Meeting Kirk Douglas

You don’t have to ask Kirk Douglas for his favorite film role – it’s already on his lips. “Van Gogh.” He’s referring to Lust for Life, the 1956 MGM movie about the life of the Dutch painter, based on the 1934 novel by Irving Stone, directed by Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor, and produced by John Houseman.

“Yes, Van Gogh. For the first time in my acting career, the part took me over. He took over. You know, I slept in the room where he committed suicide.”

I listened in something approaching open-mouthed awe to Douglas during his talk (an interview with Mort Zuckerman) at the 10th annual Milken Global Conference in Beverly Hills this week.

I was there to cover the proceedings for onPhilanthropy, but for a few moments I allowed myself to play the fan, chatting briefly with him afterwards as he signed a book for my father. I couldn’t help it. Douglas is a living link – among the last – to a generation of actors, of real stars, of men and women who created the film industry.

The co-stars alone dazzle and tingle the nerves: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Mitchum, Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Raymond Massey, Burt Lancaster, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Rudy Vallee, Anne Baxter, Cornel Wilde, Lauren Bacall. And that’s just the 1940s.

Kirk Douglas is 90 years old. He’s smaller, a littled crooked, but he moves with real determination. The eyes twinkle and laugh. His speech isn’t perfect ten years after the stroke, but no matter: he’ll talk your ear off, and with attitude and delivery. This nice little old gentleman is still Kirk Douglas.

“When I speak slowly,” he said, “people listen. They think you’re going to say something important.”

And yeah, he still loves an audience – still emotes in bright contrast, still gives you that ironic eye, still hams it up. Here’s how he described the MPAA ratings sytem, in his view: “When it’s PG, it means the good guy gets the girl. When it’s R, the bad guy gets the girl. When it’s X…[pause, look around the room]…everybody gets the girl.”

That’s the grinning, jawboning, wise-ass Kirk Douglas – the sidekick Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral or the one-liner-tossing newsie in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

But he clearly enjoyed the dramatic turn, as well. “I was born into abject poverty and that was my advantage.”

In fact, Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in Amsterdam, New York to Herschel Danielovitch and Bryna Sanglel, poor Russian Jews who immigrated from Homel (also known as Gomel), now in Belarus. He attended St. Lawrence University was said he was “somehow, by some luck, elected class president.”

“Somehow!” breathed my neighbor in a nasal whisper. “Like Kirk Douglas was ‘somehow’ elected class president. Ha. Just look at him. He’s Kirk Douglas.”

Yes, he is – and he jumped from his origins to politics. The, he said bluntly, should “apologize for slavery. It’s time.” Then he blasted the Irag war, and talked about taking a more humble foreign policy course:

“I think we’re in a war that we shouldn’t be in. America should always be strong, always be strong – but be gentle…We spend too much being a superpower. We should spend more helping other people than fighting other people. We’d all be better off.”

His greatest accomplishment? Breaking the Hollywood blacklist. In 1958, Douglas (as producer) gave screen credit to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo for the Spartacus screenplay. He was widely condemned, but the blacklist was effectively broken. “It’s the thing I’m the most proud of.” Indeed, Douglas told the story to Ability magazine:

The McCarthy Era was shameful, really. I mean, it was one of the darkest days in our history. Everybody was frightened. Everybody was accused of being a communist. Writers were being attacked if they were seen as being very liberal or communist. But, it’s not supposed to be a crime to be a communist. This is a free country. The writer for Spartacus was Dalton Trumbo who spent a year in jail because he refused to give the names of other writers. For ten years, he never went into a studio. He wrote, but he had to use a different name. Trumbo was writing under the name Sam Jackson. Then, one day, I was having a discussion with my producer, Eddie Lewis, and my director, Stanley Kubrick. I asked, “Well, what name are we going to put on the screen? Sam Jackson?” Kubrick said, “Put my name as the writer.” And I said, “Stanley, wouldn’t you feel funny taking the credit?”

I went home that night and I thought, “The hell with it, I’m going to put Dalton Trumbo [in the credits.]” People thought I was crazy. I said, “No. What can happen?” So, I invited Dalton Trumbo to come to the studio—the first time he had been in a studio for ten years. I will never forget. He had tears in his eyes. He said, “Kirk, thank you for giving me back my name.” Many people said, “What are you doing?” But, the sky didn’t fall in and after that blacklisted writers could write [under their own names].

At one point during his talk, quoted Browning and added his own coda: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. We must keep trying. We must. It’s the best you can do.”

The Douglas List

Here are some my favorite Kirk Douglas movies – in no particular order – please add you own.

Lonely Are the Brave
Light at the End of the World
None But the Brave
In Harm’s Way
Gunfight at the OK Corral
Paths of Glory
Ace in the Hole
Detective Story

IMDB link here.