Q&A: Kirk Douglas


For a dozen years during the Cold War, accused members and former members of the American Communist Party were barred from working in the movie industry. The blacklist era ended when Kirk Douglas gave screenwriting credit to Dalton Trumbo -- probably the most famous of the Hollywood 10 -- for his work on "Spartacus." The movie, which starred Douglas and was executive produced by him, opened 48 years ago this week.

On Oct. 22, the 91-year-old actor will be honored at the Ambassadors for Humanity Gala Dinner benefiting the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Douglas, who had a stroke 12 years ago that has impaired his speech, discussed the legacy of "Spartacus" and of the contemporary political climate in Hollywood.

Hollywood Reporter: How's your health?

Kirk Douglas: Very good. My wife says that for a man who can't talk, I talk a lot.

THR: Why did you hire Dalton Trumbo to write "Spartacus"?

Douglas: Sen. (Joseph) McCarthy was an awful man who was finding communists all over the country. He blacklisted the writers who wouldn't obey his edict. The heads of the studios were hypocrites who went along with it.

My company produced "Spartacus," written by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer, under the name Sam Jackson. Too many people were using false names back then. I was embarrassed. I was young enough to be impulsive, so, even though I was warned against it, I used his real name on the screen.

THR: What was the reaction from Universal Studios?

Douglas: They were against it, but they were weak at that time and in the process of selling the studio. So I overrode their objection -- and the sky didn't fall.

THR: During the Cold War, how should the studios have dealt with the admitted communists in Hollywood?

Douglas: In America, if you're guilty of a crime you are prosecuted. There was no danger from communists in Hollywood.

THR: What's your opinion, then, of those who named names, like Elia Kazan?

Douglas: I worked with Elia Kazan. He was a very talented guy, but he was a fink.

THR: But Kazan actually was a communist who had a change of heart. He said there was a danger posed by communists in the movie industry. You didn't believe him?

Douglas: At that time, our danger was Sen. McCarthy. We were in danger of losing our freedom. We are living in a free country. Democracy thrives because people can say what they think. I don't believe that there was ever a danger posed by communists or radical thinkers.

THR: When Kazan received his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, such actors as Ed Harris and Nick Nolte and others sat on their hands. Was that appropriate? If you had been there, what would you have done?

Douglas: (They) happen to be three actors that I admire very much. But I think I would not sit on my hands, because Kazan was being honored for his work as a director and not a political activist.

THR: Unlike during the Cold War, I hear complaints nowadays that, in Hollywood, you can lean as far left as you like but you're chastised for leaning right.

Douglas: I think that's a lot of crap. Did Ronald Reagan get chastised? Does Arnold Schwarzenegger?

THR: But my question applies not to established celebrities but to politically conservative crew members and struggling artists who say they no longer participate in political discussions at work because when they do they're belittled by liberal co-workers who vastly outnumber them.

Douglas: I have made almost 90 pictures. I have never known about any struggling artist or behind-the-scenes crew members that suffered for their political beliefs. That is news to me.

THR: Who do you support for president today?

Douglas: I don't say. On my MySpace page, I encourage young people to participate and to study, but I don't want to impose my views on them.

THR: You've been lobbying for the U.S. government to apologize for slavery. Why is that?

Douglas: We are not very popular around the world. They think we're arrogant. I maintain that a powerful country like ours should show that we are capable of humility. The best way to do that is to make a formal apology for slavery.

THR: How do you think movies today compare with movies of your era?

Douglas: I'm prejudiced. I think movies long ago were better because they did better with characterization. Today it's about special effects. Everything to me is about people. But, listen, it's a free country.

THR: Have you seen any great movies lately?

Douglas: Gee. Let me think. (Long pause.)  I guess I'll have to call you tomorrow.