Kirk Douglas's Mission
- Created on Friday, 02 November 2012
- Written by Monica Parker
--from Express.co.uk October 26, 2012
Kirk Douglas with wife Anne, daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones and son Michael
THIS year Kirk Douglas handed charities £35m so why does Hollywood’s most generous star want to give even more away?
His name alone can conjure up Hollywood’s golden age when the stars really were stars. With his athletic physique, chiselled jaw and famously dimpled chin Kirk Douglas was one of the silver screen’s most iconic action heroes and a sex symbol to rival any of today’s A-listers.
Today at 95 he is one of the last few Hollywood greats still standing.
But he isn’t one to live off tales of past triumphs or spend his time gazing fondly on his Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and his honorary Oscar.
As distinguished as his film-making career has been there is another legacy Douglas is eager to leave behind – one which he considers of far greater importance than his acting.
He has become Hollywood’s most generous philanthropist, giving away his millions to causes aimed at helping the poor and disadvantaged.
Through the Douglas Foundation, the charity he set up with his wife Anne, he recently pledged a massive £35million to several non-profit organisations.
They include an Alzheimer’s unit at a home for retired fi lm industry workers, a Los Angeles shelter for homeless women and St Lawrence University in New York (his alma mater), so that it can extend its scholarship programme for ethnic minority students.
Previously he and Anne refurbished and equipped more than 400 run-down playgrounds in Los Angeles.
And he regularly talks to pupils at the Kirk Douglas High School in Northridge, California, which assists teenagers intending to drop out of school to complete their education – as an inducement he personally gives a $500 cheque
to each pupil who graduates.
How fitting that Douglas’s most celebrated movie role was that of the rebel Spartacus, who fought to lead the hopeless to a better life.
We are used to big-name actors intent on “making a difference” to people’s lives. Often it’s by sticking their noses into politics, which they generally do from a position of stunning naiveté.
At its extreme we had the case of Jane Fonda in her Hanoi Jane phase during the Vietnam war when she paid a
courtesy call on the enemy and denounced her own country.
(Lord Haw-Haw was hanged for that kind of thing.) More recently there was the spectacle of Sean Penn cosying
up to the Argentine president and making fatuous utterances about Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands.
Such crass Hollywood posturing is in sharp contrast to Douglas’s genuine contribution to the common good.
Politically he leans towards the Left but has remarked: “If you’re a Democrat or if you’re a Republican always do what’s good for your country. I, the product of immigrants, realise what this country has done for me.”
This simple statement goes to the heart of what drives his remarkable generosity: his origins as the son of Jewish refugees from Russia. Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 in upstate New York.
As a boy he sold snacks to mill workers and delivered newspapers to earn enough money to buy milk and bread. He found living in a family of six sisters stifling: “I was dying to get out,” he said.
“It lit a fire under me.”
He discovered a love of acting while at high school but had to work at more than 40 different jobs before he could earn his living as an actor.
He battled his way to fame and riches but never forgot his tough background and its lessons.
“I am not the hero of my life story,” he once said.
“The heroes are my mother and father. They scraped together enough money to sail steerage class to America to give their family a better life.”
DOUGLAS continues: “All my life I heard my mother say, ‘America, such a wonderful land’. When she saw me work
my way through college and go into the field that I love, acting, I would constantly hear that phrase.
Finally after years of being so wrapped up in myself and my career I realised what my mother was saying.
"America is a land of opportunity and promise. A place where everyone has a chance.”
Many Left-leaning actors – Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris and Dustin Hoffman spring to mind – spend a lot of their time publicly criticising America, whose many advantages they take for granted.
Not so Kirk Douglas, who recognises how much he owes it and wants to give something back.
But over the past two decades his philanthropy has been spurred on by other crucial life experiences.
In 1991 (already wearing a pacemaker for his heart) a near-fatal helicopter crash left him with severe back pain.
Then five years later a stroke deprived him of the ability to walk and speak and triggered a deep depression.
He later wrote: “After my stroke the thought that I would never make another movie echoed in my brain. I just wanted to lie in bed and do nothing. But my wife would say, ‘Get your ass out of bed and work on your speech therapy.’ That helped.”
He worked hard to regain his mobility and his speech. But best of all he found an antidote to his despair: “Depression is the greatest obstacle of old age. You lose so many friends, you get lonely and think too much
about yourself. Try to think of others. I felt better if I did something for other people. That satisfaction is priceless. In
my golden years I’ve leaned thatt you can’t know how to live until you know how to give.’
Another consequence of his stroke was that after decades of being preoccupied with his career and enjoying the glamorous lifestyle typical of a star – along with the infidelities which that generally entails – he rediscovered his
religious roots and embraced Judaism.
Always a supporter of Israel, with his customary impartiality Douglas sponsored playgrounds and community
centres in both Jewish and Arab areas of Jerusalem.
AT the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2000 the city’s mayor Ehud Olmert honoured Douglas with an award for his philanthropy and “love for the city”. Douglas told an adoring audience that his stroke had given him a renewed commitment to Judaism and that he felt very close to Israel.
“Maybe I’ll move here some day,” he quipped.
The festival included a screening of his film Diamonds which marked his return to the cinema. In it he played the part of a Jewish boxer recovering from a stroke.
The previous year after studying with a rabbi he’d had his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83.
“What an event!” he recalled in his 2007 memoir Let’s Face It: 90 Years Of Living, Loving And Learning.
“It happened at the Sinai Temple in Beverly Hills. So many people came to witness this grey-haired man say
a young boy’s prayer, Larry King, Karl Malden, my son Michael, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Red Buttons, Don Rickles, Roddy McDowall.
Most people present didn’t understand the service but they all understood the speech I made, ‘I promise to be a good boy.’ ”
I think we can all agree he has kept that promise and then some.
