Kirk Douglas, a Star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dies at 103

--New York Times February 5, 2020


Kirk Douglas, one of the last surviving movie stars from Hollywood’s golden age, whose rugged good looks and muscular intensity made him a commanding presence in celebrated films like “Lust for Life,” “Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory,” died on Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 103.

His son the actor Michael Douglas announced the death in a statement on his Facebook page.

Mr. Douglas had made a long and difficult recovery from the effects of a severe stroke he suffered in 1996. In 2011, cane in hand, he came onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, good-naturedly flirted with the co-host Anne Hathaway and jokingly stretched out his presentation of the Oscar for best supporting actress.

By then, and even more so as he approached 100 and largely dropped out of sight, he was one of the last flickering stars in a Hollywood firmament that few in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater on that Oscars evening could have known except through viewings of old movies now called classics. A vast number filling the hall had not even been born when he was at his screen-star peak, the 1950s and ’60s.

But in those years Kirk Douglas was as big a star as there was — a member of a pantheon of leading men, among them Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who rose to fame in the postwar years.

And like the others he was instantly recognizable: the jutting jaw, the dimpled chin, the piercing gaze and the breaking voice, the last making him irresistible fodder for comedians who specialized in impressions.

Three Movies a Year

In his heyday Mr. Douglas appeared in as many as three movies a year, often delivering critically acclaimed performances. In his first 11 years of film acting, he was nominated three times for the Academy Award for best actor.

He was known for manly roles, in westerns, war movies and Roman-era spectacles, most notably “Spartacus” (1960). But in 80 movies across a half-century he was equally at home on mean city streets, in smoky jazz clubs and, as Vincent van Gogh, amid the flowers of Arles in the south of France.

Many of his earlier films were forgettable — variations on well-worn Hollywood themes — and moviegoers were slow to recognize some of his best work. But when he found the right role, he proved he could be very good indeed.

Early on he was hailed for his performances as an unprincipled Hollywood producer, opposite Lana Turner, in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), and as van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956). Each brought an Oscar nomination.

Many critics thought he should have gotten more recognition for his work in two films in particular: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957), in which he played a French colonel in World War I trying vainly to prevent the execution of three innocent soldiers, and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), an offbeat western about an aging cowboy.

Early on Mr. Douglas created a niche for himself, specializing in characters with a hard edge and something a little unsavory about them. His scheming Hollywood producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” was “a perfect Kirk Douglas-type bum,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote.

Mr. Douglas did not disagree. “I’ve always been attracted to characters who are part scoundrel,” he told The Times in an interview in 1984. “I don’t find virtue photogenic.”

Yet he often managed to win audiences’ sympathy for even the darkest of his characters by suggesting an element of weakness or torment beneath the surface.

“To me, acting is creating an illusion, showing tremendous discipline, not losing yourself in the character that you’re portraying,” he wrote in his best-selling autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988). “The actor never gets lost in the character he’s playing; the audience does.”

‘Going Over the Line’

The only time that discipline nearly cracked was during the filming of “Lust for Life.” “I felt myself going over the line, into the skin of van Gogh,” he wrote. “Not only did I look like him, I was the same age he had been when he committed suicide.” The experience was so frightening, he added, that for a long time he was reluctant to watch the film.

“While we were shooting,” he said, “I wore heavy shoes like the ones van Gogh wore. I always kept one untied, so that I would feel unkempt, off balance, in danger of tripping. It was loose; it gave him — and me — a shuffling gait.”

Most people who worked with Mr. Douglas were either awed by his self-confident intensity or put off by it. He was proud of his muscular physique and physical prowess and regularly rejected the use of stuntmen and stand-ins, convinced he could do almost anything the situation required.

Preparing for “Champion,” he trained for months with a retired prizefighter. He took trumpet lessons with Harry James for “Young Man With a Horn” (although James did the actual playing on the film’s soundtrack). He became a skilled horseman and learned to draw a six-shooter with impressive speed, lending authenticity to his Doc Holliday when he and Lancaster, as Wyatt Earp, blazed away at the Clanton gang in the final shootout in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957).

The engine that drove Mr. Douglas to achieve, again and again, was his family history.

The Ragman’s Son

He was born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, N.Y., a small city about 35 miles northwest of Albany. As he put it in his autobiography, he was “the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants in the WASP town of Amsterdam,” one of seven children, six of them sisters. By the time he began attending school, the family name had been changed to Demsky and Issur had become Isadore, promptly earning him the nickname Izzy.

The town’s mills did not hire Jews, so his father, Herschel (known as Harry), became a ragman, a collector and seller of discarded goods. “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder,” Mr. Douglas wrote. “And I was the ragman’s son.”

A powerful man who drank heavily and got into fights, the elder Demsky was often an absentee father, letting his family fend for itself.

Money for food was desperately short much of the time, and young Izzy learned that survival meant hard work. He also learned about anti-Semitism. “Kids on every street corner beat you up,” he wrote.

Mr. Douglas once estimated that he had held down at least 40 different jobs — among them delivering newspapers and washing dishes — before he found success in Hollywood. After graduating from high school, he hitchhiked north to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and was admitted and given a college loan.

He became a varsity wrestler there and, despite being rejected by fraternities because he was Jewish, was elected president of the student body in his junior year — a first for the St. Lawrence campus.

By that time he had decided that he wanted to be an actor. He got a summer job as a stagehand at the Tamarack Playhouse in the Adirondacks and was given some minor roles. He traveled to New York City to try out for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and performed well, but he was told no scholarships were available.

It was at the Tamarack, the summer after he graduated from college, that he decided to change his name legally to something he thought more befitting an actor than Isadore Demsky. (When he chose Douglas, he wrote, “I didn’t realize what a Scottish name I was taking.”)

Returning to New York, he studied acting for two years, played in summer stock and made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing Western Union messenger in “Spring Again.”

The next year he enlisted in the Navy and was trained in antisubmarine warfare. He also renewed his friendship with Diana Dill, a young actress he had met at the American Academy. They married in 1943, just before he shipped out during World War II as the communications officer of Patrol Craft 1139. They had two sons, Michael and Joel, before divorcing in 1951. She died in 2015.

In 1954 Mr. Douglas married Anne Buydens, and they too had two sons, Peter and Eric. All his sons went into the film business, either acting or producing. Michael did both.

Eric Douglas died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription pills in 2004 at the age of 46.

In addition to his son Michael, Mr. Douglas is survived by his wife and his two other sons, as well as seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

After being injured in an accidental explosion, Mr. Douglas was discharged from the Navy in 1944. He returned to New York, did some stage work and then headed for Hollywood.

He made his screen debut in 1946 in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” playing a weakling who is witness to a murder. In a big-name cast that also included Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Judith Anderson, Mr. Douglas more than held his own. He was equally solid in “I Walk Alone,” a 1948 film noir in which he played the heavy in the first of his half-dozen pairings with his close friend Burt Lancaster.

First Shot at an Oscar

But it was the 1949 film “Champion,” produced by the young Stanley Kramer, that made him a star. As Midge Kelly, a ruthless young prizefighter, he presented a chilling portrait of ambition run wild and earned his first Oscar nomination.

He had to wait nearly 50 years, however, before he actually received the golden statuette, for lifetime achievement. He never won a competitive Oscar.

The doors opened wide for him after “Champion.” A year later he appeared in “Young Man With a Horn,” in the title role of a troubled jazz trumpet player modeled on Bix Beiderbecke.

In short order came “The Glass Menagerie” (1950), the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play about a timid young woman (Jane Wyman) who finds solace in her fantasies, with Mr. Douglas as the gentleman caller; “Ace in the Hole” (1951), in which he played a cynical reporter manipulating a life-or-death situation; and, also in 1951, “Detective Story,” based on Sidney Kingsley’s play, in which Mr. Douglas played an overzealous New York detective who invites his own destruction. Mr. Crowther of The Times  wrote that Mr. Douglas’s performance was, “detective-wise, superb.”

