When 96-year-old Kirk Douglas stands up for his ICG Publicists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, his audience will be looking at one of the incontestably great film stars of what’s generally termed Hollywood’s golden age.
The Duke, the King, Coop, Bogey, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck — of all those towering male cinematic figures whose careers lasted roughly from the ’40s through the early ’70s, Douglas at his best was one of the most intense, volatile and incisive.
This being a publicists’ affair, a few who have worked with Douglas remember him for Variety.
“I started in the mail room at Rogers & Cowan,” says Paul Bloch. “If you were young and up-and-coming, they assigned you to Kirk Douglas, who taught you the ropes.
“If you had a Wednesday assignment, he called you first thing Thursday morning to see how it went. If you weren’t needed on a photo shoot, he sent you home to come up with 25 ideas for tomorrow.”
Says Weissman/Markovitz Communications veep Leonard Morpugo, who helps rep the Publicist Guild Awards: “I had just started in the industry and was handling publicity for ‘Spartacus’ in the U.K. in 1961. Kirk came to London to promote the film. This was the first Hollywood star I had met at this point. He was staying at the fancy Claridges Hotel, and we had lunch there to discuss his schedule.
“He ordered a dozen oysters and a bottle of champagne for lunch, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.”
Douglas may have appeared cool, but as executive producer as well as star, he had a lot riding on the success of “Spartacus.” Its $12 million budget grossed $60 million for a Universal Studio teetering on bankruptcy.
More significantly, Douglas tore up the infamous blacklist, arguably the most dishonorable chapter in Hollywood history, by hiring and giving screen credit to banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. (Another bold feature, considering the period, was the strong suggestion in “Spartacus” of homosexual relations between a couple of its principals.)
“It took a lot of guts to do what he did for Trumbo,” says longtime agent Fred Specktor. “Kirk was the face of that movie. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Specktor went on to mention a 1991 accident in which Douglas’ helicopter collided with an airplane. Two people were killed, which led Douglas to re-examine his life and spiritual values — and return to the Judaism from which he’d distanced himself.
“It made him question why he should live while others die,” Specktor says. “It changed his life.”
Adds longtime publicist Marcia Newberger: “One word characterized his acting style before then: anger. He had a tough life, the son of a rag man. He had six sisters. Sometimes there was no food on the table. He had to get out. He hitchhiked from New York all the way up to St. Lawrence University, where he talked his way in. Now he endows the school with five scholarships.”
Newberger listed the numerous charities Kirk and wife Anne support, including $50 million donated in 2012 alone.
“He hasn’t forgotten what it was like coming up,” she says.
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