Kirk Douglas’ Former Co-Star, Mitzi Gaynor, on How He Was Always ‘the Ragman’s Son’

Fade In: Soundstage, Universal Studios. Interior — Nightclub. Kirk Douglas, Gig Young and I are rehearsing a scene from our film, “For Love or Money,” a fizzy, frothy 1963 opus in which Kirk and I were cast as a version of “Rock & Doris” in this variation on their fizzy, frothy opuses with elegant sets and witty banter drenched in beautiful Jean Louis costumes. In this scene, Kirk and I are having an argument that plays out on a dance floor as we gyrate to the then-popular dance craze, the Twist.

I was casually observing Kirk’s preparation for the dance, which seemed very Method, very interpretive. “What is that, Kirk?” I asked demurely. “It’s the Twist,” he answered with all the confidence of Spartacus. When I assured him, again demurely, that what he was doing bore more resemblance to the “March of the Wooden Soldiers” than the Twist, he agreed to let me teach him. The result was one of the funniest scenes in the picture, not because of the dance Kirk learned on the spot from me, but rather because he was just as deft handling a comedic bit of dialogue as he was brilliantly tearing through “Champion,” which earned him his first Academy Award nomination, or “Ace in the Hole,” or “The Bad and the Beautiful,” or any of the myriad cinematic masterpieces that he made even better by the sheer force of his amazing talent.

That dance lesson, which came early in the production, was an icebreaker for us. I didn’t really know Kirk when we started the picture, other than feeling the same shared camaraderie all of us who were fortunate enough to toil in the business of show felt, in those golden glory days when there really was a “Hollywood.”

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Another icebreaking moment came when he wondered aloud what his motivation for crossing the room during a scene was. When I assured him his motivation was money, he got the joke. His laughter helped cement the relationship we shared throughout the weeks of making the picture.

Thinking back on it now, I realize he may have fed me that obviously “actor with a capital A” line, already knowing the response it would elicit, in an effort to make me comfortable. That’s the generosity I choose to remember lo these many years later.

When I think of Kirk now, the movie versions of him and the real-life man I knew mingle closely in my memory. He could be brash and imposing and, as the oft-used expression goes, larger than life, but underneath all of that bravado, he was still the ragman’s son. Still the eager-to-please, rough-and-tumble boy who grew up in Amsterdam, New York. I think all of us who marveled at him on screen could sense that.

Years later, I watched a television interview during which a reporter praised him about the fact that he’d truly lost himself playing Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life.” Kirk astutely answered by saying he couldn’t really lose himself in a performance because there were things he had to worry about — like his lines, hitting his marks and everything else he needed to accomplish in a scene with a hundred-person crew that wanted to break for lunch looking on. The practicality of his answer really resonated with me. He settled on the fact that he’d almost lost himself in the role. I think it’s that “almost” that made him such a brilliant actor and producer. He could balance the “almost” in the smoke-and-mirrors world of making movies better than just about anyone else, and movies are all the better for it.

I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to make a picture with him, grateful for the many gifts he left to all of us, and grateful for the fact he let me teach him how to dance the Twist back at Universal all those years ago. It’s a memory, and a man, I’ll cherish always.

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