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Kirk Douglas' Rejuvenation

What a week for Kirk Douglas!

The acting legend turns 83 Thursday and is celebrating it with a bar mitzvah - his second. His family, including his Oscar-winning actor-producer son Michael Douglas, is throwing a big bash for him.

His first film since a paralyzing stroke in 1996 opens Friday, and earlier on the week, on Monday, Spencer Tracy's daughter, Susie, presented him with the Spencer Tracy Award for outstanding achievement in drama.

Douglas, who says Tracy was his inspiration in acting school, received the 11th annual honor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Other recipients include James Stewart, Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster and Douglas' son, Michael, who received it in 1990.

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, he decided to follow an old Jewish tradition that says a man's life begins again at the age of 70 -- so 70 plus 13 means it is time for a second bar mitzvah ceremony at 83.

He has been given special awards by the Screen Actors Guild, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others.

It is his role in breaking the old Hollywood blacklist, however, that Douglas calls "the most important thing I've done" in the movie industry.


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Spartacus, 1960

To avoid accusations of communist sympathy during the 1950s, major studios and producers routinely mislabeled credits on movies that were written, directed or produced by suspected communists. But for 1960's Spartacus, Douglas led efforts to give blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo screenplay credit under his own name.

"They were all Americans, and this was a free country. To deny them work was a terrible thing," Douglas said with a strong voice and clear head. "People told me: 'Kirk, you're going to ruin yourself,' but the sky didn't fall. And the blacklist was broken."

As for the new film Diamonds, which is opening in a qualifying run for the Oscars in New York and Los Angeles, Douglas said that making the movie about a father, son and grandson rebuilding failed relationships gave him confidence to meet people and make life as normal as possible.

Three years after his stroke, Douglas' speech is slow, so he picks his words carefully. His walk appears steady, and his handshake is strong. A shock of white hair sweeps over his head, and his dimpled chin still looks chiseled from stone.

"There was a time when I thought unless silent pictures come back, I'll never make a movie again," he joked in a recent meeting with reporters.

"But righ now, I'm so proud of 'Diamonds.' I didn't want to make a movie that you just feel sorry for (the stroke victim). It's poignant because it's true, but it's also funny."

Diamonds stars Douglas as a former boxing champ, Harry Agensky, with one last quest before his children put him in a home for the elderly. He wants to reclaim a mother lode of diamonds once promised to him in a prize fight, and if he can, he will be able to live in his own home with a hired health-care worker.

His estranged son Lance Agensky (Dan Aykroyd) comes to visit and brings his own son Michael (Corbin Allred), who never really knew his grandfather. Granddad and grandson form a bond, and they convince Lance to take them on a road trip to Reno, Nevada, in a desperate search for the diamonds.

Douglas said many of the film's scenes -- like performing speech exercises from a videotape and explaining the stroke's effects to those around him -- came from his own experiences.

"When you have a stroke and start to babble and can't form words, such depression sets in...You just want to go to bed, pull down the shades, cry and just remove yourself," he said.

Before the stroke, he and his son Michael had been talking about making a film together, but after the stroke Michael had told him to take his time relearning how to speak. Then, when he was ready, the two might work together.

Douglas said he was irritated and shot back: "'Michael, why don't you work with my speech therapist? When you talk the way I talk, we'll make the movie.' You must have a sense of humor."

But eventually, after a lot of therapy, scripts did come his way, including that for Diamonds. And now he has two other projects in the works before he gets back to his son.

"I said, 'Michael, you better hurry up because I might be getting too expensive for you,'" Douglas recalled.

In modern-day Hollywood, where stars like Tom Hanks pick up paychecks of $20 million per movie, it is hard to imagine Douglas returning to the ranks of Hollywood's top leading men.

But there was a time when he was bigger than Hanks, with best-actor Oscar nominations for 1949's Champion, 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful and 1956's Lust for Life, in which he played painter Vincent van Gogh.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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