Despite his film-star status and all the trappings that came with it — his autobiography chronicles his many sexual conquests — Mr. Douglas still hungered for success in the theater. As it turned out he had only one more opportunity.

In 1963 he seized the chance to play the lead role in the Broadway adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey’s novel about authority and individual freedom, set in a mental hospital. Mr. Douglas, to mixed reviews, played Randle P. McMurphy, the all-too-sane patient who is ultimately destroyed by the system. (Jack Nicholson played the part in Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation.)

A few years earlier Mr. Douglas, who had worked his way free of a studio contract and formed his own company, Bryna Productions, made waves in Hollywood when he embarked on a film version of “Spartacus,” Howard Fast’s novel of slave revolt in ancient Rome.

He decided not only to hire Dalton Trumbo — who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era on suspicion of Communist sympathies — to write the screenplay, but also to put Mr. Trumbo’s name in the credits rather than one of the pseudonyms he had been using.

“We all had been employing the blacklisted writers,” Mr. Douglas wrote in a 2012 memoir, “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.” “It was an open secret and an act of hypocrisy, as well as a way to get the best talent at bargain prices. I hated being part of such a system.”

(Mr. Douglas’s role in Trumbo’s redemption — although some people say he overstated it — was dramatized in the 2015 biographical film “Trumbo,” a film he praised, telling The Telegraph of London that “its spirit is true to the man I admired.” Dean O’Gorman played Mr. Douglas.)

“Spartacus,” released in 1960, was Mr. Douglas’s third blood-and-thunder spectacle set in the ancient past. In “Ulysses” (1955), as Homer’s wandering hero, he survived legendary perils to return to his faithful Penelope (Silvana Mangano). In “The Vikings” (1958), he and Tony Curtis were cast as half brothers who, ignorant of their blood ties, battle for control of a Norse kingdom. And in “Spartacus” it was Mr. Douglas, in the title role, who led his rebellious fellow slaves against the Roman legions (played by 5,000 Spanish soldiers).

One of the last cast-of-thousands spectacles to come out of Hollywood, “Spartacus” was notable as well for its international cast, which included Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov, and for its talented young director, Stanley Kubrick, who had also directed Mr. Douglas in “Paths of Glory.” Most critics were not impressed, but the movie’s popularity has been long lasting. It was restored and rereleased in 1991.

Of all his films, Mr. Douglas was proudest of “Lonely Are the Brave,” also written by Mr. Trumbo, which Mr. Douglas insisted on making on a small budget and against studio advice. “I love the theme,” he said, “that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you.”

Mr. Douglas made many more films in the years ahead, but none quite lived up to his work of the 1950s and early ’60s. There were more westerns: “The Way West” (1967), with Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark; “There Was a Crooked Man ...” (1970), with Henry Fonda; and “A Gunfight” (1971), with Johnny Cash. “Tough Guys” (1986), a comedy, was the last movie he made with Burt Lancaster.

There were more military roles. He was a Marine colonel who foils an antigovernment plot in “Seven Days in May,” a 1964 Cold War thriller that also starred Lancaster. He was a naval aviator in “In Harm’s Way” (1965) and a Norwegian saboteur in “The Heroes of Telemark” (1966). In “Is Paris Burning?” (1966) he played Gen. George S. Patton, and in “The Final Countdown” (1980) he commanded a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

As fewer film roles came his way, Mr. Douglas turned to television. In the HBO movie “Draw!” (1984), he was an aging outlaw pitted against James Coburn as a drunken sheriff. In the CBS movie “Amos” (1985), he was a feisty nursing-home resident battling a tyrannical nurse played by Elizabeth Montgomery.

Setbacks and Triumphs

There were setbacks in his personal life. In 1986 Mr. Douglas was fitted with a pacemaker to correct an irregular heartbeat. In 1991 he survived a helicopter crash that left two other people dead. In January 1996 he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with seriously impaired speech and depression so deep, he later said, that he considered suicide.

But he fought his way back, and by March he was able to appear at the Academy Awards ceremony, speaking haltingly, to accept an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

By then he could add that statuette to his other lifetime awards: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Jimmy Carter just days before Mr. Carter left office in 1981, and a Kennedy Center Honors award, presented in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.

In addition to acting and producing, Mr. Douglas found time to write. Besides “The Ragman’s Son,” he was the author of a number of books, including the novels “Dance With the Devil,” “The Gift” and “Last Tango in Brooklyn.” Besides his book on “Spartacus,” his memoirs include “My Stroke of Luck” (2001), about his recovery and comeback, and “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning” (2007).

In his later years he devoted his time to charity, campaigning with his wife to build 400 playgrounds in Los Angeles and establishing the Anne Douglas Center for Homeless Women, for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction; the Kirk Douglas High School, a program to help troubled students finish their education; and the Kirk Douglas Theater, to nurture young theatrical artists.

In 2015, on his 99th birthday, he and his wife donated $15 million to the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills toward the construction of the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion, a $35 million facility for the care of people in the industry with Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Douglas’s comeback from illness extended to acting as well. In 1999, at 83, he starred in the comedy “Diamonds,” playing a former boxing champion who, while recovering from a stroke, embarks on a hunt for missing jewels. It was his first film appearance since his illness. Critics judged the movie forgettable, but Stephen Holden, writing in The Times, found Mr. Douglas’s “hard, gleaming performance” a saving grace.

The last films in which he starred  shared something of a theme: the reconciliation between fathers and sons. One was a comedy, “It Runs in the Family” (2003), in which his son was played by his actual son Michael. The other was the drama “Illusion” (2004), in which he played an ailing father in search of his estranged son.

Perhaps, together, they were a fitting finale for the ragman’s son, an actor whose boyhood poverty and absent father were never far from his mind. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said in describing what had driven him. “That’s the core, that early part of you.”

He also reconciled himself to advanced age. In 2008, in an essay in Newsweek (“What Old Age Taught Me”), Mr. Douglas wrote:

“Years ago I was at the bedside of my dying mother, an illiterate Russian peasant. Terrified, I held her hand. She opened her eyes and looked at me. The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t be afraid, son, it happens to everyone.’ As I got older, I became comforted by those words.”

Kirk Douglas, Indomitable Icon of Hollywood's Golden Age, Dies at 103

--Hollywood Reporter February 5, 2020


The actor starred in such films as 'Champion,' 'The Bad and the Beautiful,' 'Lust for Life,' 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral' and 'Spartacus,' to name just a few.

Kirk Douglas, the son of a ragman who channeled a deep, personal anger through a chiseled jaw and steely blue eyes to forge one of the most indelible and indefatigable careers in Hollywood history, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 103.

“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” son Michael Douglas wrote on his Instagram account. “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the Golden Age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”

Douglas walked away from a helicopter crash in 1991 and suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but, ever the battler, he refused to give in. With a passionate will to survive, he was the last man standing of all the great stars of another time.

Nominated three times for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) — Douglas was the recipient of an honorary Oscar in 1996. Arguably the top male star of the post-World War II era, he acted in more than 80 movies before retiring from films in 2004.

"Kirk retained his movie star charisma right to the end of his wonderful life, and I'm honored to have been a small part of his last 45 years," Steven Spielberg said in a statement. "I will miss his handwritten notes, letters and fatherly advice, and his wisdom and courage — even beyond such a breathtaking body of work — are enough to inspire me for the rest of mine."

The father of two-time Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Michael Douglas, the Amsterdam, New York native first achieved stardom as a ruthless and cynical boxer in Champion. In The Bad and the Beautiful, he played a hated, ambitious movie producer for director Vincente Minnelli, then was particularly memorable, again for Minnelli, as the tormented genius Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor.

Perhaps most importantly, Douglas rebelled against the McCarthy Era establishment by producing and starring as a slave in Spartacus (1960), written by Dalton Trumbo, making the actor a hero to those blacklisted in Hollywood. The film became Universal’s biggest moneymaker, an achievement that stood for a decade.

