Michael Douglas' Former Partner on Kirk Douglas: "He Knew How to Play a Hero"

ONE TIME USE ONLY - ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH, Deborah Raffin, Alexis Smith, Kirk Douglas, Brenda Vaccaro, 1975-
Jerry Tavin/Everett Collection

Brenda Vaccaro reflects on her time getting to know Michael's father during her seven-year relationship with the actor: "He treated me like a daughter-in-law."

I remember when I was very young, I went to opening night of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on Broadway [in 1963], way before the [1975] movie. Kirk Douglas played the lead. He played that character before Jack Nicholson, before anybody, and he was magnificent because he knew all about heroes. He knew how to play a hero.

I got to know him when I was [living] with Michael. This was in the 1970s, in San Francisco. We were together for about seven years. And Kirk was very attentive, always smiling, always had a sense of humor. If I said something that made him laugh, he'd point a finger at me — "funny." I know a lot of people thought he was difficult, but I found him incredibly gentle and supporting and loving. He treated me like a daughter-in-law. He couldn't get Michael and me married — Michael was a hippie, and it was not cool to get married in those days. But he would come up to me and say, "Tell me you're trying, just tell me you're trying." He wanted us to have a baby.

I learned a lot from him. I remember he taught me how to walk onto the set in the morning. He said I should walk on the set so that everybody was interested in what might be wrong with me that day. And he got me into the Academy. In those days, you had to have two actors to support your nomination, so he got his pal Gregory Peck to join him in nominating me. What more could you need?

It didn't surprise me that he lived as long as he did because he grabbed life with such tenacity and love and strength. When you stood next to Kirk Douglas in a film, or at a party, I don't care where the hell you were, you stood with admiration and respect. He was just so courageous.

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