Kirk Douglas on Life & Spartacus
- Created on Saturday, 20 October 2012
- Written by Proof Interactive
MY parents were illiterate Russian peasants. They escaped by boarding a ship to America.
Because of that, I had the opportunity to go to college and go into the field I wanted. Everybody here can become a moviestar or a millionaire.
In America, you have the chance to be anything, anyone. One of our most famous presidents, Ronald Reagan, was an actor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor of California.
When you've had a stroke, you have to talk slowly to be understood. I've discovered when I do that, people listen - they think I'm going to say something important! Well, I do have something important to say. I've been working in Hollywood for more than 60 years and I've made more than 85 movies.
The thing I'm most proud of is breaking the blacklist. I wrote my new book, I Am Spartacus!: Making A Film, Breaking the Blacklist, about that period in my life. It was a terrible time when people were being accused of being communists and the movie industry came under attack. The studios banned people who were on the blacklist.
When I made Spartacus, I hired the best writer, but I couldn't use his real name. He was on the list, so he started off under a pseudonym. But when the film was finished, I felt terrible about not giving him his true name. I agonised. People said, "If you use his real name, you'll never work in this town again!" But I was stubborn and did it anyway. The sky didn't fall in and the blacklist was broken. I'm very proud of that.
At the time, Spartacus was one of the most expensive films ever made. The budget started at $4 million, which was a lot of money 50 years ago, and it crept up to $12 million. That's the same as making a picture now for $100 million.
It was a beautiful film. The script attracted Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis and me. There was a wonderful scene with Laurence and Tony in the pool, but there were undertones of homosexuality and they wouldn't allow that scene to be shown. But now, in the new version they're releasing, that scene has been included.
At 95, I'm always asked, "What are the lessons you've learnt from life?" To me, the most important thing is that a person should always try to help another person. My charity, The Douglas Foundation, recently gave $50 million to the Motion Picture & Television Fund's retirement home. It made me feel so good to do that. Helping other people makes me happy.
My greatest joy comes from my wife, Anne. We've been married for 58 years, and married twice! [Douglas has four sons, Michael, 68, Joel, 65, Peter, 56,and Eric, deceased.] The first time was in Las Vegas. I thought my wife, whom I'd met in Paris, spoke perfect English, but when the justice of the peace said, "Repeat after me: I, Anne, take thee, Kirk, as my lawful wedded husband," she misunderstood him and said, "I take thee, Kirk, as my awful wedded husband." I said we'd get married again, and we did, in 2004.
I know I'm lucky; people in Hollywood don't always stay married. There's a secret to our success. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote, 'Let there be spaces in your togetherness.' I think my wife has always been her own person and she allows me to be myself, too. We have a ritual where we sit in front of the fireplace to talk every night before dinner. Communication is so important. At that moment of the day, we're just two people who love each other.
Douglas on Tackling a Movie Epic, a Blacklist
- Created on Sunday, 30 September 2012
- Written by Irv Slifkin
--Philly.com Sept 23, 2012
At 95, Kirk Douglas has a helluva memory. Just read I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, and you will be amazed by his stories about the creation of the 1960 epic he starred in and produced.
Douglas, through his Bryna production company, wanted to make the best picture possible from the tale of the slave leader who led his followers in an uprising against the might of ancient Rome. To do that, Douglas had to enlist two writers blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1940s.
One, novelist Harold Fast, self-published Spartacus, his exciting account of the slave rebellion, after he was blacklisted. Douglas optioned the book and gave Fast an opportunity to adapt it. When Fast had trouble translating the story for the screen, Douglas hired one "Sam Jackson" to rewrite the script.
"Sam Jackson" was Dalton Trumbo, who had been one of Hollywood's most famous and highest-paid screenwriters. Trumbo had not had his real name on a script since being imprisoned as one of the "Hollywood Ten" for refusing in 1947 to name names of friends who were Communists. Using the pseudonym "Robert Rich," Trumbo had won an Academy Award for "best writing" for 1956's The Brave One, about a Mexican boy who tries to save his bull from being killed in the bullring. Trumbo also won an Oscar posthumously in 1993 for writing William Wyler's 1953 romance Roman Holiday; credit for the script had originally gone to screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, who had served as a front for Trumbo.
Bryna production executive Eddie Lewis initially served as a front for Trumbo on Spartacus, taking care of some of the potential problems the film faced during the preparation for shooting. But as Douglas recounts, a whole lot of other eye-opening incidents occurred. And he recalls them with insight, intelligence, and self-effacing humor. Ultimately, I Am Spartacus! offers a juicy look inside a film that once teetered on the brink of disaster and has since achieved classic status.
Referring to his own sometimes reckless physical prowess and indomitable spirit, Douglas draws parallels between his efforts to get the movie made and the efforts of the real-life Spartacus to lead a successful rebellion. Douglas also recalls that there was a prevalent element of anti-Semitism at work in the blacklist, which gave the son of Russian Jewish immigrants added incentive to stand up to McCarthyism.
I Am Spartacus! is chock-full of terrific anecdotes about the making of the film, which eventually became a big hit for Universal, taking in an impressive $60 million around the world on a then-substantial $12 million budget. There are entertaining tales concerning a competing project (The Gladiators, starring Yul Brynner), casting uncertainties (Gene Tierney, Jeanne Moreau, newcomer Sabine Bethmann, and others were considered for the role of the slave woman Varinia, but Jean Simmons got the part), directing changes after the film began shooting (easygoing Anthony Mann was replaced by temperamental wunderkind Stanley Kubrick), personality conflicts aplenty (involving costars Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Oscar-winning Peter Ustinov), and, finally, extensive recuts for political reasons by Universal.
Douglas' decision to use the name of Dalton Trumbo on the credits rather than "Sam Jackson" was a bold move that had major impact. Surviving writers, actors, directors, and others in Hollywood who had been living in fear or using others as fronts came back to life, discarding their anonymity to reclaim their names and work again.