Douglas’ many honors include the highest award that can be given to a U.S. civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The broad-chested Douglas often bucked the establishment with his opinions, and he had the courage to back them up. “I’ve always been a maverick," he once said. "When I was new in pictures, I defied my agents to make Champion rather than appear in an important MGM movie they had planned for me [The Great Sinner, which wound up starring Gregory Peck]. Nobody had ever heard of the people connected to Champion, but I liked the Ring Lardner story, and that’s the movie I wanted to do. Everyone thought I was crazy, of course, but I think I made the right decision.”

Never one to toe the line with synthetic, movie star-type parts, Douglas played classic heels in a number of films. In 1951, he showed a keen flair for portraying strong-minded characters like the sleazy newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) and the sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story. He played more sympathetic types in Out of the Past (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) as Doc Holliday, Paths of Glory (1957) and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).

Douglas was very particular in his role selection. “If I like a picture, I do it. I don’t stop to wonder if it’ll be successful or not,” he said in a 1982 interview. “I loved Lonely Are the Brave and Paths of Glory, but neither of them made a lot of money. No matter; I’m proud of them.”

His independent nature led him in 1955 to form his own independent film company, Bryna Productions. In the post-World War II era, Douglas was the first actor to take control of his career in this manner. Captaining his own ship, he soon launched a number of heady projects. Most auspiciously, he took a risk on a young Stanley Kubrick with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, films that feature two of Douglas’ finest performances. (He hired Kubrick for the latter after firing Anthony Mann a week into production.)

Indeed, Douglas backed his artistic and political opinions with action: His public announcement that blacklisted writer Trumbo would script Spartacus was a key moment in Hollywood’s re-acceptance of suspected communist figures.

During a Tonight Show appearance in August 1988 to promote his first book, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas told Johnny Carson that he often drew from personal experience for his work on film.

“What I found out when I wrote this book is I have a lot of anger in me,” he said. “I’m angry about things that happened many, many years ago. I think that anger has been a lot of the fuel that has helped me in whatever I’ve done.”

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in the industrial town of Amsterdam. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, raised seven children, and as soon as he was old enough, Douglas went to work to help support the family.

He put himself through St. Lawrence University by working as a janitor. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree, he moved to Manhattan where, as a result of a single reading for the head of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, received a special scholarship.

Soon after graduating from the academy in 1941, Douglas made his Broadway debut in Spring Again, starring Grace George and C. Aubrey Smith, playing a singing messenger boy. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy, attending the Midshipman School at Notre Dame, and was commissioned an ensign. He served on anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific as a communications officer until 1944, when he was honorably discharged as a lieutenant.

Returning to civilian life and Broadway, he replaced Richard Widmark as the juvenile lead in Kiss and Tell and appeared in Trio and Star in the Window. It was his widely praised performance in The Wind Is Ninety that brought him to Hollywood’s attention. The year was 1946, and, at the suggestion of Lauren Bacall, producer Hal Wallis invited him to come to California for a screen test. Wallis was so impressed with Douglas that he cast him in the lead opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

Douglas would work with some of the century’s top directors, starring in such memorable films as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and There Was a Crooked Man (1970), John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger.

For Bryna, Douglas also starred in The Indian Fighter (1955), The Vikings (1958), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Brotherhood (1968).

One regret the actor-producer had was with one of his longtime pet projects, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Douglas starred as Randle Patrick McMurphy in the 1963 Broadway adaption of the Ken Kesey book and had optioned the project, but he never managed to make it into a film.

His son Michael and Saul Zaentz eventually produced the movie, and released in 1975, it collected five Academy Awards, including one for best picture. He received half of Michael's share of the profits, and his son often joked that it was the most money dad had ever made as a producer.

"He's completely inspirational," Michael said during an interview at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival. "When you finally reach an age when you're not feeling like you have to compete with your father and you can look at him [as an equal] … of course, that took me until I was 60."

A man of restless energy and various interests, Douglas supported many causes and worked in public service. During the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson eras, he toured widely for the U.S. Information Agency and the U.S. State Department as a goodwill ambassador, going on missions to South America, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

In 1966, on behalf of the State Department, Douglas visited six Iron Curtain countries: Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. He often regaled acquaintances about a visit to Yugoslavia, where he managed a private visit with President Tito, much to the chagrin of the British ambassador who had been waiting for weeks for such an opportunity.

When the baffled British ambassador asked Douglas how he’d managed it, he replied, “Mr. Ambassador, how many movies have you made?” Realizing that a Hollywood star was in a unique position to enter domains beyond even established professionals, he sagely used his celebrity status to meet important people from all walks of life.

Successive presidents recognized Douglas’ good works: A citation of his efforts was inserted into the Congressional Record. In 1981, he received the Medal of Freedom for his “significant cultural endeavors as an actor and a goodwill ambassador.”

Further honors came to him in 1968 when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, during its Golden Globe ceremony, presented him with the Cecil B. DeMille Award. (In January 2017, he made a surprising visit to the Globes, serving as a presenter with his daughter-in-law, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.)

His humanitarian efforts earned him the American Award, presented by the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation. He was perhaps most proud of the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts conferred on him by his alma mater, St. Lawrence.

In March 2009, Douglas starred in an autobiographical one-man show, Before I Forget, at the Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

While making a film in France, Douglas met Parisienne Anne Buyden. They were married in 1954 and had two sons, Peter and Eric. She's 100 and survives him.

In May 2017, the actor's 11th book, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood, was published. (His first was his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman's Son.)

On his 99th birthday, Douglas and his wife donated $15 million toward a new $35 million care center at the Motion Picture Television Fund home in Woodland Hills.

Sons Michael and Joel (a producer) were from Douglas’ 1943-51 marriage to actress Diana Dill, who died in 2015 at age 92.

Spartacus: the history, the book, the movie.

--Prince George Citizen  November 17, 2018

KD cast Spartacus 1960

The story of Spartacus has become known throughout the world.

Spartacus was from Thrace, now the northeastern part of Greece, and born in the early part of the first century BC. After deserting from the Roman Legions, he was captured and sold as a slave. Given his strength and fighting prowess, he was sent to a training school for gladiators near Naples. At some time during the training, Spartacus led the other gladiators in a revolt against their owner, captured sufficient arms and armour for his small band, and encamped on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. As other slaves joined up, he, along with two others, were elected leaders.

In what historians call the Third Servile War, Spartacus defeated a Roman Army sent to put down the revolt. Another army was sent out from Rome and it too was defeated. Word of the revolt spread and other slaves and peasants flocked to join. All in all, Spartacus' army swelled to an estimated 70,000. After a winter pause, the Romans sent another army to end the revolt. After an initial success, they too were defeated and Spartacus turned his army north, towards Rome itself.

The threat to Rome was real. Forty thousand troops were mustered to fend off the rebels. Part of this force was defeated but Spartacus was forced to turn south. When he and his army arrived in southern Italy he decided to start a further revolt in Sicily and made a bargain with some local pirates to move part of his force to the island. The pirates took his money but refused to sail. The rebel force was now trapped - the Roman army on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Mobility was gone, the rebels under siege.

Suffice to say, the army of slaves and peasants was not up to this kind of warfare. One group after another fled. Finally, Spartacus launched an attack and was soundly defeated. He was killed in the final battle. Those captured and not killed - over 6,000 of them - were crucified along the Appian Way, the road that led to Rome.

The story of Spartacus is contained in several Roman histories written at the time and has long been used as a tale of rising against oppression.

Howard Fast was a successful American novelist. Starting in 1933, he produced many wonderful historical novels, most based on American history. Conceived in Liberty, The Last Frontier, Citizen Tom Paine', and Freedom Road were only a few of the well-written and very popular Fast books. But Fast had been a self-acknowledged member of the Communist Party in the U.S. and was summoned to testify before Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950.

Asked to name those who contributed to a fund for orphans of parents who died in the Spanish Civil War, he refused. Fast was sentenced to three months in prison for contempt of court and blacklisted by publishers. That meant even though his books had been very patriotic and popular, no publisher would dare publish any book written by him as the Red Scare swept America. It was a time of witch-hunts and civil rights abuse. To express any politically left-wing thought was to risk termination from any job, public or private, with little chance of getting another. McCarthy made Hollywood a special target for his many accusations.

