Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': The Kirk Douglas Interview

Aug 28, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 11:18 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

In 1988, I also spoke with actor Kirk Douglas, who helped break the Hollywood blacklist when he produced the 1960 film "Spartacus," which he also starred in. Douglas decided to hire a blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo, to write the screenplay for "Spartacus."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Dalton Trumbo was writing it under a pseudonym like he was writing all of his screenplays at the time because he was blacklisted. And you insisted that for this movie he actually use his real name. Did you think that the time was right where you could say, this is Dalton Trumbo who wrote the movie and where it would actually be accepted, that the time was right to break the blacklisting and have it be accepted at least in part of Hollywood?

KIRK DOUGLAS: Well, I'm not so sure. I did it rather impulsively. I don't think I was aware until a couple years later as I reflected upon it. And like, you know, I explain in my book, I began to see, you know, the significance of it. What bothered me when I did "Spartacus" was the hypocrisy in Hollywood that these people, some of them who spent a year in jail for a crime that was never very clearly stated, I mean were denied using their talents except behind the scenes. Studio heads would look the other way while a lot of these unfriendly 10 writers would be writing scripts for very little money.

So it was so hypocritical that it annoyed me to the extent that I said, well, what happens - we had a discussion of, whose name are we going to put on the script of - on the screen of "Spartacus"? And suddenly I said, well, what happens if I put Dalton Trumbo's name on? And they said oh, Kirk, you're - they say, oh, you're going to get out of the business and all that. I said no, to hell with it. I'm going to do it.

And the next day I left the past. Dalton Trumbo hadn't been on a set in ten years. I left the past for Dalton Trumbo, no Sam Jackson. Of course even Sam Jackson we wouldn't have allowed on the set. Somebody might've recognized him as Dalton Trumbo.

GROSS: That was his pen name for this movie.

DOUGLAS: Yes. And from then on - I'll never forget when Dalton Trumbo walked on the set, came over me and says Kirk, thanks for giving me back my name. There were people who - I got letters from different organizations. Hedda Hopper attacked me. But the sky didn't fall in. And after that - a few months after that, Otto Preminger announced that Dalton Trumbo was going to be writing this script, and the blacklist was broken.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Kirk Douglas, and we'll hear my 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet in the second half of the show as we continue the FRESH AIR 30th anniversary retrospective. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX NORTH'S "MAIN TITLE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring some of our favorite interviews from our early days. We'll pick up where we left off with my 1988 interview with actor and producer Kirk Douglas. He was one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1950s and '60s and was also one of the first actors to run his own production company. He's also the father of actor and producer Michael Douglas.

Kirk Douglas made about 75 films, including "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," "Paths Of Glory," "Spartacus," "Lonely Are The Brave," "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral" and "Lust For Life," in which he played painter Vincent Van Gogh. Douglas is the son of poor, illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants. Our interview was recorded when his autobiography was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You had starred in "The Vikings." And you write in your new autobiography, "The Rag Man's Son," that, after starring in "The Vikings," you thought, that's it - no more epics for me. And then you go and turn around, and actually produce one of the real big epics, "Spartacus." Why did you want to make an epic?

DOUGLAS: Well, I didn't want to make an epic. And one of the first things I said to my group - I said, look, if we do this picture "Spartacus," let's make it as if it were a small picture. And to me, if you look at "Spartacus" again, you will find that the characters dominate the background. Most pictures, "Ben-Hur" and all that, the background is so enormous.

But in "Spartacus," Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov, Jean Simmons - the characters are stronger than the background. And that's what I tried to do. In spite of the fact that it was an epic picture, I wanted the characters to be - for them to be larger than life.

GROSS: You mentioned the characters and some of the actors. You ended up casting Jean Simmons in the role of Spartacus' lover and the woman who he has a baby with. And initially, you didn't want to cast her because she's British, and you thought that that would ruin the linguistic pattern of the movie. And I'd love for you to explain what you meant by that.

DOUGLAS: Well, I have a very simple - for example, when I did "The Vikings," all the Vikings are Americans. We have a rougher pattern of speech. The English have a more elegant pattern of speech. So that makes it work. In Spartacus, you'll notice that all the aristocratic Romans are English.

GROSS: That's right. They're great...

DOUGLAS: The slaves...

GROSS: ...Stage actors (laughter), great British stage actors.

DOUGLAS: The slaves, like myself, were Americans.

GROSS: Not only that, ethnic - right? - Jewish, Italian. You, Jewish, Tony Curtis, Italian - no, Tony Curtis is Jewish, too, actually. Isn't he?

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah, that's right. (Laughter) I always forget that (laughter).

DOUGLAS: But it doesn't matter, you see. It's just that Americans have a rougher speech pattern. For example, I often think that Shakespeare very often is better played in - when it's done in the United States because those beautiful lines take on a rougher quality that I think Shakespeare really intended it to...

GROSS: So the slaves have the rough quality.

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: And the Romans have the more genteel, educated, refined sound.

DOUGLAS: Exactly. Of course, "Spartacus" - you picked on a picture that plays a big - is a big section in my book because so much happened during the making of "Spartacus." The most historical event was the breaking of the blacklist.

GROSS: Since we're talking about "Spartacus," let me play a clip from the movie. And this was toward the end of the first half of the film. Remember, this movie had an intermission (laughter). And Spartacus and many other slaves have escaped from slavery. And after they've escaped, many of the slaves are just drinking wine. They're having Romans fight each other as if the Romans were slaves. And Spartacus is saying, what are you doing with your lives? You should be doing something more productive. And he suggests that they actually fight the Roman Empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPARTACUS")

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) Have we learned nothing? What's happening to us? We look for wine when we should be hunting bread.

