Kirk Douglas was Mr. Hollywood. That’s not just because of his acting and producing career: The iconic actor, who died Wednesday, was a constant presence at showbiz-related functions, whether the opening of a theater, a charity event, political fund-raiser or awards show. His 1996 stroke slowed him down, but only temporarily.
Douglas enjoyed being the ham and playing to the crowd, but these public appearances were aimed at shining a light on others, not on himself. Long before it was fashionable, he and wife Anne formed a charitable organization, the Douglas Foundation in 1964. Among other initiatives, it funds programs to improve school campuses and playgrounds, hand out scholarships, foster an early-education program at Sinai Temple and backs the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Women’s Cancer Research Fund.
One of his pet causes was the Motion Picture TV Fund. After years of supporting the organization, both with appearances and donations, he and Anne in July 2012 gave $20 million to the organization, to help meet its $350 million goal.
The actor also was ready to appear at industry functions, such as his numerous Oscar stints. Those included two memorable ones, 50 years apart: In 1958, he and Burt Lancaster sang a duet, “Great Not to Be Nominated,” spoofing the year’s contenders (and mostly mocking themselves); in 2011, at age 95, he flirted onstage with co-presenter Anne Hathaway.
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The latter marks one of his appearances after his 1996 stroke. Many celebs have retreated from the public eye when coping with health issues. Not Douglas. The stroke affected his speech, which at first made some audiences uncomfortable as he struggled with words. But he approached his condition in the same way he approached other situations: With brashness, directness and humor. He became a poster boy for stroke awareness.
In 2009, he starred in “Before I Forget,” an autobiographical show that talked about his stroke; the play debuted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, which had opened in 2004 thanks to the Douglas Foundation.
At the AFI Awards in January 2011, he spoke before a room full of showbiz heavyweights. He said he was thrilled to see the young actors at the luncheon: “I wanted to run up to them and say, ‘Hey, I used to be in pictures!’ ”
He also talked about hiring Dalton Trumbo to script “Spartacus,” with the intention to give the onscreen credit to another writer, as was the habit when using blacklisted talent. But, he added, “You know, 50 years ago, I was much younger, more impulsive. I gave orders to put Dalton Trumbo’s name on the screen and I insisted that he come to the studio every day. My friends said, ‘Kirk, you’re never going to work again.’ But when you’re young, you don’t scare easily. You know, I began to think, ‘I am Spartacus!’ ”
“Spartacus” in 1960 marked one of the first times that a blacklisted screenwriter got onscreen credit. Earlier in the year, Otto Preminger announced Trumbo as the writer of “Exodus” and Paramount in April 1960 released “Chance Meeting,” a European film written by Ben Barzman and directed by Joseph Losey, both blacklisted.
As a producer, Douglas exhibited great taste, with his Bryna Prods. backing such films as “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Spartacus” (1960), “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) “Seven Days in May” (1964).
Here’s some of the directors he worked with: Robert Aldrich, Michael Curtiz, Stanley Donen, John Frankenheimer, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Vincente Minnelli, Otto Preminger, Jacques Tourneur and Billy Wilder. He wanted to work with Hollywood’s best, and they wanted to work with him. He was a smart businessman, but packaging and deal-points were not primary considerations in his career choices: The top priority was creating a great film.
As an actor, his style was so unique that it was imitated endlessly by standup comics. Douglas had so much acting energy, he looked like he would jump off the screen and punch you in the face if you weren’t paying attention. But, of course, you WERE paying attention.
He could play heroes or villains, but was best at juggling a combination of the two, such as in Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole.”
But offscreen, he was always the hero.