Kirk Douglas: Hollywood Legend

Visiting The Actor, <b> Mike Wallace</b> Flashes Back To Past Interviews

When Kirk Douglas and his son, Michael, announced the best picture award at the Oscars last month, they entertained the audience with their family banter. Now, they're hoping to entertain audiences this weekend when their new film opens around the country. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.

This movie is a comeback of sorts for 86-year-old Kirk Douglas. Fact is, it's remarkable that he's still acting at all.

Over the past decade Kirk Douglas has survived a dreadful helicopter crash and then a debilitating stroke that left him unable to speak. But neither of those obstacles were enough to stop the great Spartacus, who is now appearing in his 85th film.


I visited Douglas on the set of that new film -- which, for the two of us, was a reunion. We've been friends for almost half a century.

This movie, "It Runs In The Family," is special for Kirk. For the first time, he and his son are starring together, and they're joined by the third generation of Douglas actors -- Michael's son, Cameron.

Michael spoke about why he and his father are doing this film now.

"I mean, we were happy and looking forward to doing it in the twilight years," says Michael, laughing. "I don't think early in my career [I was] saying, 'Gee, I just can't wait to do a picture with the old man.' But as time got on in both of our careers, absolutely I think we wanted to do a picture together."

So how come they never did one before?

"He always wanted to play the good guy, you know," says Michael. "That was a big problem."


We'll hear more about that in a moment. But first, we'll go way back to my first interview with Kirk 45 years ago, back when we were a couple of kids.

WALLACE: Good evening. I shall ask Kirk Douglas -- you see him behind me -- to answer the charge that Hollywood films misrepresent America abroad.

Kirk, first of all, let me ask you this. Why do so many Hollywood stars fear to stand up and speak their minds on the problems that affect all of us, about themselves?

DOUGLAS: Well, Mike, that's very easily answered. To begin with -- to specify for instance, on your own show -- now, I've never seen any of your shows before. But I've heard quite a bit about you. You're supposed to be a pretty rough boy. You're supposed to punch pretty hard in the clinches.

Now, an actor is geared to play a role. But on the other hand, when I am sitting here now being myself, that's the most difficult thing in the world for an actor, and certainly for me.


"I was so young, my god," remembers Douglas.

1957. Those were the early glory days for Douglas, days that lasted for decades. But then came a helicopter crash, from which he was the sole survivor. And after that, the stroke, which hit about four years ago.

"I was in my den having a manicure, which I need now, and suddenly I have a peculiar sensation like a line going right across my cheek," says Douglas. "It was not very painful, but when I tried to talk, babble."

It took months for Douglas to learn to speak again, and during that recovery he was hit with still another disease. Depression.

"That's the worst thing about a stroke," says Kirk. "In my case, what is an actor who can't talk? He waits for silent pictures to come back? I mean, you get so depressed. I had suicidal impulses."

Kirk wrote about depression and suicide in what he calls a stroke handbook: "My Stroke Of Luck." He wrote about the day he felt so despondent that he actually loaded a gun, and put the trigger in his mouth. But when the barrel of the gun hit his tooth, it caused such awful pain that he pulled the gun out.

"And I'm lucky," says Kirk, looking back at that time. "I'm really lucky. Because no matter what happens to you in life, it can always be worse."

Now for a moment, we go back to my 1992 interview with Kirk -- and a question I delighted in asking him about.

WALLACE: You had a reputation as a real horse's behind in this town, a very difficult guy for years. Why? Where did that all come from, Kirk?

DOUGLAS: It shows what a good actor I am because I really am the sweetest.

WALLACE: Come on. Everybody says that in the old days, you were an exceeding … even your own kids said you were very difficult.

DOUGLAS: They didn't say I was a horse's ass, did they?

WALLACE: No they did not.


He was 75 then, and with just fifteen minutes of hard workout each day, he was more fit than most men half his age. And, he was never shy about flaunting what he had.

"That's not bad is it, for a guy that's only 41 years old," says Douglas about his physique in "Champion," his first big hit.

"What is old? A dog dies at 14. Tortoises live over 100. The poets say, grow old along with me; the best is yet to be."

And that, as we said, was 10 years ago. Since then, and since that stroke, the hard-charging Kirk says he's mellowed. And his son Michael agrees.

"I think he has changed a lot," says Michael. "He had much less patience before, a hot temper which is totally changed in these years of a whole new chapter, really, that I see."

Was it tough being his son?

"Dad's done 85 movies. So he had years of growing up. He'd do like four pictures a year. He wasn't around much, right?" says Michael to Kirk. "But he always tried. Guiltily sometimes. But he always tried."

And what kind of a grandfather is Kirk to Cameron?

"He's a great grandfather," says Michael's son, Cameron.

Today, the three of them are working together. In the picture, "It Runs In The Family," there's a bit of art imitating life. Kirk plays the father of Michael's character. And Michael plays the father of Cameron's character.

"When I had my stroke, Michael said to me, 'Well, Dad, we were working to find a project to do together,'" remembers Kirk. "So when I had my stroke, Michael said, 'Well, don't worry, Dad. You'll work with a speech therapist and then we'll do the picture.'

"Back then, that got me mad. I said, 'Michael, why don't you work with my speech therapist? And when you talk like I talk, we'll do the picture.' So here we are doing the picture."

"I'm still working on talking to him," says Michael, laughing.

Michael, of course now a megastar himself, is the film's producer. The film is the latest in one of the most impressive Hollywood careers. Too many films to name, so many to remember.

"Champion," "Lust For Life," "Paths of Glory." And of course, "Spartacus."

Is this going to be Kirk's last film?

"Who knows," says Kirk. "I hope they will – maybe they – one more picture in my future. I hope so."

But who's going to get top billing?

"I think probably I am," says Michael. "And my father and I will both be up on the top together. But I'll probably be in the first position. Just as if this was 20 years ago, he'd be in first position."

Kirk agrees. "I assume that Michael will be in first position. But with a smaller size that would be …"

Michael interrupts. "Yeah, a little higher up."

"Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas," says Kirk, laughing.
  • Rebecca Leung

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