In his later autobiography Being Red, Fast wrote of his experiences during these dark days. Again and again publishers would refuse to even consider any book or even any article written by him. As a way of expressing his turmoil in what he hoped would be a manner acceptable notwithstanding the blacklist, he seized upon the tale of Spartacus. He "brooded" about the book while serving his prison sentence, writing it after his release. Denied a passport, he could not visit Italy and had to rely on travel books on the country to describe where the events took place. It was submitted to publisher after publisher. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had told publishers not to print anything written by Fast no matter how good it might be. While many editors praised the book privately, none would dare to publish a book written by a blacklisted author. =Nor would any bookstore dare to sell such a book even if it was published. =The blacklist was a powerful force in the early 1950s.

Although funds were tight, Fast and his wife were determined that his new novel would reach the public. They had a flyer prepared and distributed that by mail or in any place that would permit them - bookstores, coffee shops, drug stores, five and dimes, anywhere. The book was offered for $2.50 and would be mailed to any purchaser directly by Fast. Five thousand copies were privately published and sales went through the roof. In short order, the book was reprinted seven times in four months as sales soared. Each was marked "PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, BOX 171 PLANTARIUM STATION, NEW YORK CITY". It was not until 1958 when Crown Publishers would take the book to the general public.

One of those who bought a copy was the actor Kirk Douglas (the father of Michael Douglas). Knowing how difficult it would be to produce, Douglas personally bought the screen rights from Fast and hired Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted screenwriter, to write the screenplay. Like Fast, the screenwriter had served time in jail for his views and had been forced to write under assumed names to survive (he had written the screenplay for the film Exodus under an assumed name). Douglas insisted that he be given full credit for the movie. In those troubled times that was risky. No studio would consider distributing the film until Douglas presented Universal with signed contracts with major film actors of the times - Curtis, Ustinov, Simmons, Olivier, and Laughton - each of whom had agreed to perform in the film at some considerable risk. A blacklisted composer, Alex North, was hired to develop the soundtrack music using an odd assortment of ancient instruments. The movie opened on Oct. 7, 1960.

Upon release, the film Spartacus drew big audiences but was also picketed by those who regarded it as yet another "Red" movie from Communist Hollywood. Then President-elect J. F. Kennedy crossed a picket line to see the picture (of course, many of those manning the picket lines thought Kennedy was a Communist too). At the Oscars, Spartacus received six nominations and won four. In following years, the original film was reissued with substantial additional scenes that had been cut from the released version.

When Crown Publishers reissued the book and Universal released the movie, blacklisting was effectively over. The movie is even today rated amongst the best ever made, the book remains in publication, and a TV series, an animated version, a sequel (Son of Spartacus), and a ballet by Khachaturian have followed.

Read John Wayne and Kirk Douglas’ Hilarious, Never-Before-Seen Telegrams

--ET April 28, 2018


John Wayne’s legacy lives on in Hollywood -- and now, you can see a whole new side to “The Duke.”

ET can exclusively reveal that Mark Cuban’s HDNET MOVIES is hosting a special “Western Icons” movie event in honor of John Wayne starting May 18, running through the full week of what would have been the classic cowboy’s 111th birthday, May 26. John’s son, Ethan, hosts the special, revealing new secrets from behind the scenes of some of his dad’s biggest films. In addition to sharing stories from his time on his father’s film sets, Ethan is also opening up the Wayne family vault to share some never-before-seen pieces of memorabilia. That includes a series of exchanges John shared with co-star and friend Kirk Douglas via telegram at the end of his life.

“When my father was in the hospital and dying of cancer, he exchanged some letters with Kirk Douglas,” Ethan shares in ET’s exclusive first look. “As a joke, he wrote that he had an extra operation to add a cleft to his chin so he could be like Kirk.”

“Thanks for the telegrams,” John penned. “Oh, by the way, while I was here, I had a little sort of dimple put in my chin. I knew you wouldn’t mind -- Duke.”

“Dear John, Have you ever noticed that I never call you ‘Duke?’” Kirk wrote. “If I were to use a title, it would be no less than King. Please get your a** back here soon. Love, Kirk.”

‘Paths Of Glory’ - Stanley Kubrick's Anti-War Masterpiece

--The 405   November 26, 2017

paths of glory

“There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now". -Kirk Douglas on 'Paths of Glory', 1969.

Sixty years on, the title Paths of Glory remains as ironic as the first day this film was shown to an audience. There's no glory to be had in the 88 minute run time of Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece. It's a film that picks the audience up, spins them through a moral battlefield and then kicks them out the other side.

Kubrick was beginning to make a name for himself in the mid 1950's. His first masterpiece, 1956’s The Killing – a gritty noir crime film starring Sterling Hayden and inspired countless pretenders (Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs being one that references it) had brought him to the attention of Hollywood, despite its relative failure at the box-office.

Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris were set up at MGM and given a pile of scripts to sift through and find something they might want to shoot. They couldn't find anything, but Kubrick remembered a novel by Humphrey Cobb titled “Paths of Glory” that he had liked and he wanted to make into a war movie.

Kubrick hired Calder Willingham (Later famous for The Graduate) to write the screenplay, though the final credit would go to Kubrick himself, Willingham and the crime writer Jim Thompson, famous for his hard-boiled novels. Nobody at MGM had much faith in the commercial potential of the film and it eventually ended up being financed by United Artists.

The film starred Kirk Douglas, who himself had voiced concern over the commercial potential of the picture but, in his own words, “had to make it”. Indeed, Douglas's production company Bryna helped produce the film alongside Harris.

The film has a dark tone almost from the very start. In 1916, at the height of the WWI, a discussion is held between two high-ranking Generals in the French Army: George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and Paul Mireau (George Macready) about advancing on an Anthill – a key position that the Germans have managed to hold onto. Mireau is hesitant to begin with until he learns that if he accepts the offer, promotion is his – regardless of the result of the attack. Mireau knows that casualties will be large but sees the chance to advance his career prospects – the “Paths of Glory” title could be said to refer to this. Mireau passes the information onto the commanding officer in the trenches Colonel Dax (Douglas), who voices his concerns on how suicidal the mission sounds.

The attack inevitably fails and – on accusations of treason – three of Dax's men are forced to stand trial (portrayed by Kiss Me Deadly’s Ralph Meeker, the always interesting to watch Timothy Carey, and The Shining’s bartender, Joe Turkel) -A token amount that is suggested by Broulard. Dax himself decides to represent them in court.

What follows from there onwards is a stunning account of the follies of war and the power-grabs at the heart of the military. One that still shocks and surprises new viewers today.

The reasons for this are myriad. The stunning black and white photography is haunting and features some of Kubrick’s early attempts at his now infamous tracking shots. One particular camera move down the trenches has real significant emotional impact later on, revealing to the audience the human side of the self-centred decision that causes the soldiers to be there. The battle is beautifully shot too, showing the futile nature of attacking the position from Dax’s point of view.

When the action moves into the makeshift court room, Kubrick deliberately emphasises the distance between the soldiers and the generals via his framing. Lots of wide angle photography highlights the chasm of morality and it's clear, even more so than The Killing, that Kubrick's earlier eye for still photography has translated into cinema in an astonishing manner.

The acting is excellent too. Douglas, all clenched jaw and glaring eyes is brilliant as Dax, the moral centre of the film. When late in the film he is forced into pointing out a mistake by one of his superior officers, it's worth stating that his acting choices are emphasised by what he doesn't do or doesn't say. He's terrific here, in one of his favourite roles. McCready has most of the fun as the horrendous Mireau, a role of a cowardly superior in it all for himself and Menjou plays Broulard as an affable head teacher, quick to pass the responsibility down as long as he personally isn't implicated.

