Born December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, New York, the son of illiterate Jewish-Russian immigrants, Issur Danielovitch, who would become Kirk Douglas, was driven to leave behind the poverty of his hometown. He won a wrestling scholarship to Saint Lawrence University and worked as a wrestler in summer carnivals in order to meet school expenses. A second scholarship, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, put him on the road to Broadway. He made his Broadway debut as a singing Western Union boy in Spring Again, but interrupted his budding stage career in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare.
After the war he returned to Broadway as the ghost soldier in The Wind is Ninety; his widely-praised performance caught the attention of Hollywood, and he was cast opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He returned to Broadway and did several plays which were not successful.
Three years later, in 1949, his role as one of the screen’s early anti-heroes, the cynical boxer in Stanley Kramer’s Champion, won him both stardom and an Academy Award nomination. He received his second nomination in 1952 for playing an opportunistic movie mogul in The Bad and the Beautiful, and his third in 1956 for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics’ Best Actor Award.
In 1955, Mr. Douglas formed one of Hollywood’s first independent film companies, Bryna, named for his mother, and managed by his wife, Anne. The Bryna Company produced many memorable films, including Paths of Glory, The Vikings, Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, and Seven Days in May.
Shortly after forming Bryna, Mr. Douglas also established the Douglas Foundation in order to make more significant and meaningful contributions to civic and charitable causes. The Douglas Foundation has supported both large organizations (such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center) and small ones (such as the Access Theater for the Handicapped). In recent years, the Douglas Foundation has targeted the Los Angeles Mission for the Homeless, which has opened the Anne Douglas Center for Women, and the Motion Picture Relief Home’s Alzheimer’s Unit, which has been named “Harry’s Haven” after Mr. Douglas’s father. The Douglas Foundation is currently restoring neglected playgrounds of Los Angeles schools, and also building a series of playgrounds in Israel. The Foundation has also committed funds for the building of a theater directly opposite the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem with the aim of helping tourists of all faiths better understand the meaning of Judaism.
In 1958, Mr. Douglas broke the notorious Hollywood blacklist when he gave screen credit to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo for the Spartacus screenplay. Mr. Douglas was widely condemned for his decision at the time. It was not until 30 years later that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Writers’ Guild of America recognized his act as courageous.
In 1963, he bought the dramatic rights to Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and starred in it on Broadway. For the next 10 years he tried unsuccessfully to make the play into a motion picture. Finally in 1975, his son Michael produced the movie, which collected five Oscars including best picture. But the biggest disappointment of his life was that he didn’t play in the film.
In 1981, President Carter presented Mr. Douglas with the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award in recognition of the many trips he had made at his own expense, speaking to audiences all over the world about why democracy works and what freedom means. In addition to visiting more than twenty countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, Mr. Douglas has also visited the war zones of Beirut, Lebanon, and Red Cross hospitals and Afghan refugee camps near the Khyber Pass, delivering the same message.
Mr. Douglas has been honored by governments and organizations of other countries as well, including France, Italy and Portugal. Among the top international awards he received was his appointment, in 1990, as Officier de la Legion d’Honneur for distinguished services to France in arts and letters.
In 1991, the American Film Institute singled him out for its prestigious Life Achievement Award. In its tribute, the AFI noted, “No other leading actor has been more ready to tap the dark desperate side of the soul and thus reveal the complexity of human nature,” and lauded him for his “sense of depth and defiance.” In 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts distinguished him with its award “for contributions to U.S. cultural life.” And in 1996, the Academy of Motion Pictures honored him with a Special Oscar for “50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.” In presenting the award, Steven Spielberg lauded Mr. Douglas for his courage and his conscience. “Whether he’s dealing with a character on screen, or with the all-too-real effects of a recent stroke, courage remains Kirk Douglas’s personal and professional hallmark,” Mr. Spielberg said, adding, “There is a single thread drawing all the characters he has played together. It’s called conscience.”
Kirk Douglas’s conscience has often found an outlet in his movies. For example, through the TV movie Amos, which earned him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, Mr. Douglas tried to focus public attention on the issue of abuse of the elderly. His efforts have also included editorials and letters to newspapers, appearances on national television, and testimony before
the Congressional Select Sub-Committee on Aging.
In 1992, through the TV movie, The Secret, he attacked the social stigma associated with dyslexia. His performance was singled out as the year’s best by the Los Angeles Times critics, and earned him the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia Research Foundation.