Trumbo went on to write 1962's modern western Lonely Are the Brave, which Douglas considers his favorite film. Trumbo also went on to many other post-blacklist projects: scripting Exodus for Otto Preminger; adapting and directing his own antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, for the screen; and writing the screenplay for Papillon, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Douglas is adept at telling personal stories, as he showed in his other books, especially his compelling 1988 autobiography The Ragman's Son. In I Am Spartacus!, he dives headfirst into the particulars of the era and the fear that the witch hunts spawned in Hollywood, where some of Douglas' friends tried unsuccessfully to stop U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hunt for Communist influence in the showbiz community. Douglas says he was too unimportant to be noticed when this all began, his career just in its early years, although he was in movies written by such blacklisted writers as Carl Foreman and Ring Lardner Jr.
Douglas uses letters and recollections of conversations to add color to his memoir. He is particularly sharp in discussing Trumbo, an iconoclastic writing machine who worked furiously while naked in his bathtub, sipping bourbon and chain-smoking cigarettes. There is also no shortage of insight into the obsessiveness of director Kubrick, who dismissed Spartacus throughout the rest of his career and relieved crack cinematographer Russell Metty of his duties - only to find Metty winning an Oscar for his work.
Douglas has come in for some criticism over his assessment of his importance in ending the blacklist. Members of the Trumbo family and others have claimed that the actor-producer has taken too much credit and undervalued the efforts of Eddie Lewis and others.
But Douglas, while not shy about tooting his own horn, has no problem acknowledging Lewis' input or willingness to help him when it came to protecting, then exposing Trumbo's work when the time was right.
I Am Spartacus! deserves mention with other great "making of" Hollywood tomes such as Steven Bach's Final Cut - about the production of Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate - and Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy, detailing Brian De Palma's misfire on Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities.
I Am Spartacus! brings readers up close and personal with the temperamental talent, the creative forces, and the movers and shakers engaged in the high-wire act of making a major movie - one with much more at stake than most.
Weekend Film Recommendation: I Walk Alone
- Created on Friday, 21 September 2012
- Written by Keith Humphreys
--September 21, 2012
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had remarkably parallel careers. They both made their first film in 1946, quickly became huge international stars, and maintained their cinematic dominance for decades. Both were handsome, athletic men who were also intelligent enough to play parts with nuance and depth. Both ultimately broke away from the studio system to become independent producers. And last but not least, they made seven films together, the first of which is this week’s recommendation, the 1948 crime melodrama I Walk Alone.
The story commences with Frankie Madison (Lancaster) getting out of the joint after a 14 year stretch. He was arrested for bootlegging with Noll “Dink” Taylor (Douglas), but Taylor eluded the cops, never did any hard time and indeed never even bothered to visit Frankie in prison. Frankie’s old friend Dave (Wendell Corey, in a quietly effective performance), who has stayed true to him, is under Dink’s thumb as the bookkeeper of his swanky nightclub. Frankie feels entitled to half of the club, but Dink isn’t feeling generous. Dink sends his moll, a singer in the club (Lizabeth Scott) to sweet-talk Frankie; he’s lost interest in her anyway because he wants to marry a blue blood (a sultry and perfectly bitchy Kristine Miller) who will secure his place among the posh people.
The emotional power of the film comes from the conflict between Frankie and Dink. Lancaster’s Frankie is a pacing, rough cut ex-con who would like nothing better than to slug it out. Douglas’ Dink is all suaveness and reassurance, an oleaginous modern businessman who claims to have left the world of guns and fists. This contrast produces the best scene in the movie, in which Lancaster shows up with some thugs to take over the club by force, and Douglas humiliates him by explaining that because of multiple holding companies and escrow agreements, there is nothing to take over (without a vote of the board and amendment of the by laws of course). As Dink himself says, Frankie is a dinosaur, unable to cope with the realities of the modern world. But Dink still fears him enough to commit a terrible crime and frame his former pal as the culprit.
There are some flaws in this film. It was Byron Haskin’s first directorial outing, and he doesn’t seem in full control of the material. He got much better later, for example in Treasure Island, recommended here recently. This isn’t Lizabeth Scott’s best work either. She seems one-note off in I Walk Alone, for a reason I cannot guess (Bad direction from Haskin, maybe). Charles Schnee was a great script writer (The Bad and the Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas, being one of his gems). His script here includes some pungent dialogue but the story drags at times, particularly in the second half. But no matter what slow spots intrude on the viewer’s enjoyment, the film always roars back to life as soon as the two lions of post-war cinema are tussling on the screen again.
As a note on the actors, this was the fourth film for both men and they apparently spent little time with each other off-screen. Their friendship/rivalry was to blossom much later during the making of Gunfight at the OK Corral. About 10 years ago, I had the good fortune to hear from Douglas’ own lips that the rivalry was largely a studio and trade press invention, when in reality they had always been good friends. But who knows or cares? Whatever their personal relationship was like off screen, they were a terrific duo onscreen.
Hollywood gladiator Kirk Douglas has his eyes set on a third barmitzvah
- Created on Friday, 21 September 2012
- Written by Barbara Paskin
--Jewish Chronicle Online, September 20, 2012
‘When you have a stroke you must talk slowly to be understood,” Kirk Douglas is saying, “and I’ve discovered that when I talk slowly people listen. They think I’m going to say something important!
“Well, I do have something important to say because I have been working in Hollywood over 60 years and I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the blacklist.”
We are sitting in the actor’s den in his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by piles of oversized art books. African masks mingle with wall hangings and metal sculptures; the bookcases lining one wall are stacked floor to ceiling. On the wall hang a few Toulouse Lautrecs, the first art he ever bought. There used to be Picassos and Miros too, but he sold them to fund his wife’s charity campaign to renovate the 400 ageing playgrounds in Los Angeles.
