Kirk Douglas, who turns 100 on Dec. 9, claims he’s tired of talking about himself. Despite that, he recently spoke to Variety about his many impressive careers, as an actor (“I never wanted to be in movies”), a producer (including tales of “my peculiar friend Stanley Kubrick”), author (he’s working on his 12th book), and philanthropist (he’s given away more than $120 million).
As an actor, his classic films include “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Lust for Life,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral” and “Seven Days in May.” He also starred in several he produced, such as “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” and the 1962 western “Lonely Are the Brave.”
Douglas has said his proudest accomplishment in Hollywood was to help break the blacklist by giving onscreen credit to writer Dalton Trumbo on the 1960 “Spartacus.”
Douglas had formed Bryna Prods. in 1955, named after his mother. For the company’s second film, “Paths of Glory,” he hired Kubrick as director. The relationship began with a fight after Kubrick made major script rewrites without telling Douglas, who forced him to film the original version. Despite their frequent clashes, Douglas three years later wanted Kubrick to direct the Bryna-Universal film “Spartacus.”
“Difficult? He invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent. I always said he was a bastard, but he was a talented, talented guy,” Douglas says.
Kirk Douglas on his difficult relationship with Stanley Kubrick (VIDEO):
The budget on “Spartacus” ballooned from $4 million to $12 million. Execs at Universal had a lot riding on the film, but Douglas was able to convince them that Trumbo should get credit, though no blacklisted writer had been credited onscreen for more than a dozen years. Douglas says his agent Lew Wasserman advised him on how to deal with Universal. (And Douglas laughs that two years later, Wasserman was running the studio.)
The star-producer forced Kubrick to direct the most famous moment in the film, the “I am Spartacus!” scene. “He didn’t like that scene, but I insisted. We had a little argument,” he says.
Douglas mentions Kubrick’s final film, 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” with a shake of his head. “I have to bear part of the responsibility because I brought Stanley to my psychiatrist.”
During “Spartacus,” the director’s battles with Douglas were so prolonged that Douglas’ wife thought a mutual-therapy session might help. Among other suggestions, the shrink recommended that Kubrick read Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novel “Traumnovelle.” Nearly 40 years later, that novel became “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Douglas says, “It was a lousy picture,” he says with a smile of fake remorse.
Douglas worked with many of Hollywood’s greatest directors: Billy Wilder, John Frankenheimer, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Vincente Minnelli, and William Wyler. Did he fight with them?
“Yes,” he says, with surprise at the silly question. “But I loved them. I was lucky. I worked with all the good directors.”
He continues, “I never wanted to be in movies. I always considered myself a stage actor. I started working in the Broadway stage. And Betty Bacall helped me. She went to Hollywood, she was living with Bogart and she said to Hal Wallis, ‘You must look at Kirk Douglas.’ Hal Wallis came to New York, and he offered me a contract. I didn’t know what to do. I needed the money. So, I came to Hollywood.”
He made an impression in his first feature, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” with Barbara Stanwyck, and then Wallis wanted to put him under contract. But Douglas balked, wanting to take control of his own career. “My actor friend Burt Lancaster signed the contract that I wouldn’t sign.” In 1957, the two of them starred in “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Lancaster was finishing out his contract with Wallis. “I think he got a thousand dollars for the picture and I got half a million.”
Douglas turns suddenly somber. “I am now a hundred years old. I read about Hollywood, and I don’t know the people. Where is Burt? Where is Laurence Olivier? They’re all gone. I miss them. I feel lonely.”
It’s one of the few moments of sadness from Douglas, who is otherwise upbeat and animated. He walks with assistance, and he speaks slowly and carefully, the result of a 1996 stroke. He interrupts the interview by saying, “I hope you understand me, because I used to talk better than this.”
He had the stroke in January 1996, and was scheduled to accept an Honorary Oscar two months later. He debated whether to attend, but decided to show the world that a stroke is not an end to life or brainpower. Since then, he’s been a champion of stroke patients. In 2003, he addressed the topic in his book “My Stroke of Luck” and in 2009, performed a one-man stage show, “Before I Forget.”
After speaking at one public event a few years ago, he asked the organizers for a tape, so he and his speech therapist could work on improving his pronunciations — and this was at age 97.
He and his wife, the Belgian-born Anne Buydens, will be celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary in May. The two live in a single-story house, with a deep-blue pool, in the backyard in Beverly Hills. It’s handsome, roomy and impeccably cared for, but it’s not palatial. Passers-by wouldn’t notice the house, but the interiors are impressive, reflecting the taste of the owners. A wall is filled with a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica and oversized books on such topics as Nelson Mandela and Australia.
Throughout the house are a large Picasso vase, giant Lautrec prints, a Roy Lichtenstein work, plus masks, statues, and other pieces of folk art from various cultures.
In other words, this is the home of world travelers. He often went to far-off locations for the U.S. Information Agency at his own expense, and was a U.S. State Dept. Goodwill Ambassador.
He was representing the U.S. and Hollywood. “I think people don’t realize the importance of movies. Not only do they help audiences, but the actors and actresses help countries. I don’t think the world realizes how much the American industry helps the world. Whenever there is a flood or disaster, American actors come in and help.”
Douglas has done that, and also helps people at home. He and his wife began the Douglas Foundation in 1964, and in the 52 years since then, they have given more than $120 million to various causes.
They include the Motion Picture & TV Fund, where a $40 million donation created Harry’s Haven, named for his father and devoted to helping Alzheimer’s patients and their loved ones, at the MPTV Home.
There have also been $5 million to St. Lawrence University, his alma mater, as well as scholarships, and the renovation of 400 playgrounds in the L.A. Unified School District. And there are the Anne Douglas Childhood Center and the Anne Douglas Center for Homeless Women. In 2015, they donated $2.3 million to L.A.’s Children’s Hospital. There is the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
“I have given most of my money away because that pleases me,” he says. “I was born a poor boy. My mother and father came from Russia; I don’t think they could have gotten into the country today. So I have a lot to be thankful for.
“I didn’t speak English until I went to school. My father was a ragman. We had no money. Nothing. But hobos every evening would come knocking at the door, and my mother always had food for them. She was wonderful. So, my background made me try to do something for other people.”
Douglas has survived several near-death experiences. His wife dissuaded him from getting on the flight in 1958 that killed Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s husband. In 1991, he was in a helicopter that collided with a private plane near Santa Paula in an accident that killed two people.
Douglas claims he’s tired of talking about himself, but he throws a lot of energy into tales like his many attempts to get a film going from Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Douglas had starred in the stage adaptation but the movie was at a dead-end and he gave the rights to his son Michael, who lined up Milos Forman to direct. “I assumed I would be in the picture and Michael said ‘Dad, he thinks you’re too old.’ I was too old!? They told me they cast Jack Nicholson. I said, ‘Who is he?’”
As the conversation winds down, he asks, “Is my speech OK? I didn’t realize when I reached a hundred years old I would be doing interviews. I thought by now I would relax, and I’m doing more interviews than I used to. So whatever it is you’re doing here is unknown to me,” he says with mock annoyance.
“But I think now it’s time for me to relax.”
Then he concludes with a big smile. “We’re doing this again when I’m 200.”