The power of the film resonates today but at the time it stood out on its own. The First World War and the decision making process behind its military operations hadn't been openly questioned in such an uncompromising manner before. Indeed, the film was banned in France – because of its obviously unflattering portrayal of the French army being regarded as an anti-French statement – for many years. The box office results were as disappointing as many feared, with the film just about breaking even on its $1 million budget, but the initial reviews were strong and United Artists were delighted.

For one person though, the film would have a personal life-long impact on their private life. That was its director, Stanley Kubrick. The film's final sequence had an emotional moment where a group of the French soldiers sit in a bar and await a show. A young singer, portrayed by Susanne Christian, as she was credited, performed a track that soon silences the room from its bawdy atmosphere and has grown men crying. It's a rare moment of emotional release in a film that's all about understatement and one of the most humane sequences Kubrick ever shot. Susanne Christian would fall in love with her director and go on to be his second wife, separated only by Kubrick's own passing in 1999.

Indeed, for her and for cinematic history, Paths of Glory leaves quite a legacy.

Show biz legends Kirk and Anne Douglas remember 'magical time' in Palm Springs

--The Desert Sun  September 8, 2017


When conversations turned to the desert's biggest stars in the 1980s, the names bandied about always included Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Dinah Shore, Lucille Ball and Kirk Douglas.

Douglas, one of the first three honorees of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is the now last person standing. At 100, the three-time Best Actor Oscar nominee lives in Beverly Hills and the Santa Barbara area, but still casts a giant shadow over Palm Springs.

A street near the city's international airport bears his name. The house he owned from 1957-1999 on Via Lola is being showcased Oct. 21 as part of the Modernism Week Fall Preview. And the Palm Springs Cultural Center nonprofit organization, on which his son, Indian Wells resident Joel Douglas, is a board member, is screening some of his greatest films through September in the Palm Springs Community Theatre at the Camelot Theatres. “Last Sunset” is screening at noon Sept. 11-15 and Sept. 18-20, followed by “The War Wagon” at noon Sept. 25-29.

For the past 63 years, and especially during their five decades in Palm Springs, Douglas and his wife, Anne, have been a formidable team. They had two children, besides Kirk’s sons from an earlier marriage, and Anne became president of Kirk’s production company at a time when women were mainly playing housewives on television. Anne, 98, also heads the family foundation, which has donated funds to sustain hospitals, theaters and playgrounds around the world, to name a few of their philanthropic endeavors. In Palm Springs, they co-chaired the first Desert AIDS Walk with former First Lady Betty Ford in 1989, raising $25,000.

Now they’ve co-written their first book, with long-time publicist friend Marcia Newberger, titled “Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood.” It’s based on a cache of love letters Anne had saved from Kirk since they met in France, where Kirk hired the bilingual native of Hannover, Germany, to handle his personal publicity while he was working in Europe.

They answered questions from The Desert Sun on a wide range of subjects:

THE DESERT SUN: First of all, I think everybody would like to know how you're doing.

KIRK DOUGLAS: Anne and I are as busy as always, except now we conserve our energies and have our meetings and social activities conducted at our residence in Beverly Hills whenever possible. We still spend a long weekend or two at our home in Montecito to catch up with our grandchildren (Peter’s kids) when they have time for their Pappy and Oma.  Anne still runs the Bryna office and the Douglas Foundation. It’s a big job to give away money! I still study with Rabbi David Wolpe and work with my speech therapist. Anne and I continue our lifelong habits of writing sweet notes to each other and enjoying our nightly “golden hours” to discuss the news, to reminisce, and to just spend time together.  I don’t use a computer except to play “Spider Solitaire,” but Anne and I both love our iPads, especially because we can magnify type. We even occasionally Facetime or Skype with each other, as well as Michael, Catherine and their kids who live on the East Coast.  I’m a long way from “Spartacus,” but I still try to take little walks around the neighborhood and, on occasion, get in the pool for a little physical therapy.

Can you describe how your love letters evolved into a book?

KD: Although I’ve been writing poetry since I was in high school, and published a number of fiction, non-fiction, and autobiographical books while I was still making movies, a lot of my later books came out of my own need to explore my feelings and actions. By being honest, I came to know myself better; I was able to give up the anger that drove me in my earlier years and become a nicer and more forgiving person.  After surviving a helicopter crash, a stroke and my 90th birthday, I explored in writing how each of these had changed me and what I learned from the experiences.

I didn’t think I had anything left to say after 11 books. As my 100th birthday approached, I thought I’d look at all of the correspondence and memorabilia Anne has been saving throughout our 63 years of marriage and maybe craft a book of letters. But there were no letters between the two of us. That puzzled me. I knew we had always written each other since I traveled so much. In the 1950s and up until the last decade or so of the 20th century, letters, telegrams and cables, and very expensive long-distance phone calls were our main means of communication when we were apart. So, one night in Montecito during our “golden hour,” I asked Anne if she had kept any of our love letters.  I was shocked when she laughed and asked if I would like to see them. A few minutes later she came back with an ancient manila folder from a secret hiding spot in her closet and started reading a few of the letters to me. I could not believe she had kept them. I was very excited. “This is the book,” I told her. “Our book.” We worked separately on the commentary and I think my 12th book (and Anne’s first) is very interesting.

I was surprised to read Anne say that it’s always been easier for you to write about your feelings than to talk about them. If that’s true, what has come easier for you, acting or writing?

KD: It’s always easier to play a role, knowing you can shed it and get back to reality. When you write about your own life, you really have to do a lot of self-analysis. But this new book allows for an unusual perspective on the past. Because letters are written in the moment and are meant for no other eye than the recipient, they ring with an honesty that shows exactly the emotional state of the writer. As you can see when you read them, I was a pretty complicated guy and Anne was an extraordinary woman who lived through a Hitler-dominated childhood in Germany and survived wartime in Occupied Paris.  I gave her a hard time, but she was tough enough to stick with me. She is my rock and I wouldn’t be here without her – literally. She saved my life when she wouldn’t let me go (because of a premonition) on Mike Todd’s plane that crashed, making Elizabeth Taylor a widow; she saved me from economic disaster when she discovered how my best friend and business manager had defrauded me for nearly 15 years, leaving me broke and in debt to the IRS for close to a million dollars. And, of course, when I had my stroke and couldn’t talk, she administered the kind of tough love that brought me back from the brink of suicide.

I had to laugh at how Robert Mitchum tried to order 15 cases of champagne to take a bath with “my naked companion” and charge it to the Cannes Film Festival, where Anne was chief of protocol. Have you guys ever seen that kind of excessiveness from other celebrities or did Robert Mitchum take the cake?

KD: It’s always easy to be extravagant with someone else’s money.  As a producer, I dealt with many outrageous demands. Sometimes you say yes, often you say no. But the most extravagant person I knew with his own money was Mike Todd, the greatest showman in the world. As I wrote in “Kirk and Anne,” Mike lived across the street from us in Palm Springs when he was married to Elizabeth. He called Anne and me to come over one morning to see the display of jewels he had spread across the front lawn to surprise Elizabeth. When she came down, he told her to pick anything she wanted.  This was a few days before that fatal crash.

ANNE DOUGLAS: Also, I told the story about Mike asking Elizabeth what she wanted for dinner when she was in bed at the Dorchester Hotel in London, pregnant with their child. This was the year before the crash. Elizabeth wanted to replicate the meal they’d had in Paris the previous week. so Mike ordered it, chartered a plane to pick it up in Paris and fly it back to London. Kirk and I shared it with them. She could ask for the moon and he would have gotten it for her somehow.

You declined Hal Wallis’ seven-year contract and later started your own production company at a time when most actors, even Clark Gable, were insecure about their futures. Did any other actors inspire you to take that risk?

KD: I was a loner, and I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I had never wanted to be a movie star. I wanted the independence to work on Broadway. In our original arrangement, I made one picture a year for Hal for five years. I had seen how miserable people were under those seven-year contracts, where you had to do films you hated or be sued or punished, so it was easy for me to refuse the contract. If I had signed it, I would not have been able to do “Champion” for Stanley Kramer or work on anything else that wasn’t under Hal Wallis’s banner. When I worked for Hal again for “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” I got more than double Burt Lancaster’s salary because I was an independent and Burt owed Hal one final picture on his seven-year contract. I knew the only way to get creative independence and financial security for my family was to form my own company. United Artists was the model for all of us who started our own production entities, like my friends Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra. I never regretted taking the risk.