It has been over 50 years since the infamous McCarthy witchhunt and the preceding blacklist which ousted so many writers and performers from their jobs because of a hysterical fear of communism. It is a period that Douglas still feels passionate about and it has led him to write his latest book, his 10th, Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.
On this boiling hot day, Douglas is looking cool and relaxed; by his side, his two faithful labradors, black-haired Banshee and snowy white Danny (short for Danielovich, Douglas’s birth surname).
“I was living in a terrible time when people were being accused of being communists, and they attacked the movie industry, especially the writers,” he recalls. “People couldn’t work if they were on the blacklist. The studios banned them. It was the most onerous period in movie history. I don’t think we have ever had a period so dark as that. People committed suicide, people died, people suffered. It wiped out lives.”
When he made Spartacus, he hired writer Dalton Trumbo, one of ‘the Hollywood 10” who had been jailed for refusing to testify whether they were communists, but Trumbo was on the blacklist and had to work under a pseudonym.
“When the film was finished I felt terrible not to give him true credit,” Douglas says. “It was so wrong. I agonised. People said: ‘Kirk, if you use his right name you’ll never work in this town again’. But 50 years ago
I was very stubborn. In the end I did it. I used his name on the screen. I was scared to death but I insisted on doing it.
“One columnist attacked me and I was lambasted,” he recollects the public vitriol. “She called the picture filth and encouraged people not to go and see it. Such venom! She saw this as if we were spreading communism! But in the end the sky didn’t fall in and life went on. The blacklist was broken.”
Spartacus became a massive success. The film starred Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Douglas, who also was producer — it was a rare occurrence in those days for an actor to be an independent film producer. At the time — 1960 — Spartacus was the most expensive film ever made.
Originally, Olivier wanted to play the role of Spartacus, the slave who fought the Romans for years before being captured and crucified, but, says Douglas, “we thought he was too, I don’t want to use the word effete, but too intellectual and too gentle.”
He breaks off to kiss goodbye to wife Anne who is off to see the opthomologist. They have been married 58 years and are still “a couple in love”. When he and Anne renewed their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary Anne converted to Judaism — “she said I deserved to marry a nice Jewish girl”, says Douglas. Now it is she instead of him who performs the Friday night ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles.
“When we light the candles we have a little service and say in Hebrew a small prayer where we’re thanking God for everything we have. I like that. I think that is a prayer that everybody should say.”
Twelve years ago, Douglas had a second barmitzvah. “I thought it was something I should do at 83 because of all that had happened to me. Now I’m going to be barmitzvah’d for the third time in December. That’s if I live to be 96! I’m 95 now and you say I’m in good shape, so everything looks promising.”
Three barmitzvahs. Surely a record. Douglas laughs. “My rabbi says I’ll be in the Guinness Book of Records”
After his first barmitzvah he moved away from religion for many years, greatly affected, he says, by the story of Abraham and Isaac. “I resented that it was said God ordered Abraham to kill his son. Only much later did I realise that it was a metaphor.
“I was not a very good Jew. I never practised what Judaism tells you to do, to teach your kids all about Judaism.”
His first wife, actress Diana Dill with whom he had two sons, Michael and Joel, was not Jewish. Neither was his second, German-born Anne Buydens, with whom he had sons Peter and Eric.
“My four sons all knew I was a Jew but they were allowed to be whatever they wanted to be. The only thing important to me was that they be good people who help other people because all religion should try to make you a better person and a more caring person. Whenever religion does that for you, it’s a good religion.
“In general I am against religion because they do so much harm. There are things even in the Jewish religion that I hate and things that I like. But I’m proud to be a Jew.
He was heartened when son Michael came to him recently and told him he agreed that life needed to be lived “based on helping other people”.
“That goes back to when I was a very small boy and we lived in a little house by the railroad track,” Douglas explains slowly. “We were very poor. My father had left and my mother had to raise and feed me and my six sisters. We barely had enough. But very often there would be a knock on the door and there would be a dishevelled hobo asking for food. I was frightened. I was just a little kid. But my mother was not frightened and she always found something to give him. And she said ‘Issur’ — that was my name — ‘even a beggar must give to another beggar who’s worse off than he is’. And that encouraged me to do my philanthropy. My wife feels the same way.”
Through his Douglas Foundation, he recently donated $50 million to the Motion Picture Home which provides assistance to industry members. In Jerusalem, his latest accomplishment has been to build a theatre near the Wailing Wall for aspiring actors, similar to one he established in Los Angeles.
Tell him there os a reward for these mitzvahs and he shrugs it off. “I think being generous and doing things to help other people is a selfish act because it makes you feel so good. That is the reward.”
Douglas’s parents were illiterate Russian Jews who dren. he was their only son. From a very early age, little Issur Danielovich, was hell-bent on becoming an actor. The local community wanted to raise money to send him to a yeshivah, “but I was frightened because I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I just always wanted to be an actor.”
There was never any doubt that the movies would win out over the synagogue. Douglas won a wrestling scholarship to university and worked as a wrestler in summer carnivals. A second scholarship, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, moved him closer to his dream and he soon made his Broadway debut in 1940, as a singing-telegram boy in the play, Spring Again.
War intervened and he enlisted in the US Navy where he served as communications officer in anti-submarine warfare.
Despite his preference for theatre, in 1946, fate intervened in the form of Hal Wallis who cast him in the classic film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He hung on to his famous chin dimple (barely, the studio wanted to remove it) and won plaudits for his work.
His eighth film, Champion, in which he played a boxer, made him a star and netted him his first Academy Award
nomination. After that he varied his performances and was never easily typecast, although his “tough” image largely dominated his career, despite a mix of gentler, romantic roles.
