Issur Danielovitch, otherwise known as Kirk Douglas, passed today age 103. Cheers, salutes and celebrations for a truly legendary fellow — an ego-driven, headstrong, no-nonsense hardhead, thinker and studly swaggerer during his day. A real pusher, doer, striver. It’s funny but all of that hard-nosed stuff has fallen away now that he’s left the earth, and all I’m hearing in my head right now is Alex North‘s Spartacus overture.
Douglas was one of the first male superstars to adopt a persona that was about more than just gleaming white teeth and manly heroism, although he played that kind of thing about half the time. But Douglas also dipped into the dark side, portraying guys who were earnest and open but hungry, and who sometimes grappled with setbacks and self-doubt and hard-fought battles of the spirit.
Douglas’s peak years as a reigning superstar and a producer-actor known for quality-level films ended 56 years ago with his last steady-as-she-goes lead in a fully respected film — John Frankenheimer‘s Seven Days In May (’64).
Douglas kept working and writing and flooring the gas as best he could, but out of his 103 years only 15 were spent at the very top.
He broke through at age 33 as a selfish go-getter in Champion (’49) and then fed the engine with 19 or 20 high-calibre films — Young Man with a Horn (’50), The Glass Menagerie (’50), Ace in the Hole (’51), Detective Story (’51), The Big Sky (’52), The Bad and the Beautiful (’52), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (’54), The Indian Fighter (’55), Lust for Life (’56), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (’57), the masterful Paths of Glory (’57), The Vikings (’58), The Devil’s Disciple (’59), Strangers When We Meet (’60), Spartacus (’60), Town Without Pity (’61), Lonely Are the Brave (’62), Two Weeks in Another Town (’62) and finally the Frankenheimer film.
Big stars will sometimes flirt with journalists from time to time. They’ll turn on the charm for a week or two and then “bye.” I was one of Douglas’s flirtations back in ’82, for roughly a month-long period between an Elaine’s luncheon thrown by Bobby Zarem on behalf of the yet-to-shoot Eddie Macon’s Run, and then the filing of my New York Post piece about visiting the set of that Jeff Kanew-directed film in Laredo, Texas.
I hit it off pretty well with Douglas during the luncheon, in part because I talked about how much I admired Lonely Are The Brave and how Eddie Macon seemed to be roughly similar to that 1962 classic (i.e., a tough lawman pursuing a sympathetic, good-guy outlaw). Douglas talked about anything and everything at the luncheon, and I remember his being fairly wide-open with his impressions about Stanley Kubrick (i.e., “Stanley the prick”), with whom he’d famously partnered on Paths of Glory and Spartacus.
Our Laredo interview happened between takes. Neither of us regarded Eddie Macon’s Run as anything more than a servicable B-level programmer so we mostly discussed Douglas’s career hallmarks, and to my satisfaction he realized early on that I knew all about his good films. All those years and years of watching Douglas’s older films, and now all that TV time was paying off like a slot machine.
I told him I half-loved the foyer freakout scene with Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. And much of The Devil’s Disciple. And almost all of Champion. And every frame of Paths of Glory and Lust for Life and Lonely Are The Brave. And then I made an attempt at quoting his “eight spindly trees in Rockefeller Center” speech from Ace in the Hole. Douglas was drinking a bourbon (or something fairly stiff), and I remember his leaning forward at this point and saying, “You’ve really done your homework.”
His work on Eddie Macon’s Run ended that day, and he offered me a lift back to Houston in a small private jet, during which time I heard all kinds of great stories, including some amusing particulars about Henry Kissinger‘s randy exploits in the early ’70s.
After my Post article appeared Zarem told me that there was some consternation at Universal because the piece had focused too much on Douglas’s storied career and not enough on Eddie Macon’s Run. “It’s not the end of the world,” Zarem said, but the Universal publicists who’d approved my journey to the set felt they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. I told Zarem that I’d done my best to pay appropriate lip service to the film, but that shooting the shit with Douglas about the good old glory days was a lot more interesting.
I spoke with Douglas a couple more times after the piece appeared, and sat next to him at an off-Broadway performance of The Man which his son Eric (who died in July 2004 after a fairly turbulent life) was starring in.
We met a year and a half later at some swanky event at L.A.’s Century Plaza, and I had the distinct impression that Douglas didn’t remember a thing from our day in Laredo. Celebrities are like that sometimes. They say hello to several new people every day. The mind can’t store it all.