NICK DENNIS: (As Dionysius) When you've got wine, you don't need bread.

(LAUGHTER)

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) We can't just be a gang of drunken raiders.

DENNIS: (As Dionysius) What else can we be?

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) Gladiators - an army of gladiators. There's never been an army like that. One gladiator's worth any two Roman soldiers that ever lived.

JOHN IRELAND: (As Crixus) We beat the Roman guards here, but a Roman army is a different thing. They fight different than we do, too.

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) We can beat anything they send against us if we really want to.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It takes a big army for that, Spartacus.

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) We'll have a big army. Once we're on the march, we'll free every slave in every town and village. Can anybody get a bigger army than that?

DENNIS: (As Dionysius) That's right. Once we cross the Alps, we're safe.

IRELAND: (As Crixus) Nobody can cross the Alps. Every pass is defended by its own legion.

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) There's only one way to get out of this country - the sea.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What good is the sea if you have no ships?

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) The Cilician pirates have ships. They're at war with Rome. Every Roman galley that sails out of Brundisium pays tribute to them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They've got the biggest fleet in the world. I was a galley slave with them. Give them enough gold, they'll take you anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We haven't got enough gold.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Take every Roman we capture and warm his back a little. We'll have gold, all right.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Spartacus is right. Let's hire these pirates and march straight to Brundisium.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Well, they get their army. And you, as Spartacus, lead them against the Roman army. There is a scene at the end that is a mass crucifixion. And you are one of the many actors on the cross (laughter) at the end of the movie. And I'd really like to know how you were attached to the cross so that you could hang there without really hurting yourself.

DOUGLAS: Well, as a matter of fact, playing that scene, we learned an awful lot about crucifixion. We learned that it would be impossible to be crucified the way, very often, you see the crucifixion. You know, the body would sag right down. But to make our scenes effective, it was very easy. Every cross had a bicycle seat. It just kept the body up high enough so that you wouldn't be sagging down in a very unattractive position.

GROSS: OK, so that's the secret. You started off in your first movie playing someone who was pretty weak in the film "The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers."

DOUGLAS: That's right.

GROSS: And you went on to become a character who was seen as very strong. In fact, you were - mentioned that Elia Kazan refers to you in his autobiography. And I'd like to read one of the things that he says when he was making the film "The Arrangement," based on his best-selling novel. You wanted to be in the film. And he cast you in it, although he says he - there was something about the role that he thought Marlon Brando would've been better for.

And Elia Kazan writes, there was one problem with Kirk. Eddie, the character, has to start defeated in every personal way. The film rests on how basic and painful his initial despair is. Kirk has developed a professional front, a man who can overcome any obstacle. He radiates indomitability. Marlon, on the other hand, with all his success and fame, was still unsure of his worth and of himself. Acting had little to do with it. It was all a matter of personality.

Did you ever think of yourself that way, as just radiating indomitability, and that affecting the kind of roles that you could or could not do well?

DOUGLAS: Working with Kazan in "The Arrangement" was a wonderful experience. He's a great director. But I disagree with him completely. When I did "Lust For Life," which I consider one of the most intriguing roles that I've played, I played a man completely unsure of himself. As a matter of fact, I sometimes tell my fellow actors that no one can play weakness better than I, starting with the very first movie that I did, "The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers."

And then when you go to a character like "Lust For Life," I remember the first time we showed that - and I described this incident in my book where John Wayne was drinking at a party after a showing. He was very annoyed. He motioned me, brought me out on the balcony and said he was very annoyed. He said, Kirk, how can you play such a sniveling, weak character? I said, well, John - I said, well, you know, I'm an actor. It was an interesting role. I wanted to play it. No, no, he says. Kirk, we've got to play tough, macho guys. And he was really upset that I would be playing such a weak character, although most people, I think, think of me - the last movie I did with Burt Lancaster was called "Tough Guys" - as sort of a tough guy.

But I loved to play parts or try to find parts with different dimensions. You see, Terry, if I play a strong man in the film, I look for the moments where he's weak. And if I play a weak character, I look for the moments where he's strong because that's what drama's all about - chiaroscuro, light and shade.

GROSS: I want to ask you something about you physically, in terms of your acting. People think of you. They think of your voice. Physically, they really think of the dimple in your chin. And when you started acting, was there ever a time where that was seen as a disadvantage? Did anyone ever try to cover that up with makeup?

DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah. The first time I came to Hollywood, you know, and they're looking at this Broadway actor - and they did. They filled it up with putty.

GROSS: Oh, really?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. It had to be an awful lot of putty because I don't have a dimple in my chin. I have a hole in my chin. And it annoyed me. I said, look. I just pushed the putty out. I said, look; this is what you get if you want it. I'm not going to change it. So let me know if this is what you want, or I'm going back to New York. And since then, I've never - you know, it's a part of me.

GROSS: So you never let them actually shoot you with the putty in your chin?

DOUGLAS: Oh, I would do that if there was a real reason where I wanted someone to have, like, a big, lantern jaw and covering up this dimple on my chin would give me that effect. I would do it if the reason was to play a certain character or it's covered up when you have a beard. I mean I do whatever I feel you have to do to play the character, not for, you know, vanity sake. I am what I am. I can't change that.

GROSS: My interview with Kirk Douglas was recorded in 1988. He turned 100 in December. After a break, we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with another 1988 interview with film director Sidney Lumet, who made "Dog Day Afternoon," "Serpico" and "12 Angry Men." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN EUBANKS' "POET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.