Can you describe Anne’s challenges as a woman of that era becoming Bryna company president? Anne: You say even Kirk’s business manager dismissed you as someone who should “stick to what to buy at Saks or Magnin’s.” What was the most important obstacle for you to overcome and how did you do it?

KD: Anne’s father, who owned textile companies in Hannover, Germany, talked to his younger daughter about business all the time, and she really learned well. Even before I met her, she supported herself in Paris, producing a television series on fashion, and doing location work and publicity for films, including John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge.” I always took her advice and discussed contracts with her because I just wanted to be “the artist.” Of course, when people like my crooked business manager, Sam Norton, tried to keep her in the role of little housewife, she was furious. As I’ve said many times, I wouldn’t have a penny without Anne, and we would never have been able to give millions away through our foundation without her capable leadership. When the children were a little older, I insisted she formalize her role and become president of Bryna. She was already signing the contracts for me, so it was important that she have an official role. She has excellent judgment, helped in casting, and even produced my film “Scalawag” in Italy and Yugoslavia. She has looked out for me for more than 63 years, and I would only wish we had 63 more.

Many people learned about your work to break the Hollywood Blacklist from the film, “Trumbo.” What did you think of that film and the actor who played you?

The producer and the writer were very kind and showed the script to me before the production began. I made a few suggestions and they modified some of it. Of course, for dramatic purposes, they put in a few things that never happened, like having Otto Preminger and me meet at Dalton Trumbo’s house. I loved Dalton, who wrote my films “The Last Sunset” and “Lonely Are the Brave,” as well as “Spartacus.” He was a fascinating guy and a brilliant writer. Dean O’Gorman contacted me when he was cast, and I told him just to play the part as he felt best and I knew he’d be fine. And he was.

You note that Anne turned the premiere of "Spartacus" into a benefit for the Women's Guild of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. How pioneering was that in terms of your joint philanthropy?

AD: I wasn’t the first to hold a premiere for fundraising, but I was the first to insist that the studios buy tickets rather than getting them for free. I think it set a precedent, but I can’t be sure. We held other charity premieres for films everywhere. Kirk’s name has always been a big draw.

What was the favorite charity event you guys were involved with in Palm Springs?

AD: I was chosen to get a big donation from Walter Annenberg for the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Art Museum) before it opened (in 1976). He was reluctant to write a check for the $400,000 I asked for, and offered $100,000. I said I couldn’t take less than $200,000 and, with Lee Annenberg’s help, I got it.  I had the official title of co-director of the museum and we were very active there for all our many years as part of the community. Kirk donated the temperature-control system for the art galleries. Probably our favorite museum event was when Vincente Minnelli was honored with a “From Stage to Screen” exhibition with a Gala Opening Night. Kirk and I were the honorary chairs and we got $1,000 a ticket from every guest, no comps.

We both played in charity tennis tournaments and Kirk played golf in Frank Sinatra’s and Bob Hope’s and Dinah Shore’s tournaments. We loved Palm Springs, and would have stayed forever if the grandchildren weren’t in Montecito.

Can you recall what you liked most about living on Via Lola?

AD: I was called the Mayor of Via Lola. There were no sewer lines, and I self-appointed myself to work with the mayor and the city officials to get them put in. I also campaigned to get rid of the ugly poles which provided our telephone, TV and electricity but marred the look of the street. I raised $4,000 from each house to get them put underground and improve the area.

Kirk and I would take walks on the street with friends from the block. We would buy ice cream around the corner and then walk past the mailbox and jam our cones in it, like naughty juvenile delinquents. Every Thanksgiving, and at Christmas, Susie Johnson would cook turkeys and we’d have all of our pals over for dinner and then we’d sit around playing gin rummy. Our regulars included Edie and Lew Wasserman, the Annenbergs, Greg Bautzer, the Jack Bennys, the Sidney Sheldons, and whoever else was visiting. At one time, Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle were neighbors and one of the Mirisch brothers (who owned a powerful independent film production company). Dinah Shore would come over to play tennis with me, and sometimes she would cook. Some of our neighbors were so competitive with the gin rummy games they would still be dealing the cards when Kirk went to sleep. I once came downstairs in the morning and found the game still going strong. It was a magical time.

Incidentally, the current owners of our house are Canadian and good friends of Michael and Catherine (Zeta Jones).  For one of the music festivals, Michael and Catherine and Dylan and Carys (their children) were their guests.

How does it feel to be remembered in Palm Springs with your own street and now a month-long retrospective of your films at the Camelot Theatres? If you could pick another film from your career to be included in the series, what would it be?

KD: I’m honored that this month the Palm Springs Community Theatre will be playing some of my films in their Best Actor Series.  You ask what film I would like to see them add to the schedule. How about “Cast A Giant Shadow,” which Anne and I wrote about in our book. John Wayne found the project and told me I had to play Col. Mickey Marcus. To round out the cast, we got my good pals Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner. I took Michael along to be my driver (and he played a small part) and Joel to be my bodyguard. Joel still lives in the desert. He makes sure that Kirk Douglas Way has no potholes!

Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': The Kirk Douglas Interview

--Fresh Air August 28, 2017


One of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1950s and '60s, Douglas went on to run his own production company. His film credits include Spartacus and Lust for Life. Originally broadcast in 1988.


In 1988, I also spoke with actor Kirk Douglas, who helped break the Hollywood blacklist when he produced the 1960 film "Spartacus," which he also starred in. Douglas decided to hire a blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo, to write the screenplay for "Spartacus."


GROSS: Dalton Trumbo was writing it under a pseudonym like he was writing all of his screenplays at the time because he was blacklisted. And you insisted that for this movie he actually use his real name. Did you think that the time was right where you could say, this is Dalton Trumbo who wrote the movie and where it would actually be accepted, that the time was right to break the blacklisting and have it be accepted at least in part of Hollywood?

KIRK DOUGLAS: Well, I'm not so sure. I did it rather impulsively. I don't think I was aware until a couple years later as I reflected upon it. And like, you know, I explain in my book, I began to see, you know, the significance of it. What bothered me when I did "Spartacus" was the hypocrisy in Hollywood that these people, some of them who spent a year in jail for a crime that was never very clearly stated, I mean were denied using their talents except behind the scenes. Studio heads would look the other way while a lot of these unfriendly 10 writers would be writing scripts for very little money.

So it was so hypocritical that it annoyed me to the extent that I said, well, what happens - we had a discussion of, whose name are we going to put on the script of - on the screen of "Spartacus"? And suddenly I said, well, what happens if I put Dalton Trumbo's name on? And they said oh, Kirk, you're - they say, oh, you're going to get out of the business and all that. I said no, to hell with it. I'm going to do it.

And the next day I left the past. Dalton Trumbo hadn't been on a set in ten years. I left the past for Dalton Trumbo, no Sam Jackson. Of course even Sam Jackson we wouldn't have allowed on the set. Somebody might've recognized him as Dalton Trumbo.

GROSS: That was his pen name for this movie.

DOUGLAS: Yes. And from then on - I'll never forget when Dalton Trumbo walked on the set, came over me and says Kirk, thanks for giving me back my name. There were people who - I got letters from different organizations. Hedda Hopper attacked me. But the sky didn't fall in. And after that - a few months after that, Otto Preminger announced that Dalton Trumbo was going to be writing this script, and the blacklist was broken.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Kirk Douglas, and we'll hear my 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet in the second half of the show as we continue the FRESH AIR 30th anniversary retrospective. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring some of our favorite interviews from our early days. We'll pick up where we left off with my 1988 interview with actor and producer Kirk Douglas. He was one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1950s and '60s and was also one of the first actors to run his own production company. He's also the father of actor and producer Michael Douglas.

