Like many of my generation, I grew up with the actor Kirk Douglas as a regular feature of my movie fantasy world. But unlike most of us, I forged a career as a writer who talked to and wrote about Hollywood stars, so I actually met and spoke with him up close and personal.
Perhaps that’s why I was especially sad to learn that we had lost this great actor and devoted humanitarian on February 5 when he died at the remarkable age of 103.
I suspect I first saw Kirk Douglas on the screen when I was about 10, playing the intensely ambitious prizefighter in the acclaimed movie Champion in 1949. I grew up loving boxing and in the course of my writing career also met and talked with many legendary prizefighters, including former heavyweight champs Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Mike Tyson.
The one thing Kirk Douglas had in common with those guys was his superb physical condition through most of his active years and his uncommon zest for action. If he played a boxer, you believed he might really be one. Just like you might also believe he could be a rebellious Roman slave like Spartacus, a Viking warrior or the rugged frontiersmen he played in films like The Indian Fighter, The Big Sky or Along the Great Divide.
In fact, the day I met him for our interview in 1984, he was fresh from the gym where he’d just had a vigorous workout. He was then 67 years old and explained he had to keep fit if he wanted to be ready for any leading role in a movie.
When I told him I thought his fitness probably helped him when he played a nude scene with Farrah Fawcett in the sci-fi film Saturn 3 when he was 64, he replied, with a wink, “Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.”
In my opinion, Douglas’ willingness to play characters with a good measure of badness probably helped display his versatility as an actor over the years. The reporter he played in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) actually works to prolong the ordeal of a man trapped in a cave so that his story will remain on page one. It was one of his best performances – and one of his favorite films.
“I love that character with all the dark side of him,” Douglas told me. “I don’t mind playing a character the audience doesn’t like. I’m not worried about image.”
However, his frequent co-star, John Wayne, didn’t approve of that outlook and actually scolded Douglas at a party celebrating the premiere of Lust for Life, in which Douglas played the troubled artist Vincent van Gogh. He said Wayne had a few drinks under his belt and told him he should never play a “weak, sniveling” character like that again because “they have no dignity.”
Of course, the role earned Douglas an Oscar nomination and was frequently cited by critics as his best ever. The film also was a big hit.
Naturally, I had to ask Douglas how he got along with Wayne, who was a proud right-winger while Douglas was far left and broke the Hollywood blacklist of former communist party members by insisting that Dalton Trumbo should write the screenplay for Spartacus (1960) and get screen credit for it.
“Politically, we were completely apart,” Douglas said. “We might have dinner together once during the making of a picture.” (They made four together.) “Yet he’d call me and suggest we make a picture together. We had a respect for each other.”
Douglas took great pride in the role he played in ending the blacklist and, in fact, also hired Dalton Trumbo to write one of his other favorite pictures, Lonely Are the Brave. It was a box office flop but a critical success. Douglas blamed the studio for failing to get behind the picture and promote it.
I asked Douglas about some of his greatest frustrations in his career, and clearly one of them was his failure to play the leading role in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a role he’d played on the stage in New York. He owned the rights to the book by Ken Kesey and the play, but he couldn’t get any studio to produce the film.
“I tried for over 12 years to get it made and finally I went into partnership with my son, Michael, and we found somebody outside the industry to put up the money,” Douglas said. “We made a little picture that I didn’t think would ever be a hit.”
Of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made more than $300 million, won the Best Picture Academy Award and gave Jack Nicholson the Oscar for the role Douglas played on the stage.
When I asked him to sum up the reasons why he had such a long run as a leading man in pictures, he told me what he said he’d told his son Michael. He said an actor must have vitality and energy. He said that’s why he worked out regularly in the gym and rode horseback at least once a week, if possible. (Michael is now both an Oscar and Emmy winner himself.)
When I asked him if he still sees the same Kirk Douglas that he saw in the 1950s when he looks in his mirror today, he chuckled and said, “I’m still the same guy. I can still do all the things I could do in 1952. I just can’t do them as often.”
Kirk Douglas never won an Oscar in competition, but was awarded one in 1996 for his total career achievement. In 2003, Kirk Douglas starred in the film It Runs in the Family, appearing with two of his sons, his grandson and his ex-wife. He performed despite the effects of the stroke he suffered in 1996, which limited his ability to speak clearly.
Looking back, I’m convinced that Kirk Douglas will always remain an iconic Hollywood star who made many significant films as well as many box office hits. He was a superb film actor – and, based on our one interview together, also a warm and plain-speaking man of great character.
Ron Miller of Blaine was a nationally syndicated entertainment columnist from 1977 to 1999. His complete interview with Kirk Douglas is contained in his book Conversations with Classic Film Stars (2016), which is available in both hard cover and soft cover editions from the University of Kentucky Press and Amazon.com. Miller is currently offering a film lecture series at Semiahmoo Resort every Wednesday evening through March 4. For details, visit semiahmoo.com.