Over 50 years he was one of Hollywood’s most prominent actors. Many of his films have become classics, among them Gunfight at the OK Corral, Paths of Glory and Lonely Are the Brave (his favourite). He has won three Oscar nominations — for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust For Life, a biopic of the artist Vincent Van Gogh “He should have won the Oscar for that”, the film’s director Vincente Minnelli said and Douglas thought he deserved it too. In 1996, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his outstanding contribution to films.
It is a contribution that has travelled far and wide. Although he never took an official role, he has flown around the world as a goodwill ambassador for the US State Department.
“Being a movie star was a great credential,” he grins. And it is true that it has given him a unique entrée to the elite of the world. In 1980 he flew in the first private jet from Jerusalem to Cairo and met President Sadat. Back home, he testified before Congress about the shocking abuse of the elderly. For all his efforts, he was awarded the highest civilian honour, the Medal of Freedom.
At 95, Kirk Douglas is still something of a powerhouse. “I can walk, I can talk and I can see,” he beams. “So I must be doing something right.”
Kirk Douglas: My Spartacus Broke All the Rules
- Created on Monday, 03 September 2012
- Written by Barbara Paskin
--September 3, 2012 The Telegraph (UK)
It’s a blisteringly hot morning in Beverly Hills and Kirk Douglas is relaxing in the lounge of his elegant home where he lives with his wife Anne, two labradors and an enviable collection of fine art. He has just finished a gruelling exercise session with his personal trainer.
In spite of the heat and his exertions, he’s looking alert and cool, clad in beige trousers and thin black shirt. His once blond hair long ago turned white, but the trademark dimple in his chin has lost none of its prominence. His speech is still slurred and slow from the stroke he had in 1996, but his memory and sense of humour are as finely honed as ever.
“When you have a stroke,” he explains, only partly serious, “you must talk slowly to be understood, and I’ve discovered that when I talk slowly, people listen.” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “They think I’m going to say something important!”
The last of the great movie stars, Douglas is one of the American Film Institute’s greatest American screen legends of all time, their highest-ranked actor alive. That makes him a true living legend, I remark. His mouth quivers in an ironic smile. “At least I’m still living!”
Indeed, at 95, the man is almost indefatigable. “I can walk, I can talk and I can see,” he beams in response to my question about his health. “So I must be doing something right!”
It is pretty outstanding for a man who has survived a war injury [he was in the navy during the Second World War], a helicopter crash, a massive stroke, heart surgery to implant a pacemaker, and the replacement of not one but two knees.
He’s in an ebullient mood. His 10th book, I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist (“the most important book I have ever written”), with its foreword by George Clooney, has just been published and is receiving tremendous acclaim.
In it, he writes of the making of the classic film, in which he starred with Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier. He produced the film against the sinister backdrop of the most infamous period in America’s history. It was more than 50 years ago but Douglas sharply recalls the events that transpired during the shameful period of the McCarthy witch-hunt.
“There was a pall over the whole country,” the actor remembers. “The House Committee on Un-American Activities was searching for communists who they thought would bring down our government. They especially accused people in the movies. Particularly the writers. It was an awful situation in Hollywood because it became a blacklist.”
Douglas sighs heavily. “The studios then signed an agreement not to employ the blacklisted writers. That was terrible, because then they couldn’t make a living. Many fled to Europe. Some remained here, but had to write under a pseudonym.”
Ten writers (“the Hollywood Ten”) went to jail for refusing to testify or admit any communist affiliation. Others who refused to name names saw their careers destroyed. And those who sought to employ a “front” (a blacklisted worker sheltering behind a pseudonym) faced being ostracised themselves if discovered.
“Everybody was frightened,” Kirk recalls painfully. “Everybody was accused of being a communist. And to prove that they weren’t, they were pressured to name others who were. Friends turned against friends. It was hateful. Some committed suicide; people suffered terribly.”
In 1960, 13 years after the witch-hunt had begun, one man found the courage to give the first screen credit received by anyone on the blacklist. That man was Kirk Douglas. It could have ended his career; instead, it ended the blacklist.
He had so fervently wanted to make Spartacus that he formed his own production company – named Bryna, after his mother – which his wife still runs today. He was one of the first actors to become an independent producer. His friend, Burt Lancaster, with whom he made seven movies, was another.
Douglas’s parents were illiterate Russian Jews who had emigrated to New York and settled in the small town of Amsterdam. There, surrounded by his six sisters, the young Kirk – who was born Issur Danielovitch – dreamed of becoming an actor. A scholarship from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts moved him closer to his dream, and he made his Broadway debut in 1940 as a singing telegram boy in Spring Again. At that time, he had no interest in being in movies.
“I never had any desire to be a film actor,” he told me some years ago. “I never thought I was the good-looking movie type, which I assumed they wanted. All of my training through college and dramatic school was so that I could become an actor on the stage.”
Despite his preference for theatre, in 1946 he landed his first movie – the classic film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. For more than 50 years he was one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, and many of his films have become classics, among them Gunfight at the OK Corral, Lonely Are the Brave (his favourite) and Cast a Giant Shadow. He has won three Academy Award nominations – and though he has never won an Oscar for his acting, Steven Spielberg presented him with an honorary award in 1996.
“Acting is a youthful profession,” he reflects now, as the midday sun starts to pour through the living room windows. “All children are natural actors, and I’m still a kid. If you grow up completely, you can never be an actor.”
Married twice, his first wife was actress Diana Dill, the mother of his sons Michael and Joel. The marriage lasted seven years, but their friendship has endured to this day. His second marriage, to German-born Anne Buydens, led to two more sons, Eric and Peter. In 2004, Eric died from an accidental overdose, which was a devastating loss that is still agonising for Kirk, who visits his son’s grave every week.
After the massive stroke that rendered him speechless in 1996, Kirk suffered a terrible depression – which, he has said, led him to the point of holding a gun to his head before he concluded that suicide was too selfish an act.
