'Fresh Air' Remembers Hollywood Star Kirk Douglas

Feb 7, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 12:42 pm
Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Kirk Douglas, a leading man in Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s, died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 103 years old. Douglas was known for his muscular good looks and a voice that often broke with emotion in dramatic scenes. He grew up in poverty, the son of poor, illiterate Jewish immigrants. He started acting in college, changed his name and got into movies after serving in the Navy in World War II. He would eventually make more than 70 films, winning three Oscar nominations for best actor but never capturing the prize. In 1996, he accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards ceremony after coming back from a debilitating stroke. His son is the actor Michael Douglas.

Here's a sampling of some of Kirk Douglas's memorable performances. He was a trumpet player in the 1950 film "Young Man With A Horn."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN")

KIRK DOUGLAS: (As Rick Martin) What a dope I was. I thought you were class, like a real high note you hit once in a lifetime. That's because I couldn't understand what you were saying half the time. Oh, you're like those carnival joints I used to work in - big flash on the outside, but on the inside, nothing but filth.

DAVIES: He played the leader of a slave revolt against the Roman Empire in the 1960 spectacle "Spartacus."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPARTACUS")

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) What are we, Crixus? What are we becoming - Romans? 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.

DAVIES: In "Lust For Life" in 1956, Kirk Douglas was the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUST FOR LIFE")

DOUGLAS: (As Vincent Van Gogh) I want nothing but to work, only I can't. I'm in a cage, a cage of shame and self-doubt and failure. Somebody believe me. I'm caged. I'm caged. I'm alone. I'm frightened.

DAVIES: And in 1951, he was a cynical disgraced reporter in "Ace In The Hole."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ACE IN THE HOLE")

DOUGLAS: (As Chuck Tatum) I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways. I can write them, edit them, print them, wrap them and sell them.

PORTER HALL: (As Jacob Q. Boot) Don't need anybody right now.

DOUGLAS: (As Chuck Tatum) I can handle big news and little news, and if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.

DAVIES: And a year after that role, Douglas played an unprincipled Hollywood producer in the 1952 film "The Bad And The Beautiful."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL")

DOUGLAS: (As Jonathan) Well, congratulations. You've got it all laid out for you so you can wallow in pity for yourself - the betrayed woman, the wounded doe with all the drivel that goes with it going through your mind right now. Oh, he doesn't love me at all. He was lying. All those lovely moments, those tender words - he's lying. He's cheap and cruel. That little woman Lila - well, maybe I like Lilas. Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while. Maybe everybody does. Or don't you remember?

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Kirk Douglas in 1988 after his autobiography "The Ragman's Son" was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You started off in your first movie playing someone who is pretty weak in the film...

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: ..."The Strange Love"...

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: ..."Of Martha Ivers." 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 have 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...

DOUGLAS: Well...

GROSS: ...And that affecting the kind of roles...

DOUGLAS: Well, you know...

GROSS: ...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? And 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.

You just read me a section where Kazan says that I just have that indomitable spirit. He must've been carried away by some other movie because if you look at "Lust For Life," the pathetic, you know, tragic aspects of a man who really didn't know what he was, who couldn't sell a painting, who wasn't sure that he - was he a homosexual? He didn't know quite what he was. And that - those were the facets of the character that excited me, 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 love to play parts or try to find parts with different dimensions. You see, Terry, if I play a strong man in a 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: You were one of the first actors to actually start their own production studio. You produced "Lust For Life," which you were just talking about. You produced...

DOUGLAS: No.

GROSS: ..."Spartacus."

DOUGLAS: No.

GROSS: You didn't produce that?

DOUGLAS: I didn't.

GROSS: I thought you did do that.

DOUGLAS: I wanted to produce "Lust For Life." I've...

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry - my mistake.

DOUGLAS: ...Produced "Spartacus," "Vikings" "Paths Of Glory," "Lonely Are The Brave." I wanted to produce "Lust For Life," and I went to buy it and found - MGM said, we own it. And I said, oh, I want to play that part. And I ended up playing the part with Vincente Minnelli, but I didn't produce it, no.

GROSS: Why did you want to start your own production company? Did you feel like you didn't have enough freedom...

DOUGLAS: Well...

GROSS: ...As an actor?

