Kirk Douglas Remembered

Here’s a man who squeezed every bit of life out of 103 years.

Last year, I wrote a blog about Kirk Douglas the producer, to tell a story not many people thought about. Douglas the movie star, was the way most fans knew him. Douglas, the producer, filled in more information about the man, his movie choices and the stories that rang true for him. Douglas, like Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Ida Lupino and others, were crafty producers who brought to life many complex and thoughtful films, and often lost money on them.

This isn’t a bio of his life, there are fine ones out there. This is about how I remember him.

The first Kirk Douglas film I saw? He made a lot of Westerns, and kids loved them, but it was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What a big film, a great adventure, and a child’s imagination soared for two hours. This wasn’t a children’s film, it was suspenseful and a bit of a thriller for young hearts, but children found so much to be enthralled about.

Producer Walt Disney and Douglas on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea location.

Then I happened to see Ace in the Hole on television. I might have been seven or so years old. Ace in the Hole is not the kind of film a child should see, it’s dark and sad, but a brilliant performance by Douglas as a desperate and cold-hearted journalist who lost his humanity.  Written and directed by Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like it Hot), it was a journey through the dark soul of a man on his last days.  I didn’t watch this film for years afterward, it was just too disturbing for me, but I now view it once in awhile, and still marvel at the ugliness in Douglas’ performance.  Douglas was drawn to roles like this even though it didn’t help his marquee value.

Douglas as the reporter who delays the rescue of a trapped man to milk the story.

I probably didn’t look at Douglas the same way after seeing Ace in the Hole. A bit of the role rubbed off on the man.  That’s the danger of pursuing roles that are outside of your marquee boundaries, which is why many top actors did not.  In the 1950s, a few actors scribbled outside the boundaries, a product of film noir and the darkness that crept into films after World War II.  The world had changed and that included the subject matter of films.  Douglas, Lancaster, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda and others found darker, very challenging roles of great depth, that went to some interesting places. It took courage to do this – it didn’t always work.

After that, it was back to cowboy films and many to pick from. Douglas made two Westerns released in 1967, The Way West and The War Wagon.  Of the two, The War Wagon had the longer shelf life as Douglas co-starred with John Wayne.  The War Wagon had a gimmick, an armored stage coach with a Gatling gun to protect the transport of gold.  The other gimmick was a delicate alliance between the Wayne and Douglas characters as they plot to hijack the “war wagon.”  Douglas has the more glamorous role and he makes the most of it as a ladies man, an action star and with a few comic lines of relief.

Douglas and John Wayne in The War Wagon

Douglas was a star and he liked to be in control, he was a producer and had gained great status in Hollywood, but he would take the second role with Wayne and Lancaster in many films.  He still had meaty roles, but he didn’t have to do the main heavy-lifting. Douglas was quite good when he played off of another strong lead.  Some of his best films are co-staring roles. The War Wagon, Seven Days in May, In Harm’s Way, The List of Adrian Messenger, Spartacus, Gunfight at O.K. Coral, Tough Guys.

Douglas as Cactus Jack in The Villain

Douglas, like Lancaster, had a problem getting good roles when they hit middle age.  I didn’t follow him much after the late 1960s.  Many of the films he made didn’t really interest me, and for an older actor, it was challenging in a very different film environment to be offered meaningful films.

The Villain (1979) was an odd film, but delightfully odd, and far from meaningful. Douglas, Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in basically a live-action Road Runner cartoon.  The reviews were pretty negative, but it has a stupid charm to it.  Douglas hams it up and is a walking Wylie E. Coyote trying to take a strongbox of money away from Ann-Margret and Schwarzenegger and failing each time.  What did Douglas have to lose?

Douglas would have a few more major films like The Final Countdown, The Man From Snowy River, Eddie Macon’s Run and Tough Guys, and a few television films, the best of which was Draw! a Western with James Coburn.

From 1949 to 1969, Kirk Douglas did his best work and most people remember his films from this period. Douglas was a good-looking, physically-chiseled guy, with his dimpled chin and confident smile, audiences felt his presence before he ever said a word.  He also had a measured style of speaking that comedians copied for their acts.  Douglas established a persona, good or bad, that stuck with him, like Gable, Stewart, Wayne and Cary Grant.

Like his colleagues, when Douglas gained his clout and ability to produce his own projects, he often alternated big budget films with personal films.  With Paths of Glory, The Vikings and Spartacus, Douglas produced three very big films.

Col. Dax in Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory, a dark view of WWI trench warfare, was directed by Stanley Kubrick who had adapted the novel but no studio was interested.  When Douglas read the script, he wanted to make the film, so he secured the budget and produced the film.  It is a harrowing view of battlefield decisions and the darkness that encircle men.

Douglas in The Vikings

The Vikings was a huge budget, violent saga of two brothers (Douglas, Tony Curtis) vying for a throne and a woman. A sweeping epic with lots of battles and blood.  I’m not sure it has a great legacy other than a popular film at the time and a moneymaker for Douglas who reportedly took 60 percent of the profits instead of a salary.

Spartacus is worth an entire blog. A huge spectacle, large budget and lots of production problems.  Douglas fired the original director and brought in Kubrick to direct under his supervision.  The film was highly successful and has been restored and enhanced in recent years.  It is big and rather exhausting to watch, so make time for it.  Of course, there was the subtext of implied homosexuality in the film, which was muted even more by not including a key scene that gives it meaning.  This was 1960, and you could only push the topic so far.

Filming Spartacus

The other fascinating thing about the Spartacus was the screenwriter credit.  Based on the novel by Howard Fast, it was adapted by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  Of course, he couldn’t be credited for his work. Douglas insisted that Trumbo’s name be listed as the writer, and he left passes at the studio gate under Trumbo’s name, just let people know that Trump was back.  For more than a decade, Trumbo had been forced to write under a pseudo-name, taking far less money for work he wasn’t credited for.  In fact, The Brave One, a film that he wrote, won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, which was written under the name, Robert Rich. It was years later before he was presented with his Oscar.

Douglas as McMurphy. Notice Gene Wilder in the cast.

The other story, which I outlined in my other Douglas blog, concerns his efforts to turn One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest into a film.  Douglas owned the rights for years and starred in a Broadway play version of the novel.  Douglas tried for years to get studio financing but they wouldn’t bite with him as the actor.  Son Michael took over the rights and worked a deal for financing, with Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.  The film of course was a huge hit and won the five major Academy Awards (picture, director, writing, lead actor, lead actress).  Bittersweet for father Kirk, but he knew great material and without him, a film of this caliber might never have been made.

Jimmy Carter, Kirk Douglas
Receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter

Douglas even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1980. Douglas did the usual opening monologue and appeared in a few skits. This wasn’t one of their best shows, but Douglas was game and played along. NBC replayed the episode this week in honor of Douglas’ passing.


I’ll end with this quote from him: “Love me or hate me, just don’t be indifferent.”

Thanks, Mr. Douglas. You were Spartacus.

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