Indeed, he has faced adversity with a stubborn refusal to accede and finds writing cathartic. After surviving a catastrophic helicopter accident that killed two people, he wrote a second memoir, Climbing the Mountain, in 1997. (His first was The Ragman’s Son in 1988). After his stroke, he wrote yet another, A Stroke Of Luck, and in 2002 recovered sufficiently to make another film, in which he played a stroke victim. His resilience has been inspiring, and he’s found himself the poster boy for stroke victims around the world.
Being the patriarch of a dynasty comprised of four sons and seven grandchildren has not been easy for Douglas, who has experienced more than his fair share of tragedy in recent years. Five years after Eric’s death, he saw grandson Cameron (from Michael Douglas’s first marriage) sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for dealing and possessing drugs. Less than a year later, Michael, 67, was diagnosed with throat cancer. Kirk was stricken and immediately flew to New York to be by his oldest son’s side.
Following intensive treatment, Michael announced his cancer to be in remission and is now back at work, currently filming the biopic Liberace in Las Vegas with Matt Damon.
Kirk is thrilled that Michael is working nearby, and he’s getting a kick out of “my favourite actor” playing such an out-of-character role as the dazzling, flamboyantly camp pianist. “I think he will be wonderful,” he chuckles at the thought. “It’s a big challenge for him but he will succeed. I know it.”
Filming on the west coast has meant Douglas has been able to see more than usual of Michael, wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their children Dylan, 12, and Carys, nine, who are normally based in New York. At weekends, it’s one big gathering of the Douglas clan at Kirk’s house just outside Santa Barbara, where his youngest son, Peter, lives with wife Lisa and their four children, aged eight to 19.
All of Kirk’s sons have been involved in film production. But their work doesn’t stop there. Peter also runs the Douglas Foundation, a charitable organisation that has just given $50,000 to the Motion Picture and Television Home for retired actors through their Alzheimer’s division (named Harry’s Haven after Kirk’s father).
“I think being generous is selfish,” reflects Douglas. “Because it makes you feel so good to help other people.
“Some years ago my wife made me sell some famous paintings that we had – Picasso, Miro and so on – to support a campaign to fix all the playgrounds in the schools of Los Angeles. And after 10 years she’s finished the work, in over 400 schools. After that, she established the Anne Douglas Centre for Homeless Women, where she takes women off the street who are homeless and prostitutes, and changes their lives.”
Helping others less fortunate is an example set for him by his mother and it’s one that he hopes to inculcate in his grandchildren. “She influenced me enormously because even though we were very poor, she insisted on giving to others who had even less than we did. I’ve tried to pass that message on to the kids.”
In 1988, Kirk was awarded the highest civilian award in America, the Medal of Freedom, for his humanitarian efforts as an unofficial US ambassador around the world. He’s proud to see Michael following in his footsteps. For almost 25 years, he’s been working as an ambassador for the United Nations, as one of their “Messengers of Peace”.
“I never tried to encourage him to be an actor,” says Kirk. “In fact I tried to discourage him. But I admire him more because he’s a real humanitarian. I admire him for what he does and I’ve been surprised at how hard he works. All my sons have worked hard, and I’m very proud of them. I’ve been very blessed.”
Any regrets, I ask. He answers slowly and softly. “I’m 95 years old. I don’t have much time to look ahead; instead, I look backwards and think of all the mistakes I might have made, what I did and where I could have done better. And I think a lot about my children. I feel sorry because I don’t think that the world is a much better place than when I was a kid. I don’t think we did such a good job, and I hope that they will do a better one.”
Douglas’s personal tragedies and near-death experiences have led to a quest for greater self-awareness. Once notorious for his arrogance and ego (which nevertheless had propelled him to superstardom and business success), he found himself mellowing and learnt humility. It brought him back to his abandoned faith and he grew closer to Judaism, which he had neglected for most of his life.
He has always had a vociferous political voice. Never afraid to speak his mind, he’s put it to good use, now using social media to get his messages across – berating the lack of good teachers in his MySpace blog (he’s the oldest celebrity blogger on the internet), and urging the youth of America to stand up and make changes. They are, he reminds them, the hope of the future.
Concerned about the state of affairs in America today, he nevertheless expresses confidence and optimism that President Obama will handle them if he gets re-elected. “I think he has done a good job under adverse conditions,” he says. “And I think he’s ready to do much more.”
“Democracy is fragile,” Douglas continues quietly. “There will always be incidents that work against us. But I have faith because I am a part of what democracy is. My parents were Russian peasants. They didn’t go to school, but because they took the ship to this country I had a chance to work my way through college, I had a chance to go into the field I wanted to go into. Everyone has a chance. Everybody here can be a movie star or a millionaire.”
He became both but that’s not what fulfils him. He defines happiness as giving to other people, the pleasure he gleans from his sons and especially his 58-year marriage to Anne. Time hasn’t dimmed their feelings for each other. “We’re just two people who love each other,” he says softly.
He may have retired from acting but don’t expect him to take it easy. When he’s not with his trainer or speech therapist, he’s writing. There have been 10 books, six of them autobiographical. He’s also written three novels and a children’s book. And he’s not done yet. There’s a new memoir in the works – Fragments of Memory.
Beyond that, he’s not looking ahead. Savouring each day is Kirk Douglas’s greatest pleasure. “At 95,” he chuckles, “I don’t have the need to prove anything to myself any more.”
Kirk Douglas Still a Political Gladiator
- Created on Friday, 17 August 2012
- Written by David S. Cohen
--from Variety and the Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2012
At 95, some 15 years after a stroke left him battling a speech impediment, Kirk Douglas worries about making himself understood.
He has reason to worry -- not because he has difficulty speaking, but because he still has so much to say.
"The blacklist period was so divisive in the country, much like the period now," he said. "For example, years ago McCarthy was shouting about communists in the Congress, and right now we have Allan West, a representative from Florida, saying there are communists in Congress. And when you say 'Name them,' he refuses. That's fear-mongering.