In 1991, he had a helicopter crash in which two people were killed and Kirk almost broke his back. This did not stop him from making a movie, but in 1996, he had a stroke which affected his speech. For a time, he believed this would end his career as an actor, but Kirk is stubborn. He kept working with a speech therapist and at the end of 1998, he played the role of a feisty ex-boxer recovering from a stroke in Diamonds—which was released in February of 2000.
When not acting, Mr. Douglas occupies his time writing. His autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, published in 1988, received rave reviews and became an international best-seller. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for a total of 34 weeks. He followed it up with three novels, Dance with the Devil in 1990, The Gift in 1992, and Last Tango in Brooklyn in 1994, and a children’s book, The Broken Mirror in 1997. Also in 1997, Mr. Douglas published a sequel to his autobiography entitled Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning. In it he discusses events since his helicopter crash, the hard work of recovery from his stroke, and his religious awakening in later life, which led to his becoming an ardent student of the Torah. His second children’s book Young Heroes of the Bible was published in October 1999.
Mr. Douglas has been married to his wife Anne for 45 years and is the father of four sons from two marriages: Michael, Joel, Peter and Eric. All four sons are active in the entertainment industry. He divides his time between residences in Beverly Hills and Montecito where he recently bought a second home to spend more time with his grandchildren.
ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met with Mr. Douglas at his Beverly Hills home.
Chet Cooper: I heard you are going to be in a movie with your grandson?
Kirk Douglas: I’m doing a movie, finally, with my son Michael and my grandson Cameron. So, there will be three generations in one
CC: Do you know what it’s going to be about?
KD: Well, it’s a family picture. I think it will be very interesting.
CC: Are you going to start shooting it soon?
KD: I think sometime next year. In the meantime, I have a new book coming out called My Stroke of Luck. The reviews are very flattering. So, I’m going to go on tour for the book and maybe in March I will go to Europe for the book. I like the book. It may be the last book I write, but I don’t know. I’m very pleased, so far, at the reaction it’s getting. I don’t write a book just for me. As a matter of fact, I never read it. After it is published, I don’t like to read it. I wrote it. I don’t have to read it.
CC: So, you wrote it after the stroke, apparently.
KD: Yes. I have had my stroke for three years. In my book, I was trying to tell people how I deal with my stroke—the difficulty that I have to overcome. Then, while writing I realized that what I was writing was my discovery of how to live life. It’s the same way. See…I feel, for example, that no matter what happens to you in life, it could be worse. When I first had my stroke and I couldn’t talk at all I felt—woe is me, woe is me—but, it could have been worse.
CC: Tell me about the accident when you hurt your back.
KD: I almost broke my back in a helicopter crash. It was one of those things that altered my way of looking at life. During times like that, depression is a problem. Everybody gets depressed. So, how do you handle depression? I’ve found the way to deal is to think of other people. Depression is so self-centered. “Oh my God, how could that happen to me?” But, if you try to help other people, it helps you.
CC: When did you come to that understanding?
KD: It was a gradual process. After my stroke I started to think, “What good is an actor who can’t talk?” My wife helped me a lot because…you see, when a person becomes disabled, often their family starts thinking, “Oh dear, don’t move, let me get that for you” and all that. But, when once I told my wife that I thought I wanted breakfast in bed the next morning, she said the old joke, “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen.” (laughs) That’s a good laugh. But, she knows that I need a kick in the ass. She’s so funny. My wife says that she thinks I have to give more speeches since my stroke than before my stroke. Then I’d say, “Oh God, I have to give this speech and I don’t think I’m going to be able to talk.” And she says, “Well, do you have anything to say?” She makes me laugh. A sense of humor is so important. If you can laugh at yourself and laugh at others…it’s very important. I thought my book was going to be an operation manual on how to handle a stroke. As I got into it, I noticed that it was an operation manual for life. Think about other people. That’s very important. We’re all so selfish. I’ve been selfish for a long time.
