‘Spartacus’: Kirk Douglas still a political gladiator

Ahead of Monday night's Academy screening, the 95-year-old thesp-producer recalls his battles to make the epic and to break the Blacklist

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.

In fact, he speaks more than well enough, and these days he’s talking about the making of the 1960 epic “Spartacus,” how it helped bring an end to the Hollywood blacklist, and how much today’s political landscape echoes those dark times.

“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.

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“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.”