There are certain actors who, when you think of their names, one role or film immediately comes to mind. James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause. Charlton Heston and The Ten Commandments. John Wayne and... well, John Wayne. For some, these roles defined their careers. When most people think of the name Kirk Douglas, almost immediately the 1960 classic Spartacus comes to mind. However, while the film was an extraordinary accomplishment for Douglas - in so many more ways that just his epic performance - Kirk Douglas is in no way simply defined by that one role.
Born from Russian immigrants in 1917 as Issur Danielovitch, he later took on the name Kirk Douglas, which he legally adopted, while performing on the stage in New York City. He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts under scholarship and performed alongside such classmates as his future first wife, Dianna Dill, with whom he had his first son, Michael Douglas, with, and a woman named Betty Joan Perske, who the world would later know as Lauren Bacall. Douglas had no desire to act in film and desired to be a successful stage actor. When Bacall persuaded producer Hal B. Wallis to look at Douglas for his film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Douglas landed the role, moved to Hollywood and started his legendary film career. While his epic turn in Spartacus helped launch him into the acting stratosphere, it was his work behind the camera as a producer that is even more significant. The film was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous "Hollywood 10" - the group of screenwriters incriminated by Senator Joseph McCarthy who was blacklisted from the Hollywood system. Douglas, who also produced Spartacus, took a stand and used Trumbo's real name in the credits, the first major blow that helped put an end to the McCarthy Era blacklisting in Hollywood.
I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Douglas - who will celebrate his 92nd birthday this coming Tuesday - over the phone about his extraordinary career, and here's what this screen legend had to say.
After coming back from the war, you were cast in your first film role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.Kirk Douglas: You know, I never wanted to be in movies. In a sense, I'm still a failure because I wanted to be a star on the stage. The first time I had got an offer to come to Hollywood, I turned it down. I said, 'No, I'm an actor of the stage.' Then Michael was born and I had just come out of the Navy and I was broke. I went to Hollywood to test for Martha Ivers and I thought I was going to play the part that Van Heflin played (Laughs). But they wanted me to play the part of Barbara Stanwyck's husband, so I played that. Then when I finished the movie, I went back to Broadway and did another flop.
You're well-known as playing characters that you described as 'sons of bitches.'
Kirk Douglas: Well, you know, really a bad guy is more interesting, dramatically, than the good guy. I've played some good guys as well, in Spartacus, Paths of Glory and my favorite picture, Lonely Are the Brave, so I had a mixture of parts in my life.
Of course, of course. Spartacus is the one that obviously comes to mind the most, but what I was really intrigued by was how you helped stop the McCarthy Era of the Blacklist.Kirk Douglas:Kirk Douglas: Well, you know, when I made Spartacus during the McCarthy Era, we were losing our freedom. It was an awful, awful way. McCarthy saw Communists everywhere, in every level of government and they concentrated on Hollywood and especially on Hollywood writers. When I produced Spartacus, the writer was Dalton Trumbo, who spent a year in jail because he would not answer McCarthy's questions about other people. He submitted the picture under the false name of Sam Jackson. I was embarrassed, so during the picture, I couldn't take it anymore. I said I'm going to use Dalton Trumbo's name, and people said, 'Kirk, you will never work again.' But I was young and impulsive and I did use Dalton Trumbo's real name on Spartacus and the blacklist was broken.
What kind of resistance did you encounter, because that was the first time that anybody had done that in that time? People were speaking out against that when you decided to use his real name.
Kirk Douglas: Walter Winchell criticized me and there was other people, but the sky didn't fall down, and I kept working.
You're also well-known for your films with Burt Lancaster as well, but I read that you guys weren't exactly the best of friends off the screen.
Kirk Douglas: You know, when you get old, Brian, the worst thing is you lose so many friends. Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne. People who I loved to work with. With John Wayne, we argued all the time and we made four pictures (Laughs). With Burt, I made five pictures. I miss those guys. When you get to my age, you find that most of your dear friends are gone.
I read that you originally were set to play Colonel Trautman, in First Blood, and you wanted them to keep the original ending from the novel, but they wouldn't do it.Kirk Douglas: Oh, yes. I was going to play in First Blood, but I suggested to changing it and I dropped out. I said to Stallone, 'You know, I almost stopped you from making millions of dollars,' because in my suggestion, I killed his character at the end of the picture (Laughs). Then there wouldn't be so many successful sequels. We laughed about it.
You've also directed two pictures as well.
Kirk Douglas: I directed two films, not very successfully, and after that, I went back to being an actor and a producer.
Was that something you wanted to do more of?
Kirk Douglas: Not really. I have a great respect for actors like Clint Eastwood, who's a wonderful director. I think two pictures that I directed were not successful, so I decided not to make any more.
I really enjoyed you in It Runs in the Family, with your sons. What was that like, making that picture with your family?
Kirk Douglas: That was an interesting picture. I felt it was a picture that, after I'm gone, my family would like to see it. It was a wonderful mixture of people in my family. I'm so proud of Michael because my biggest disappointment in my career was caused by Michael. See, I bought the book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I paid to have it made into a play and I played in it for six months. I came back and I tried to make it into a movie, without success. Michael was just leaving the TV series The Streets of San Francisco and he said, 'Dad, let me try it.' I thought, 'Well, if I couldn't make it...' So, I gave it to him and he got the money, the director and the cast. The biggest disappointment for me, I always wanted to play McMurphy. They got a young actor, Jack Nicholson. I thought, 'Oh God. He will be terrible.' Then I saw the picture and, of course, he was great in it! That was my biggest disappointment that turned out to be one of the things I'm most proud of because my son Michael did it. I couldn't do it, but Michael did it.
So Michael has been a huge success throughout the years. What do you think of his career as a whole?Kirk Douglas: Michael is, I think, a great actor. He's made some very interesting pictures. When he was going to college, I was very proud of him, but when he said, 'Dad, I want to be in a play,' he had a bit part. I went to see it and Michael said, 'Dad, how was I?' I said, 'You were terrible.' I thought he would go on to be a lawyer and in three months, he was in another play and I went and, I must admit, he was great. I think he has been good in everything he's done.
That's great. It was recently announced that Spartacus was going to be made into a TV series. Had you heard about that at all?
Kirk Douglas: As a matter of fact, it could be a very good TV series. I don't know anything about it. But I think it's a good idea.
Finally, with so many amazing feats on the screen and off the screen, what would you like people to think of when they think of Kirk Douglas?Kirk Douglas: I would want them to think that I am an American. I have always been grateful that my Russian mother and father came to this country to give me a better chance, and I have had a better chance. Now, I'm concerned that the world is a mess. That's why when I wrote my last book, Let's Face It, I dedicated it to the younger generation because, let's face it, the world is in a mess. Right now, the young people will inherit that mess. I think we have to do everything we can. I think the election of Obama was a great step to prove to the world that we believe that all men were created equal. I think it will show that we have humility. For two years, I have been trying to create a campaign to have our country make an apology for slavery, for the way that blacks were treated before the Civil War and after the Civil War. I think that Obama was elected because young people are starting to get interested in their country and I think that's a very healthy thing. If I can get enough signatures, to present an apology to slavery, I will present it to the President. The House of Representatives has already passed the resolution for the apology, but it has to pass the Senate. I think, in spite of all our problems, I think we're in the right direction.
Absolutely. Well, that's about all I have for you, sir. Thank you so much for your time today.
Kirk Douglas: You bet. Thank you very much.
Kirk Douglas turns 92 years old on Tuesday, December 9, and you can wish this extraordinary man a happy birthday on his MySpace page.