"And you have (Michele) Bachmann criticizing the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, who I think is doing a very good job, because she has a Muslim assistant, who (Bachmann) thinks is like a terrorist. And that's unsubstantiated.
"So in many ways, when I made 'Spartacus' the climate was similar to the climate we're having now. And what I mean by that is, there are too many Republicans, too many Democrats, and not enough Americans."
Douglas tells more about the blacklist era in his book "I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist," and will appear onstage in a Q&A ahead of a screening of the picture at the Academy's Goldwyn Theater tonight, part of the Acad's "Last 70mm Film Festival" series.
The screen legend met with Variety in the living room of his Beverly Hills home on Friday. He entered briskly, wearing blue track pants, leather moccasins and a white long-sleeved polo. His hair is white now, his shoulders are slightly stooped, his hands are gnarled and wizened. He doesn't sound like the star audiences remember. But there's no mistaking that face. He's still Kirk Douglas.
"When you get to be 95, first of all you're surprised," he said. "Jesus. With the pacemaker, stroke, new knees, I'm a battered 95. But you start looking back. Looking forward, you know your final destination. So you keep taking inventory of your life. And one of those fascinating parts of my life, to me, was making 'Spartacus.'?"
One of the things that still inflames Douglas is the hypocrisy of those years, when writers and actors with suspected communist ties, or those who refused to name others before Congress, were banned from work in the U.S. movie industry.
"I knew so many people whose lives were ruined. One committed suicide," he said. But he recounts in the book that when he revealed to his agent, Lew Wasserman, that he had hired blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo to write "Spartacus" under a pseudonym, Wasserman said, "I know."
In fact, by the time Douglas decided to buck the system and push for Trumbo to get his own name on "Spartacus," it had been an open secret for years that blacklisted writers were working -- but they had to write under pseudonyms, and for greatly reduced fees.
"The studio heads had too much power," said Douglas. "They could have fought people like McCarthy and the others in Washington, but they caved in and they established the blacklist.
"Now they don't have that power, but they have become too much like big business. At least in my day, I think the studio heads tried to make some good pictures, and I think they succeeded in making a lot more good pictures than we make today."
Trumbo, the highest-paid writer in Hollywood before he was consigned to the blacklist, emerges as one of the heroes of Douglas' book, especially in the critical period after helmer Stanley Kubrick screened his first rough cut of "Spartacus."
"Trumbo hated him," said Douglas of the director, "and Kubrick hated Trumbo. Trumbo wrote an 80-page letter to Kubrick, about how Kubrick wanted to make a 'small Spartacus,' and he wanted to make a 'large Spartacus.'?"
Trumbo's view carried the day, and arguably saved the picture.
But Universal didn't entirely embrace the result. The red-baiting years still had the studio brass nervous about releasing anything that seemed to advocate revolution, so large chunks of the movie's politics were neutered.
Part of the drama of getting the movie made were clashes among Universal, Trumbo, Douglas -- who was both star and producer -- and Kubrick, Douglas' hand-picked director.
"I was one of the first to start a production company," he said, "and that changed everything, because it's hard to be the boss and also the star. That's not a good combination. Kubrick certainly didn't like it."
Douglas said that even though the country's political climate is similar today to the bad old days, the climate in Hollywood is different.
"I admire so many of the stars for doing such wonderful things -- George Clooney in Africa, Sean Penn -- and they really give of themselves. And Hollywood is the best ambassador to the world, because they love Hollywood pictures. And when a Hollywood star goes out in the world, he's not a Republican or a Democrat, he's an American."
Douglas rarely watches movies now, including his own. But as part of his research for the book, he watched "Spartacus" again for the first time in 50 years.
What surprised him?
"That it was such a good picture. I took it for granted then, but now I realize that I had such a powerhouse (cast): Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis played a small part ... and Kirk Douglas."
"I think I would cast me again to play that part."
Person of the Week: Kirk Douglas on Helping to Break Blacklist
- Created on Saturday, 30 June 2012
- Written by David Muir, ABC News
ABC World News with Diane Sawyer broadcast a "Person of the Week" interview by David Muir of Kirk Douglas on Friday, June 29, 2012. Here is an article about the interview written by David Muir. For a video clip of the interview itself, please go to: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/06/kirk-douglas-on-helping-to-break-blacklist/
The year was 1960, and Kirk Douglas was staring as Spartacus, but all these years later, it is the role he was secretly playing that he’s now most proud of.
Douglas, 95, survived a stroke a few years back and even though his speech is a little shaky he is more than eager to reveal a story he waited decades to tell in his new book “I am Spartacus!”
In the 1950s, Hollywood was consumed by the blacklist. Writers, producers and actors were called before Congress amid fear they might be Communists. The mere mention of a name was enough to end a career.
“It was the worst time in Hollywood,” Douglas told ABC News. “Everybody told me I was crazy.”
Crazy because as a producer of “Spartacus,” Douglas put his own career on the line, his own fortune, to hire Dalton Trumbo, one of those writers on the blacklist.
Trumbo had been hiding in Hollywood under an assumed name. Douglas’ wife, Anne Buydens, remembered the warnings.
“If you do it … you’ll never work in this town again. You will be declared a Communist,” Buydens said people told Douglas.
But Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo anyway, and “Spartacus” became the top movie.
Even President Kennedy went to see it. The movie wasn’t only a box-office winner, it was also instrumental in breaking the blacklist.
Kirk Douglas: Spartacus Vs. the Blacklist
- Created on Thursday, 28 June 2012
- Written by Patricia Bosworth
by Patricia Bosworth June 27, 2012 / from bio.NOW at www.biography.com
“When I look back on Spartacus today, more than fifty years after the fact, I am amazed it ever happened at all,” 95-year-old Kirk Douglas writes in I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, his account of how he made the epic movie and, in the process, helped break the Hollywood blacklist. “Everything was against us. The McCarthy era politics. Another picture. Everything.”