There are a lot of ways to involve yourself in programs that help other people. I established an Alzheimer’s unit. It’s named “Harry’s Haven” after my father. Harry’s Haven sounds like the name of a saloon. My father played pool. He spent a lot of time in a saloon. I was interested in the Alzheimer’s unit. Not so much for the patients, but for the families. How awful is it to deal with a close one who doesn’t recognize you? You know? Terrible. I think it is one of the best units in the country. There’s a garden there and everything in the garden must be edible. The patients pick leaves and eat them. I’m proud of the unit. My wife has the Anne Douglas Center downtown [Los Angeles]. It’s a place where homeless women and single mothers can go. They have rehabilitation programs. One of the biggest things my wife has done was to encourage me to get involved—mostly with money (laughs)—with the Kirk and Ann Douglas Playground Award. My wife read a LA Times article about the deplorable state of playground and exercise facilities in all of the schools in Los Angeles. I wanted to do something about that. I thought she was crazy…
CC: Well, she did marry you.
KD: Oh! (laughs) These are the jokes! She got together, in one week, a few million dollars to start the program. Tomorrow we’re going to an inauguration of another playground facility. She has done over 160 playgrounds with 300 more to go.
CC: That’s just in the LA area?
CC: Wow, I didn’t know there were that many playgrounds…
KD: Oh my god, yes. Very often I’ll go to a drive-thru or something and somebody will tell me, “My son loves your playground.” So, it gratifies. Am I talking too much?
CC: Yes. (laughs) No, not at all.
KD: (laughs) Even though I can’t talk, I talk a lot.
CC: When did you actually start writing?
KD: My first book was The Ragman’s Son. That was a time in my life when I was moving so fast, doing pictures and I thought, “Wait a minute.” I wanted to take inventory. Where did I come from? Where am I? And where am I going? So, I started to write The Ragman’s Son and it was very helpful for me to take inventory and the book became a bestseller. Then later, things happened to me like the helicopter crash. I almost broke my back, but two young people were killed. And I said, “Jesus, why am I alive?” It made me feel guilty. One of these guys in the accident was 18-years-old. He was getting ready for his senior prom. So, that got me a little bit interested in religion. I guess you could say that started my spiritual journey. Then, I got interested in writing and I wrote three novels: Dance with The Devil, The Gift and The Last Tango in Brooklyn. I also wrote two children’s books… mostly related to the bible from a child’s point of view. Then I wrote what may be my last book, My Stroke of Luck. I like my last book. As I told you, it was so gratifying when I read good reviews of it. If you write a book, you don’t write it for yourself. You write a book hoping that other people will want to share your experiences.
CC: Tell me about the production of the movie Spartacus.
KD: Well… Of course, I only wanted to be an actor. I never thought of being a producer, but I was frustrated because there were certain movies that I wanted to make. So, I formed my company, Bryna, which is named after my mother. I thought it was funny because my mother and father were illiterate peasants from Russia and she had a big production company named after her. One day, we were riding in a limousine in Times Square. There was a big sign and I said, “See ma, Bryna presents Spartacus.” She said, “America is such a wonderful land.” I started the company because I wanted to do Spartacus. I wanted to do the movie called Paths of Glory. My company also made The Vikings, Seven Days in May and Lonely are the Brave… which was really one of my favorites. So, I had the chance to make the movies that I wanted to make.
CC: There was some talk about the blacklist back then…
KD: That’s probably the thing that I am most proud of…breaking the blacklist. The McCarthy Era was shameful, really. I mean, it was one of the darkest days in our history. Everybody was frightened. Everybody was accused of being a communist. Writers were being attacked if they were seen as being very liberal or communist. But, it’s not supposed to be a crime to be a communist. This is a free country. The writer for Spartacus was Dalton Trumbo who spent a year in jail because he refused to give the names of other writers. For ten years, he never went into a studio. He wrote, but he had to use a different name. Trumbo was writing under the name Sam Jackson. Then, one day, I was having a discussion with my producer, Eddie Lewis, and my director, Stanley Kubrick. I asked, “Well, what name are we going to put on the screen? Sam Jackson?” Kubrick said, “Put my name as the writer.” And I said, “Stanley, wouldn’t you feel funny taking the credit?”
I went home that night and I thought, “The hell with it, I’m going to put Dalton Trumbo [in the credits.]” People thought I was crazy. I said, “No. What can happen?” So, I invited Dalton Trumbo to come to the studio—the first time he had been in a studio for ten years. I will never forget. He had tears in his eyes. He said, “Kirk, thank you for giving me back my name.” Many people said, “What are you doing?” But, the sky didn’t fall in and after that blacklisted writers could write [under their own names].