Kirk Douglas made about 75 films, including "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," "Paths Of Glory," "Spartacus," "Lonely Are The Brave," "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral" and "Lust For Life," in which he played painter Vincent Van Gogh. Douglas is the son of poor, illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants. Our interview was recorded when his autobiography was published.


GROSS: You had starred in "The Vikings." And you write in your new autobiography, "The Rag Man's Son," that, after starring in "The Vikings," you thought, that's it - no more epics for me. And then you go and turn around, and actually produce one of the real big epics, "Spartacus." Why did you want to make an epic?

DOUGLAS: Well, I didn't want to make an epic. And one of the first things I said to my group - I said, look, if we do this picture "Spartacus," let's make it as if it were a small picture. And to me, if you look at "Spartacus" again, you will find that the characters dominate the background. Most pictures, "Ben-Hur" and all that, the background is so enormous.

But in "Spartacus," Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov, Jean Simmons - the characters are stronger than the background. And that's what I tried to do. In spite of the fact that it was an epic picture, I wanted the characters to be - for them to be larger than life.

GROSS: You mentioned the characters and some of the actors. You ended up casting Jean Simmons in the role of Spartacus' lover and the woman who he has a baby with. And initially, you didn't want to cast her because she's British, and you thought that that would ruin the linguistic pattern of the movie. And I'd love for you to explain what you meant by that.

DOUGLAS: Well, I have a very simple - for example, when I did "The Vikings," all the Vikings are Americans. We have a rougher pattern of speech. The English have a more elegant pattern of speech. So that makes it work. In Spartacus, you'll notice that all the aristocratic Romans are English.

GROSS: That's right. They're great...

DOUGLAS: The slaves...

GROSS: ...Stage actors (laughter), great British stage actors.

DOUGLAS: The slaves, like myself, were Americans.

GROSS: Not only that, ethnic - right? - Jewish, Italian. You, Jewish, Tony Curtis, Italian - no, Tony Curtis is Jewish, too, actually. Isn't he?

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah, that's right. (Laughter) I always forget that (laughter).

DOUGLAS: But it doesn't matter, you see. It's just that Americans have a rougher speech pattern. For example, I often think that Shakespeare very often is better played in - when it's done in the United States because those beautiful lines take on a rougher quality that I think Shakespeare really intended it to...

GROSS: So the slaves have the rough quality.

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: And the Romans have the more genteel, educated, refined sound.

DOUGLAS: Exactly. Of course, "Spartacus" - you picked on a picture that plays a big - is a big section in my book because so much happened during the making of "Spartacus." The most historical event was the breaking of the blacklist.

GROSS: Since we're talking about "Spartacus," let me play a clip from the movie. And this was toward the end of the first half of the film. Remember, this movie had an intermission (laughter). And Spartacus and many other slaves have escaped from slavery. And after they've escaped, many of the slaves are just drinking wine. They're having Romans fight each other as if the Romans were slaves. And Spartacus is saying, what are you doing with your lives? You should be doing something more productive. And he suggests that they actually fight the Roman Empire.


DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) Have we learned nothing? What's happening to us? We look for wine when we should be hunting bread.

NICK DENNIS: (As Dionysius) When you've got wine, you don't need bread.


DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) We can't just be a gang of drunken raiders.

DENNIS: (As Dionysius) What else can we be?

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) Gladiators - an army of gladiators. There's never been an army like that. One gladiator's worth any two Roman soldiers that ever lived.

JOHN IRELAND: (As Crixus) We beat the Roman guards here, but a Roman army is a different thing. They fight different than we do, too.

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) We can beat anything they send against us if we really want to.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It takes a big army for that, Spartacus.

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) We'll have a big army. Once we're on the march, we'll free every slave in every town and village. Can anybody get a bigger army than that?

DENNIS: (As Dionysius) That's right. Once we cross the Alps, we're safe.

IRELAND: (As Crixus) Nobody can cross the Alps. Every pass is defended by its own legion.

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) There's only one way to get out of this country - the sea.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What good is the sea if you have no ships?

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) The Cilician pirates have ships. They're at war with Rome. Every Roman galley that sails out of Brundisium pays tribute to them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They've got the biggest fleet in the world. I was a galley slave with them. Give them enough gold, they'll take you anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We haven't got enough gold.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Take every Roman we capture and warm his back a little. We'll have gold, all right.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Spartacus is right. Let's hire these pirates and march straight to Brundisium.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, screaming).


GROSS: Well, they get their army. And you, as Spartacus, lead them against the Roman army. There is a scene at the end that is a mass crucifixion. And you are one of the many actors on the cross (laughter) at the end of the movie. And I'd really like to know how you were attached to the cross so that you could hang there without really hurting yourself.

DOUGLAS: Well, as a matter of fact, playing that scene, we learned an awful lot about crucifixion. We learned that it would be impossible to be crucified the way, very often, you see the crucifixion. You know, the body would sag right down. But to make our scenes effective, it was very easy. Every cross had a bicycle seat. It just kept the body up high enough so that you wouldn't be sagging down in a very unattractive position.

GROSS: OK, so that's the secret. You started off in your first movie playing someone who was pretty weak in the film "The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers."

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: And you went on to become a character who was seen as very strong. In fact, you were - mentioned that Elia Kazan refers to you in his autobiography. And I'd like to read one of the things that he says when he was making the film "The Arrangement," based on his best-selling novel. You wanted to be in the film. And he cast you in it, although he says he - there was something about the role that he thought Marlon Brando would've been better for.

And Elia Kazan writes, there was one problem with Kirk. Eddie, the character, has to start defeated in every personal way. The film rests on how basic and painful his initial despair is. Kirk has developed a professional front, a man who can overcome any obstacle. He radiates indomitability. Marlon, on the other hand, with all his success and fame, was still unsure of his worth and of himself. Acting had little to do with it. It was all a matter of personality.

Did you ever think of yourself that way, as just radiating indomitability, and that affecting the kind of roles that you could or could not do well?

DOUGLAS: Working with Kazan in "The Arrangement" was a wonderful experience. He's a great director. But I disagree with him completely. When I did "Lust For Life," which I consider one of the most intriguing roles that I've played, I played a man completely unsure of himself. As a matter of fact, I sometimes tell my fellow actors that no one can play weakness better than I, starting with the very first movie that I did, "The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers."

And then when you go to a character like "Lust For Life," I remember the first time we showed that - and I described this incident in my book where John Wayne was drinking at a party after a showing. He was very annoyed. He motioned me, brought me out on the balcony and said he was very annoyed. He said, Kirk, how can you play such a sniveling, weak character? I said, well, John - I said, well, you know, I'm an actor. It was an interesting role. I wanted to play it. No, no, he says. Kirk, we've got to play tough, macho guys. And he was really upset that I would be playing such a weak character, although most people, I think, think of me - the last movie I did with Burt Lancaster was called "Tough Guys" - as sort of a tough guy.

But I loved to play parts or try to find parts with different dimensions. You see, Terry, if I play a strong man in the film, I look for the moments where he's weak. And if I play a weak character, I look for the moments where he's strong because that's what drama's all about - chiaroscuro, light and shade.

GROSS: I want to ask you something about you physically, in terms of your acting. People think of you. They think of your voice. Physically, they really think of the dimple in your chin. And when you started acting, was there ever a time where that was seen as a disadvantage? Did anyone ever try to cover that up with makeup?

DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah. The first time I came to Hollywood, you know, and they're looking at this Broadway actor - and they did. They filled it up with putty.

GROSS: Oh, really?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. It had to be an awful lot of putty because I don't have a dimple in my chin. I have a hole in my chin. And it annoyed me. I said, look. I just pushed the putty out. I said, look; this is what you get if you want it. I'm not going to change it. So let me know if this is what you want, or I'm going back to New York. And since then, I've never - you know, it's a part of me.

GROSS: So you never let them actually shoot you with the putty in your chin?

