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.

12 Replies to “Meeting Kirk Douglas

  1. Tom, I’m so glad you listed *In Harm’s Way*! One of my favorite Kirk Douglas movies, and it’s too often dissed at a seagoing soap opera or whatever. Douglas is excellent, as is John Wayne, and Pat Neal is totally hot.

  2. Yeah, though a black and white 50s war yarn – that flick drips with sex and violence – south pacific war noir. And Wayne is excellent, you’re right – it’s in the portion of his films where his character has some depth. Douglas, though, with his twisted, represessed hatred in the movie steals the show.

  3. I have to echo BG’s comments – what a great tribute. I already liked him, and hearing the story about him de-blacklisting Trumbo only increases my respect.

    Paths of Glory is not only my favorite Kirk Douglas film – it also consistently makes my top 10 list of all-time favorites.

    Excuse me while I go make some additions to my Neflix rental queue.

  4. Just about the last of the old school stars. One thing that makes a star: Is he or she one of a kind? Kirk was that, like Mitchum, like Wayne, like Stanwyck, like Bette Davis, like Glenn Ford for Christ’s sake.

    And by the way his autobio, “The Ragman’s Son”, totally rocks. He had a great anecdote in there about John Wayne taking him aside after a screening of “Lust For Life” and saying something like, “Kirk, what are ya doin’ playing a weakling like Van Gogh? We’re supposed to be tough guys!”

    Some other good ones:

    Seven Days in May
    Last Train From Gun Hill
    The Bad and the Beautiful
    Man Without a Star
    Out of the Past
    The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

    They don’t even make titles like most of these any more.

  5. Don’t forget A Letter to Three Wives (he got the biggest laugh of the picture, when I saw it, by correcting the grammar of a Philistine radio boss). And Two Weeks in Another Town, which film blogger Girish also admires. You can read that one as a sort of sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful.

    He is such an intense actor that at times he is almost feral, and he occasionally would overdo it. (He was also famous for driving directors and costars batty.) But I look at the movies we’re all listing here, and few actors can boast of such a wide-ranging and superlative filmography.

    And kudos to him for still speaking out about the blacklist. There is a worrisome effort to rehabilitate the blacklist these days, and it is good that we still have people who, like Douglas, lived through it and are still willing to remind us of what it was.

  6. Three points:

    1. Kirk Douglas had a fine acting career: not the most versatile of actors, but forecful and distinctive.

    2. He was right to insist on Trumbo getting the screen credit he deserved. Trumbo was a gifted writer, and there is no reason that anyone should be excluded from the entertainment industry based on their politics.

    3. Trumbo was a communist, and blatently insincere in using his gifts as propaganda for Moscow. He wrote the famous anti-war book “Johnny Got his Gun”, during the brief interval of the Russo-German pact, when the party line was anti-war. One Hitler invaded Russia, he was just as strenuously pro-war.

    4. There was a disproportion of people like that in Hollywood at the time. The blacklist was wrong, I believe, but there was nothing wrong, in my view, in letting people know the agendas of those who are telling them their stories.

  7. Hmmmm. Come to think of it, that’s four points, isn’t it. Or more, if you look beyond the numbering.

    You oughta have a preview/edit feature on this site, like on the Tom W blog, to protect people like me from themselves.

  8. Try the sentence following the proposition in my post where the charge is made. I don’t mean that he wasn’t sincere in his pro-Moscow feeling: I mean he was insincere in using his gifts to summon powerful anti-war sentiments when that was the line from Mosocow, and doing a complete 180 on the subject when the Soviet line changed.

    George Orwell has written a great deal on this phenomenon, which unfolded before his eyes to his obvious dismay. (Though, to my knowledge, he hasn’t written about Trumbo specifically.)

  9. I should add, I didn’t mean the charge to extend to all his career or work. I was focusing on that particular incident. I am agonstic as to the extent to which he functioned as a propogandist for Moscow apart from that: though I would argue that, having done so once, he fairly opened himself to inquiry, by those inclined to inquire about such things (particularly those outside of govt.), as to whether he was doing so subsequently.

  10. There will never be another as good as Kirk Douglas.. He has done well with his children.. I wish him well, and we were so glad to hear his interview on television.. what a great man.. You were so lucky to meet him. Wish we all had the opportunity to know him personally.

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