Kirk Douglas has played many roles in his ninety-five years. At the Egyptian Theatre’s Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre on Wednesday, prior to a screening of his fifty-year-old favorite Lonely Are the Brave (Universal, 1962), he discussed two of them: actor and author. (The event commenced a week-long retrospective titled "Path of Glory: An In-Person Tribute to Kirk Douglas").
Entertainment journalist Geoff Boucher moderated the pre-screening discussion and introduced the icon: “I’m honored to be part of the audience, like you, and I’m honored to be up here. The best actors disappear into their roles, but icons always keep part of themselves onscreen. What do we know about Kirk Douglas? Every one of his characters makes hard choices and is a figure of integrity. Not always a good guy, not always a bad guy, but a real guy. Ladies and gentlemen, Kirk Douglas.”
To rapturous applause, the casually dressed, gentlemanly Douglas emerged from the side of the expansive theater and sat in a chair opposite Boucher. The two, once seated, flanked a bold one-sheet for the evening’s feature presentation, and the evening’s honoree earnestly thanked the audience in the full auditorium. “Thank you. I would like to thank you all for coming to see a picture that I made fifty years ago.” To more hearty applause, he joked, “If you don’t [like it], ask for your money back.” Laughter ensued, and Boucher initiated a memorable interview.
“You know, you made so many memorable films. But this one’s special for you, isn’t it? You’ve talked about it often. This is one that really stands out for you. Why does it?”
“Well, you know, Edward Abbey wrote the book. And when I read the book, I was so intrigued by the character. The character and his horse, Whisky. The problem with the picture is, by the end of the picture, you’re all going to be rooting for the horse instead of me. But [Edward Lewis made] the picture, and I knew that the only guy that could write this was Dalton Trumbo.” The reference to the controversial scribe elicited enthusiastic applause. Douglas continued, elaborating on his role in securing elusive work and credit for the ex-blacklisted screenwriter. (Douglas was instrumental in publicly acknowledging Trumbo’s work on Spartacus, which is recognized as the beginning of the end of the infamous blacklist.)
“Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the picture, was fabulous. In my last book (I’ve written ten books)…It’s called I Am Spartacus: The Making of a Movie and the Breaking of the Blacklist. It was a very divisive time. They…were talking about communists … and were you about to become communists…in Hollywood, and especially the effect on the writers. And they had a hearing, and if you said the wrong … they put them in jail. And Dalton Trumbo spent ten days in jail, and then I got him to write Spartacus, but by that time he wasn’t really blacklisted. But I was young then, you know? I hated the injustice of it.”
Boucher elaborated, “And as you say, by standing up for people like Dalton Trumbo, and your collaborations with Dalton on Spartacus and on this film, it must have been very satisfying for you. Although you had some problems with this film when it first came out, right? I mean, the title wasn’t the titled you wanted, is it?”
“No. The book was called The Brave Cowboy. And I didn’t want that title. And I wanted to go with The Last Cowboy. But the studio who had the money insisted on Lonely Are the Brave. And I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’” He had to pause briefly due to the audience’s spontaneous laughter. “ The picture would be unsuccessful with that name. I thought … I always said that’s a lousy name. It’s good? that Lonely Are the Brave caught on.”
Boucher reiterated that Douglas’s written works are engaging and diverse. “Well you know, this book that you’ve written it’s come out, it’s already had multiple printings. I Am Spartacus. It came out in June. It’s added to the Kirk Douglas bookshelf, which is an extraordinary bookshelf. And for someone who thinks a lot about the written word, I just want to tell you what a joy it is to be one of your readers. It’s a very impressive shelf that you’ve put together of your thoughts.”
“Well, also, in addition to writing about that bleak period of the blacklist, I wanted to describe the making of the film. … It was a big film. And I was very excited. So it took a lot of research … when we were talking about something … I’m very pleased with the reception of the book. And, you will like it.” The understated confidence in the author’s voice was palpable.
The discussion continued, traversing through topics such as the notable one-armed bar fight in Lonely Are the Brave to Stanley Kubrick’s direction of Spartacus to the honoree’s longevity and rich life. “I’m ninety-five years old,” the actor proudly and succinctly concluded to a thunderous response. He went on to describe his poor origins and what he modestly considers his incredible luck.
“Well, that’s fantastic,” the moderator said. “To go the places you’ve been, and work with people you’ve worked with, and have the career that you’ve—represented not just by talent but also by integrity—we’re very, very happy to see you tonight. It’s an honor.”
The guest of honor concluded with an amusing anecdote about an age-old encounter with bygone Hollywood royalty. “Now I was not in movies very long when I was making Lonely Are the Brave in Albuquerque. And [I was with] a big star. And he invited me to dinner. I was very pleased with that he invited me. We went to dinner. And he ordered French wine and everything … And I was very impressed. Then the guy came in with the check. And he gave me the check and as it turned … asked me to be the host.” (The actor had difficulty recalling which specific late legend it was; a knowledgeable and helpful audience member reminded him that it was Errol Flynn.)
“I’m really glad and happy that you came here. And I hope you enjoy the picture that I made fifty years ago.” To an appreciative standing ovation, the living legend left the building.