DOUGLAS: Oh, I would do that if there was a real reason where I wanted someone to have, like, a big, lantern jaw and covering up this dimple on my chin would give me that effect. I would do it if the reason was to play a certain character or it's covered up when you have a beard. I mean I do whatever I feel you have to do to play the character, not for, you know, vanity sake. I am what I am. I can't change that.

GROSS: My interview with Kirk Douglas was recorded in 1988. He turned 100 in December.



Dear Trump: I’ve Lived Through The Nazi Regime. Don’t Let History Repeat Itself.

--Huffinfron Post August 23, 2017

anne douglas 1

I was living in occupied Paris under the Nazis in 1941 when President Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address to Congress. He talked with passion about bedrock American values, the “four freedoms”―freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In my native Germany and in France―as well as all other countries Hitler conquered―each of these fundamental freedoms of a democratic society had completely disappeared. You cannot imagine the joy and sense of rebirth in Paris when the Americans liberated us in 1944.

A decade later, I became a naturalized American after I married Kirk Douglas. My husband believes, because I lived for so long under fascism, I love my adopted homeland with a ferocity that few native-born citizens can imagine.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” said John F. Kennedy when he became the 35th President of the United States. Soon after, he created many opportunities for citizen participation like forming the Peace Corps and suggesting to my husband that an American movie star, representing the U.S. as a goodwill ambassador, could enhance our understanding among nations.

Kirk solidified the arrangement with the State Department and for the next 20 years―under both Democratic and Republican presidents―Kirk and I traveled to more than 40 countries at our own expense to talk about America. Some of the countries had totalitarian or military regimes. We always came home relieved to report that, even behind the Iron Curtain, there was affection and respect for America.

Kirk is now 100, and there’s little he hasn’t experienced during his lifetime. He’s eternally grateful his parents escaped the anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia so that all of their children could be born in America. He’s seen the greatness of our country, but also its dark side of discrimination against minorities, immigrants, and its Native American populations.

He helped to break the blacklist that grew out of Congressional hearings that destroyed lives of those who had once belonged to the Communist Party, a party whose existence was never made illegal. He knew people who were terrified that their sexual orientation would be exposed. He saw how easy it was for people in power like Senator Joseph McCarthy to persecute with impunity until a courageous lawyer for the Army named Joseph Welch destroyed him with these damning words, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency.”  

Those are words I wish our congressional leaders would have quoted to the current inhabitant of the White House when he blamed “both sides” for the tragic events at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The American-bred racists and neo-Nazis who gathered there have never experienced firsthand what a totalitarian regime inflicts upon its people when it takes power. I have. They have lived all their lives in a country which protects their free speech even when it is hateful.

As a child in Germany, I had to join Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) where we were indoctrinated with Nazi beliefs and encouraged to spy on our parents and neighbors. Later, when I was surviving in Paris by writing German subtitles for films, my maid denounced me to the Gestapo, eager to report the strange phrases on the work I brought home. I was picked up at 5:00 a.m. and interrogated for hours. I finally convinced the officer I was not a spy, but only because I could speak German. It was the most terrifying moment of many for me during World War II.

Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan seem convinced that President Trump is their friend. He has said little to dissuade them. His first wife Ivana said her husband kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside, so I wonder where his sympathies lie.

Movements like these openly share their goals of taking over the government. Our president, our elected representatives, and our military and law-enforcement leaders must tell them in no uncertain terms that there is no place for hate groups in America.

Celebrities remember Barbara Sinatra through the years

--The Desert Sun  July 25, 2017


Barbara Sinatra, who rose to social prominence as "Lady Blue Eyes" and then developed a legacy of her own, has died at her Rancho Mirage home at age 90.

Among the quotes gathered about her over the years is the following:

Anne Douglas, friend and wife of actor Kirk Douglas, from their book, 'Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood," by permission of co-author Marcia Newberger

"Back in 1985, Barbara approached me to help her build a home for abused children. She said I had a reputation for fundraising and organization and she was going to open a facility at Eisenhower. I had no idea there was such terrible thing as child sexual abuse. I said yes of course, and the fabulous journey began! We created a board and the children came.

"Barbara's passion and dedication became mine, and I had the pleasure of working with her, as President for several years, and sharing the joy of healing our kids. At this time, we have worked with and healed over 20,000 youngsters...and my own life was changed because of Barbara Sinatra."

Kirk Douglas on Surviving a Childhood Home With Little Food and No Heat

--Wall Street Journal  June 20, 2017


Kirk Douglas, 100, has starred in more than 90 films, including “Spartacus,” and has won an Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is the author of 12 books, including “Kirk and Anne,” a joint memoir (Running Press). He spoke with Marc Myers.

We were the poorest family on a street of poor families. My father, Harry, had emigrated from Russia and settled in Amsterdam, N.Y. Then he sent for my mother, Bryna. But he couldn’t do much to make money. So he bought a horse and became a ragman.

We were seven kids, and my father was an indifferent provider. My mother always pleaded with him for money. He’d say, “Haven’t got it,” in Yiddish. Growing up, we never had enough food.

When I was hungry, I stole food—an egg from under a neighbor’s hen or a tomato from a garden. I also swiped fruit and vegetables from a stand. For years, I felt guilty about those little sins.

Anti-Semitism was common in Amsterdam. I suppose my personality and charm developed as a way to survive. It also helped that I loved to act and won awards in school.

I also was a hard worker. I’d invent jobs, like selling soda and candy to workers at the mill at the end of our street. Amsterdam was one of the largest mill towns in the country. There were dozens of factories, but no jobs for Jews.

Our house was a rundown, two-story gray clapboard next to the factories, the railroad tracks and the river. It didn’t have heating. Before the winter, my father and I would take dried manure from his horse, Bill, and spread it around the foundation for insulation. It didn’t help.

By the time the family was complete—six girls and me, fourth in line—I slept on a shabby living-room sofa. The girls were in two bedrooms, and my parents in another. I hated sleeping on my own.

I loved my father, but I wondered if he loved me. I wanted to win his praise and affection. But he was distant.

My mother worked hard to feed and clothe us. There wasn’t much money. She took care of the house with no hot running water, washing machine or decent stove.

She was ingenious. The girls would buy a pound of the cheapest meat at the kosher butcher and beg for free bones. The soup my mother made fed us for days.

After high school in 1934, I didn’t have enough for college tuition. So I hitchhiked 200 miles to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., with a friend who was a sophomore there. I took all my high-school acting awards, transcript, essays and poems. I also took a letter of recommendation from my English teacher and champion, Mrs. Livingston.

I met with Dean Hewlitt, head of faculty, and delivered my pitch. It worked. He helped me get a college loan, and the following semester I won a scholarship.

During the summer after my freshman year, I took a job wrestling in the circus. I was a shill. When the wrestler asked if anyone in the crowd cared to challenge him, I stepped forward. I was head of the varsity team at college and an undefeated champ, so we made a show of it.

It was hard for a Jewish kid to find work at any of the hotels and resorts up there and my name was Izzy Demsky.

Future summers were spent acting at the Tamarack Playhouse on Lake Pleasant. One day, a few of my friends insisted I needed a more American name. Someone suggested Douglas. My new first name took longer. Someone finally said Kirk. My new name sounded masculine and strong.

The big turning point for me was meeting Betty Perske. By then she was Betty Bacall and would soon become Lauren Bacall. We met at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.

Betty was 17 and I was 25. One winter I only had a lightweight coat. Betty talked her uncle into giving me one of his warmer coats. I loved her from that moment on.

Betty became a huge star with her first film, and she urged film producer Hal Wallis to see me on Broadway. That’s how I came to Hollywood. I co-starred in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946).

Today, my wife, Anne, and I live in Beverly Hills. We decided about 30 years ago to downsize from the large house we owned to a cozy one-story house.

I fell for Anne in 1953. I still see her as an elegant and sexy Parisienne, but it’s her character and wit and how her eyes light up when she sees me that delight me.

I never expected to live to be 100. A stroke in 1996 affected my speech, but it hasn’t stopped me from laughing. You live a long life if you enjoy the things that make you happy and don’t worry too much. You can’t do much about those things anyway.