus when it opened two months after Spartacus. The debate over who deserves more credit has been raging ever since, but Douglas has an edge: He took a bigger risk. "There were blacklisted directors working in Europe," says John McNamara, who interviewed Douglas while researching his screenplay for the 2015 film Trumbo. "But when a movie star got blacklisted, that had a worldwide effect. There were few places for someone like Douglas to hide if things had gone badly." Shrewdly, Douglas did hedge his bet: He hired Trumbo under a pseudonym (Sam Jackson) and waited until Universal had spent $8 million before springing the news on execs. "The studio would have closed the picture, but they got too far down the road," Douglas said to THR. "The picture cost $12 million. At the time, a lot of money."

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