(from Women’s Journel)
The Kirk Douglas story—from son of an immigrant to fast-living star to old-timer passing on hard-earned wisdom—is pure Hollywood. Marilyn Murray Willison talked to him about his life of
struggle and sexual conquest.
I learned a long time ago that if I had to play a strong character I needed to look for his weakness, and if I had to play a weak character I needed to look for the strength. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be either weak or strong. You can be a bit of both, and a man can have muscles and still have brains.’
If anyone should know, it’s Kirk Douglas. After more than four decades in Hollywood and with over 70 movies to his credit, Douglas can look back on a screen career that has combined machismo heroics with clear-eyed perseverance.
Outspoken he may be, but off screen Kirk Douglas is much more than mere brawn. He has an acquisitive and accomplished intellect, speaks five languages fluently, and is a passionate and knowledgeable collector of pre-Columbian art.
Bemused at his ‘tough guy’ image, he says, ‘Sure, I’ve played a lot of tough characters in the course of my career, but before I made Champion (1949), in which I played a boxer [and which also earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor], I was the intellectual schoolteacher in A Letter to Three Wives (1948). And in my first movie The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), I played a weak, drunken district attorney married to Barbara Stanwyck.’
Be that as it may, throughout the boom years of the Fifties it was the strong-willed protagonist that provided the starring roles for Douglas in a series of exceptional films by top directors. Memorably, he played Vincent Van Gogh in Minnelli’s Lust for life (1956) and two outstanding leaders of men in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory 1957) and Spartacus (1960).
He has never stopped working—producing and directing as well as acting—and now, at he age of 72, he has finally set the record straight with his frank and outspoken autobiography The Ragman’s Son.
We met during his recent visit to London. It was a surprise to be greeted personally at the door of his luxurious Berkeley Hotel suite by those familiar legendary features dominated by the distinctive cleft in the jutting chin. Dressed in a toweling robe worn over beige slacks and a V-necked sweater, he was warm and friendly, and although the interview began with me on the sofa and Douglas on a chair, he soon moved to sit beside me with the tape recorder set chastely between us.
Before this, I was amused to note that he stands with his feet a good yard apart—macho habits are hard to beat.
The first thing that strikes you about him is that after all that wear and tear plus a pacemaker he doesn’t look 72—a personal trainer in Beverly Hills puts him through strenuous, regular work-outs. The second is his intensity. Once those pale grey eyes have fixed you to your chair and he starts talking, you listen.
He was born Issur Danielovitch in New York—the only son in a family of six daughters born to illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants. It was a childhood of brutal poverty. His father was a tough, hard-drinking ragman, who collected other people’s refuse to sell. He was rarely home, preferring the atmosphere of the local bar to the company of his overbearingly feminine family; he was never demonstrative or affectionate. A half-century and light years away from that harsh childhood (in which the family’s food money was often spent on liquor; even Douglas’ bar mitzvah money was gambled away), the actor makes no secret of the fact that ‘he longed for his father’s attention and approval.
At home, the proximity of six affectionate sisters and an adoring mother had a suffocating effect on the family’s only boy, who longed for escape. ‘I was smothered. I had to seek my identity in the midst of seven women, so I escaped into the world of fantasy. You might think that a beginning like mine would produce someone who hated women, but I was fascinated by them. `I think women are stronger than men and can endure pain more easily than men. They have instincts that are much more perceptive, but on the other hand men are more romantic while women are more practical. If you were to say to a woman, “Please, I love you, fly away with me”, she would say, “Yes, but first I’ve got to fix my hair, get a manicure and so on.”
`I also admire women’s unusual talents. For example, I remember being in a restaurant with my wife Anne at a table of about 10 people. There was something very important that I was anxious to tell her and while everyone else was talking I finally got her attention and shared the information that was on my mind. When we got home several hours later, she started to tell me verbatim a complicated conversation she’d overheard from the table next to ours at the restaurant. I hadn’t heard any of this so I asked Anne when she’d listened to their conversation and she said it was while I was conveying my important message. Wounded, I told her it was obvious that she hadn’t paid attention to a word I’d said Smiling, she repeated, word for word, what I’d told her, ‘Take it from me, no man could ever ingest, with total recall, two simultaneous conversations. No wonder women fascinate me.’
His wife joined us briefly on her way to a ladies’ luncheon. Dressed elegantly in red, it was obvious that she is still devoted to her husband. Douglas walked over to her, gave her a hug and kiss as they shared some quiet joke, and then returned to the business of talking about his life.
Although Douglas grew up in a very tough neighborhood, he had the good fortune to find a sympathetic teacher who became his mentor, friend and lover. His English instructor, Louise Livingston, an elegant widow in her late thirties, changed his life. ‘I was only 14 when she introduced me to sex. I didn’t seduce her–even I wasn’t that precocious. But she became a key person in my life. She introduced me to poetry and encouraged me to get an education and be successful. We stayed in touch until she died.’
At 18, Issur Danielovitch, encouraged by his teacher and their shared dreams of a better life for the ragman’s son, took his life savings and hitchhiked his way to university. While a student at St Lawrence University, he worked at several part-time jobs—including janitor—but still found time to excel in sports, become head of the drama club, and get elected Student Body President (the first non-fraternity member—and Jew—to do so).
Anti-Semitism has plagued and puzzled the actor throughout his life. As a young boy attending Hebrew school, the neighborhood children taunted him, and as a student he couldn’t have a newspaper route for the local paper because he was Jewish. In high school the girl he invited to the prom wasn’t allowed to attend with him because her parents didn’t want her to go out with a Jew. He shakes his head at the bigotry he has survived and still expresses anger at people’s groundless prejudice.
