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At 98, Kirk Douglas Looks Back On His Start in Hollywood

Legendary actor Kirk Douglas is celebrating his 98th birthday Dec. 9, with a book of poems called “Life Could Be Verse” (HCI Books). His storied career began on the Broadway stage, where he says, “I got a few bit parts, and absolutely no press notice” — that is, until “The Wind Is Ninety.”

Do you remember your  first mention in Variety?
In June 1945, I opened in a drama called “The Wind Is Ninety,” playing the ghost of a World War I soldier who takes the ghost of a World War II pilot back to his family to watch them receive news of his death. Although the critic gave it a mixed review — he mostly summarized a plot he found confusing — it was the first time I saw my name in Variety. Miraculously, the play was a hit. In January of 1946, the producers bought an ad in Variety quoting other critics about my performance: “Kirk Douglas is nothing short of superb” and “Kirk Douglas does an inspired job with a difficult role.”

How did you get to Hollywood?
My good friend Lauren Bacall — the toast of Hollywood after her film debut in “To Have and Have Not” — saw the ad. She told producer Hal Wallis to see me in the play. He listened to her. I had a major part in his next movie, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. It was a bigger paycheck than I’d ever gotten. That’s why I came to Hollywood — for the money. It took me a few more flops on Broadway to “settle” for movies. I got used to seeing my name in Army Archerd’s column in Variety.

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What acting achievements are you proudest of?
I opted to play Midge Kelly in “Champion” rather than listen to my agents who advised me to join the A-list cast of “The Great Sinner” at MGM. Ever hear of it? I thought not. Instead I was the antihero in a black-and-white low-budget film by independent producer Stanley Kramer and written by his talented partner, writer Carl Foreman. It won me my first Oscar nomination, and made me a genuine star. That enabled me to start my own production company, Bryna, to make the films that no one else wanted to do, but that I considered important. Like “Paths of Glory,” with Stanley Kubrick; like “Spartacus” from a book by a blacklisted writer, Howard Fast. I hired the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo under the name Sam Jackson. Against advice, I decided to put Dalton’s true name onscreen.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming actors?
You want to know what I wish I could tell my younger self? Don’t do your own stunts! I pay the price every day for my machismo derring-do. Two knee replacements, bad back, etc. But, then, I never anticipated  I’d reach 98. I still can’t believe it, but I’m grateful to be here.

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