Spartacus was just one of several projects Douglas had taken on as an independent producer in 1957. He optioned Howard Fast’s novel as soon as he read it, mesmerized by the powerful legend of Spartacus who, as one critic put it, stands for resistance to tyranny: “The story of a slave who lived before Christ and led a slave rebellion against the entire Roman Empire.”
However, there were competing epics: Yul Brynner was about to star in The Gladiators, a similar film, for United Artists, and as a result, no movie studio would touch Douglas’ project except for Universal. Executives there wanted to see a script, but Douglas hedged, knowing Fast’s first draft was not good. And so he telephoned Dalton Trumbo, who had been one of the most prolific screenwriters in the business until the McCarthy era had derailed his career.
In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, D.C., had begun investigating “alleged Communist infiltration in the film industry.” Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, who, along with his colleagues, was jailed for contempt of Congress because he refused to divulge his political beliefs. Following the Hollywood Ten’s refusal to testify, the motion picture industry instituted a blacklist, declaring the group would not get work until they cooperated with the committee and recanted. For the next seven years, Trumbo wrote screenplays under pseudonyms such as “Sam Jackson.”
The Communist paranoia had a domino effect in Hollywood. More directors, producers, and actors were fired because of suspect political affiliations. Douglas hated what was going on and wished it would stop. He had a top-secret meeting with Trumbo, at the time a pariah in Hollywood, and they agreed to work together.
With the blacklist raging on, Trumbo as “Sam Jackson” delivered a terrific screenplay in which Spartacus is transformed from a brute animal to a civilized human being, “a flesh-and-blood man with a heart and soul and a brain,” Douglas writes. (Brynner’s The Gladiators had been edged out by its more expensive and star-studded rival.)
By then, everybody wanted to meet “Sam Jackson.” People asked Douglas for Sam’s phone number, but he put them off. Meanwhile Trumbo composed endless drafts, smoking and drinking in his bathtub with a parrot on his shoulder, as Douglas explains in his book.
Back on set, Douglas had fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and replaced him with the brilliant but cold Stanley Kubrick, who never changed clothes and insulted everyone until Douglas had a stand-off with him in front of the entire cast and crew. Infuriated by Kubrick’s constant rewrites, Trumbo quit, and Douglas realized there was only one way he could get him to return. Douglas told Trumbo he would give him name credit on the film—his real name, not “Sam Jackson.” Trumbo knew it would mean breaking the blacklist.
Dalton Trumbo as he is about to be dragged out of the HUAC hearings for refusing to testify. His lawyer Bart Crum (author Patricia Bosworth's father) stands behind him. (Photo: Bettman/CORBIS)
Douglas kept his word, and in an immensely courageous gesture, he put Trumbo’s name in the credits at the beginning of the movie. The American Legion immediately protested, as did other right-wing groups. Universal had agreed publicly to use Trumbo’s name, but the studio was afraid if the character Spartacus “even appeared to have a chance at overthrowing the Roman Empire, anti-Communist critics would say this was part of Trumbo’s hidden message designed to foment revolution in America.” Douglas had to watch helplessly as Universal removed much of the film’s potentially controversial content.
When Spartacus was released in October 1960, audiences and critics were enthusiastic, and today it’s considered a classic. In later years, friends would congratulate Douglas on breaking the blacklist, but he would maintain, “I just wanted to make a good movie.”
About the author:
Patricia Bosworth is an acclaimed journalist and the bestselling author of biographies on Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Diane Arbus, and Jane Fonda. Bosworth’s father, attorney Bartley Crum, was one of the four lawyers who defended the Hollywood Ten during the HUAC hearings, a period she documents in her memoir Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story.
Essential Film Performances: Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole
- Created on Wednesday, 20 June 2012
- Written by Sarah Boslaugh PopMatters.com
from Sarah Boslaugh PopMatters.com
Under the Radar
Ace in the Hole
(Billy Wilder, 1951)
Journalists don’t come more cynical than Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum, a big-city writer who lands in Albuquerque after drinking, womanizing, and otherwise sabotaging his career. Now he has to hustle up a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, whose only distinction is that it’s the paper published nearest to where his car broke down. Yet Tatum manages to treat even his entrance into town like a royal procession, riding in his towed car as if he were a king touring his lands.
Douglas is on screen for most Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, and the “big carnival” which gave the film its alternate title can be seen as the physical extension of his own corrupt persona. Scorning the paper’s motto, “Tell the truth,” Tatum is only interested in finding a story so big that his reporting will be picked up by the wire services and he’ll be rehired by his old paper in New York. Opportunity presents itself when a local man (Leo Minosa, played by Richard Benedict) is trapped in an abandoned mine; contrary to the rules of ethical journalism, as well as those of human decency, Tatum inserts himself into the story and delays Leo’s rescue in order to milk the potential tragedy for all it’s worth.
It’s worth quite a bit, at least in the short term—news of Leo’s plight draws other reporters, tourists, and politicians, as well as any hustler eager for a chance to work the crowd. The area near the mine quickly comes to resemble the midway of a state fair, complete with cotton candy and rides on the Ferris wheel. Tatum positions himself as the ringmaster of the resulting circus, cultivating a relationship with the naïve Leo and bribing the local sheriff to be sure it’s Tatum’s story and no one else’s.
Ace in the Hole may be the darkest of Billy Wilder’s films, and Chuck Tatum the most unredeemable of his characters; that’s saying quite a bit for the man who directed Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Yet you can’t turn away from Douglas’ performance, which is as luridly fascinating as watching a train wreck in slow motion. Perhaps we, like the fictional crowds in Ace in the Hole, are always ready to witness human tragedy, as long as it’s happening to someone else. Sarah Boslaugh