DOUGLAS: You know, because that was a very unique thing at that time. But I wanted a production company so that I could find something that I wanted to do and then try to develop it. And sometimes, I was very successful at doing that - "Spartacus," "Paths Of Glory." But sometimes, I was very unsuccessful, as when I bought "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and had it for 10 years and shopped it all over town. And nobody wanted to do it until my son Michael said, look, Dad. Let's be partners. Let me see if I can get the money. And he went outside of the industry and got the money, and the rest is history.

GROSS: I want to talk to you a little bit about the film "Spartacus," in which you both starred and produced. You had starred in "The Vikings," and you write in your new autobiography "The Ragman'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, 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. I always forget that (laughter).

DOUGLAS: But it doesn't matter. You see, it's just that Americans have a rougher speech pattern.

GROSS: Oh.

DOUGLAS: For example, I often think that Shakespeare very often is better-played 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...

DOUGLAS: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Refined sound.

DOUGLAS: 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, and that's one of the reasons that Spartacus is so important to me because...

GROSS: Well, that's right. Well, 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?

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, as 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. They're denied using their talents except behind the scenes. Studio heads would look the other way while a lot of these underfunded 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 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 bound to - they said, you know, you're going to get out of the business and all that. I said, you know, the hell with it. I want to do it. And the next day, I left "The Past" (ph). Dalton Trumbo hadn't been on a set in 10 years. I left "The Past" (ph) 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 mean, I'll never forget when Dalton Trumbo walked on the set, came over to 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.

DAVIES: Kirk Douglas speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Douglas died Wednesday at the age of 103. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to the interview Terry Gross recorded with actor Kirk Douglas in 1988. Douglas died Wednesday at the age of 103. When we left off, they were talking about Douglas' starring role in the historical epic "Spartacus."

GROSS: Let me play a clip from the movie, and this is toward the end of the first half of the film. Remember, this movie had an intermission (laughter). Spartacus and many other slaves have escaped from slavery. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPARTACUS")

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

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's 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.

IRELAND: (As Crixus) 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 Dionysus) 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 #1: (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 #2: (As character) They've got the biggest fleet in the world. I was a galley slave with them. Give them enough gold, and 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.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (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. I think the battle scene in "Spartacus," where the slave army and the Roman army fight, is one of the most interestingly choreographed movie battle scenes. The slaves are masked in almost a checkerboard foundation - formation. There are people - in the slave and the Roman army, as far as you can see, it is this huge vista of people (laughter). I'm wondering what your most vivid memory of being in the middle of all of that is?

DOUGLAS: Well, you see, all of that was historically accurate. We studied how Romans fought and how they arranged their armies. We shot the entire picture in the United States, except for those scenes, which we shot in Spain because you needed so many people. And we used lots of Spanish soldiers. The battle scenes were all shot in Spain because it needed thousands of people.

GROSS: There is a scene at the end that is a mass crucifixion, and you're 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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

DOUGLAS: ...So that you wouldn't be sagging down in a very unattractive position.

GROSS: You quote your wife in your book, who once said to you, it's an unnatural life just being wrapped up in make-believe characters. You've played so many different characters through the course of your career. Were you ever confused about who you really were as opposed to who the characters you played were?

DOUGLAS: Well, the only time I encountered something similar to that was in playing "Lust For Life." Van Gogh really was a painful character to play. And shooting a picture - we shot at Auvers-sur-Oise and (unintelligible) Les Baux (ph) - all the places that Van Gogh lived. And when I came to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh died, and I had this stubby, red beard and kinky, red hair and the outfit, a lot of the old timers there said, (speaking French). They actually felt as if Van Gogh had come back, so there was an amazing resemblance that I must have had to Van Gogh, and that all affected me. And the poignancy of that role did really get to me. I never watched "Lust For Life" until about six months after it was finished. I just didn't want to even be close to it. It was a painful experience.

GROSS: 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, there was talk of - and they did. They filled it up with putty.

GROSS: Oh, really?

DOUGLAS: And 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DOUGLAS: 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 that was the end. I mean - 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: No, because if I wanted to play - oh, I would do that, if there was a real reason where I wanted someone to have, like, a big lantern (ph) jaw and covering up this dimple in my chin would give me that effect. I would do it if it's - 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's sake. I am what I am. I can't change that.

DAVIES: Kirk Douglas speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Douglas died Wednesday at the age of 103. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Russian movie "Beanpole." This is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.