`When I was a young boy, our town had a tremendous hatred of Jews and my mother warned me that because I was Jewish, I’d have to be twice as good if
I wanted to get ahead in life.’
When he enrolled in college he shortened his name to Izzy Demsky, but when he started his acting career he changed his name to Kirk Douglas because ethnic names were unheard of among the stars. With his blond hair, athletic build, and anglicized name, people tended to assume he was a WASP unless they were foolish enough to make an anti-Semitic remark. ‘Whenever people make generalized assumptions about what a Jew is, or isn’t, I say, “Well, being a Jew myself, I feel differently about that.” I’ve shocked quite a few people with that sort of straightforward confrontation.’
It was while Douglas was in the navy that he married the young British actress, Diana Dill. After discharge, a brief spell on Broadway led to his first Hollywood role, and from then on there was no looking back. He and Diana remained together for eight years and had two sons, Michael and Joel. After their divorce Douglas stayed in Hollywood, where his film career was expanding, while his family moved to New York.
‘I was miserable. I had promised myself that I’d never ignore my kids the way my father ignored me. So I made sure that they knew I was part of their lives even though we lived far apart.’
Among some Hollywood circles, however, Douglas was better known for his womanizing than for his acting. His affairs with attractive actresses became legendary and included trysts with Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Patricia Neal, Ann Sothern and Shelley Winters.
I preferred chasing to falling in love,’ he now admits. ‘Every man goes through what I did after my divorce. You’re so unhappy that you’re reaching out in every direction. You’re like a kid in a candy store. Every night I was with a different woman, but it had no real significance. You can only be happy within a relationship; that’s when everything is enhanced.
`I never had a particular type of woman who turned me on, although I do have a weak spot for women with overbites [prominent front teeth]. I do know that I can’t stand women who are dull. I have never found an intelligent woman who wasn’t sexy. Sex, after all, takes imagination—you have to have fantasies. Very often, during the days when I was so active, there would be a beautifully formed woman who just didn’t do anything for me, because something was missing. Intelligence, the ability to have an imagination, is essential.’
I n 1953, while in Paris filming Act of Love, the 36-year-old actor met a 28-year-old assistant producer named Anne Buydens who was intelligent and had an overbite. For months she resisted his advances until he abandoned the idea of a love affair and settled for a friendly working relationship.
They finally saw their friendship blossom into love, enjoyed a romantic skiing holiday in Klosters, and eventually he persuaded her to visit him in Los Angeles where he was making his next movie. A month later they were married in Las Vegas.
The couple, still in love after over 35 years together, have two sons, Peter and Eric. Their marriage is one of Hollywood’s better known success stories and Douglas proudly tells listeners that his wife is the president of his production company.
Douglas’ four sons are a great source of pride for him; Michael and Eric are actors, Peter and Joel are producers. Although he admits they didn’t always take his advice, they do form a very close-knit family.
`I told my sons that one of the things I did wrong in life was that I expressed myself too openly. In arguments and discussions in Hollywood, what I said may have been right, but the way I said it was wrong because I said it with such vehemence. All people heard was the tone of my voice or my anger. They never thought about what I said, just how I said it. `
And when it came to advice about women I told each of my sons to remember that men always make the same mistake when they pursue a woman: we think we know what is appealing to them. And we’re almost always wrong.
`I told them to remember that the only thing you have that’s different from anybody else is what you are. You have to trust yourself in being what you are. Don’t try to be what you think you should be, because what you think is attractive to a woman is not necessarily what they like. Sometimes the most human qualities—the foibles—are what a woman goes for, and yet they are what a man may try to hide.’
Generously, Douglas feels that his sons have actually achieved more than he did. ‘They could have just sat around and taken life easy, but instead they chose to make something of themselves.
`I pushed all my sons to go to university, and three of them have graduated, but you can see what a pitiful impact I had on them when I tell you that I advised all of them to stay out of show business. Every one of them is in the business. I just wanted to spare them the pain that Hollywood can inflict, because show business is a poignant field—it’s so full of rejection.’
The man who is often known as Michael Douglas’ father used to be better known in Hollywood for his explosive temper and short fuse. ‘Some people have called me the most disliked actor in Hollywood, but that’s me. I was born aggressive and I guess I’ll die aggressive. I can’t change my blunt way of expressing things.
`Usually I’ve regretted the things I didn’t do, not the things I did. Professionally I regret that I never got to play my stage role —on film—from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson got an Academy Award for that one.’
Douglas’ latest success has not been in a film or on a stage. Instead, he has gone to the top of the bestseller lists with his autobiography, aptly titled The Ragman’s Son. Written in the hope of discovering who he was—as distinct from what other people thought he was—the book has been a big success on both sides of the Atlantic.
`Rather than writing the book, I talked it into a tape recorder. I wasn’t interested in facts as much as remembering the feelings I’d had—that’s what’s most important about a person. I just wanted to purge myself, to have a catharsis, to take a complete inventory of my life.
`When you are in my profession you are constantly in a world of make believe, fantasy land. The characters you play become more real to you than you are. Things in your life grow further and further away, until you wake up to find that you know more about Spartacus or Van Gogh than you know about yourself. I wrote the book to get to know myself as well as I knew some of the characters I’d played.’
Kirk Doulgas has finally put his past into perspective. His ruthless, almost flagellatory honesty pervades The Ragman’s Son like a confessional, but there is so much more of the man here than the matinee idol. As he says, ‘I have a theory that the majority of people who achieve great things do so because they are overcoming a challenge—whether it be physical, emotional or financial. I’m a perfect example of how a disadvantage can work to your benefit.