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Kirk Douglas on being the last of the Hollywood greats as he reaches 100

Mirror logo Mirror 14/02/2017

Credits: Getty

Credits: Getty
© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc

Both the house and the man are smaller than you would expect, a result of the diminishing effects of old age.

Kirk Douglas , now 100 years old, and Anne, his wife of 62 years, moved into the small bungalow in Beverly Hills about 30 years ago.

They had downsized from the multiple mansions, where they had entertained friends such as Fred Astaire , Lauren Bacall and Ronald Reagan while Frank Sinatra knocked up Italian meals in their kitchen.

When Douglas himself enters the living room, he is leaning on a walker and accompanied by one of the various nurses who care for him and his wife around the clock.

Every movement suggests effort. Most frustrating for him, his tongue hangs heavy in his mouth, the result of a stroke in 1996, and the once-ringing diction is now slurred.

Yet when Douglas starts talking not even the muffling layers of age can hide his still charmingly boyish personality, even if his body occasionally lets him down.

“How do I feel in general? Ahh,” he says, with a decidedly Jewish shrug.

That famously pugnacious chin is a little receded, but those familiar close-set eyes, which he passed on to his eldest son, Michael, are bright.

Michael, as it happens, is currently staying in the guesthouse by the pool, visiting for a few days, as he does every month.

“He comes to visit the old man,” Douglas says with pride. “I never, ever thought I would live to be 100. That’s shocked me, really. And it’s sad, too.”

There are so many friends he misses, the downside to being the last legend standing from the golden age of Hollywood.

He says: “I miss Burt Lancaster – we fought a lot, and I miss him a lot. And John Wayne, even though he was a Republican and I was a Democrat.”

Wayne was similarly fond of Douglas – they made a handful of movies together – but he was a little baffled by him. In The Ragman’s Son, one of Douglas’s several beautifully written memoirs, he recounts how Wayne attended a screening of Lust for Life, Douglas’s heartfelt 1956 biopic of Vincent van Gogh, and was horrified.

He told him: “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.”

Douglas wrote: “I tried to explain, ‘It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.’ He just looked at me oddly. I had betrayed him.”

It is understandable that Wayne would see Douglas as a fellow tough guy – built like a small angry bull and with the furious focus to match, he was perfectly cast in films such as 1949’s Champion as the ambitious boxer Midge Kelly, and 1962’s Lonely Are the Brave – still Douglas’s favourite – as a noble cowboy.

Credits: Getty © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: Getty To watch Douglas’s performances now, some of them more than 70 years old, it is striking how modern he seems, often more so than many of his contemporaries, who now look rather stagey.

He says: “I was not a tough guy. I just acted like one.”

Never did he need more of this toughness than when he famously, if not quite single-handedly, broke the Hollywood blacklist, whereby those thought to have communist sympathies were denied work in the entertainment industry.

The story has been told often. Douglas hired the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus.

“It was that movie,” he starts, but then trails off, unable to remember the name of his most famous film.

“Spartacus! Yes,” he says, back on track. Wasn’t he scared that he might be destroying his own career? “No!” he scoffs. “It would have been very different if I’d been older, but I was stubborn then.”

So, given his famously liberal politics and abhorrence of political bullies, what does he think of the new US president? He reels back as if I’d smacked his cheek.

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc “That’s an unfair question,” he says.

Too cruel to ask that of a lifelong Democrat? “Let’s just say I didn’t vote for him,” he replies.

All that surface toughness it seems was because he was overcompensating. He was well into middle age before he stopped seeing himself as a scared and bullied little boy, and his womanising, he thinks, was part of that.

He had, he writes, “a mother complex”. “I constantly sought from the women around me a mother substitute.”

And from Rita Hayworth to Marlene Dietrich, it is hard to name a famous actress from the mid-20th century who wasn’t seduced by Douglas. He once fretted to his analyst that he thought he might be impotent after a disappointing encounter the night before. 

“You tell me that you had sex 29 nights in a row with different girls. On the 30th, you say you’re impotent,” his doctor replied drily. “You know, even God rested after six days.”

Douglas has been married twice, first to Diana, with whom he had Michael and Joel, and then to Anne, with whom he had Peter and Eric. But it took a while for matrimony to break his stride.

He admits: “I was a bad boy. But Anne knew how to handle me.”

Indeed. Even before they married, Anne invited all the women she knew he had slept with to a party in Paris. “I couldn’t believe it when I walked in and saw the guests,” he says, laughing. “Ah! She knows everything.” In his multiple memoirs, he writes about how his distant father let him down and how he feels he, in turn, let down his four sons.

Credits: REUTERS © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: REUTERS He says: “I am so proud of Michael because he never followed my advice.

“I wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, and the first time I saw him in a play I told him he was terrible. But then I saw him a second time and I said, ‘You were wonderful!’ And I think he is very good in everything.”

Did he ever feel competitive with Michael? “No! Only proud. He didn’t like me much after his mother and I got divorced. It was only when he started acting that we became close.”

By the 1980s, when young women approached him, it was no longer because he was Kirk Douglas but because he was Michael Douglas’s father.

Michael, 72, is an exception to the rule that children of actors rarely end well if they try to follow in their parents’ footsteps. But Kirk’s youngest son, Eric, who had acted a little and struggled with addictions, overdosed and died in 2004 at the age of 46. Today, when talking about his sons, Kirk can’t quite bring himself to say Eric’s name.

History seemed to be repeating itself when Michael’s oldest son, Cameron, was arrested on drugs charges a few years after his uncle’s death. He was released last year after seven years in prison.

Douglas says: “Cameron is OK. He is doing so much better now and he says he will come visit next month. He’s working on a book, you know.”

Credits: Getty © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: Getty Douglas himself has just published his 12th book, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood. Not bad to still be publishing at the age of 100, I say.

“Yes, that’s right,” he agrees, stoutly.

One of the most frustrating things about getting older, he says, is how out of touch he feels. He says: “I don’t know who any of the new stars are, and they probably don’t know me.”

Oh, I bet they know you, I say. That makes him smile: “Well, maybe…”

From New York slums to silver screen riches

Born Issur Danielovitch, when Woodrow Wilson was president, Kirk Douglas was one of seven children and the only son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants.

He grew up speaking Yiddish at home in Amsterdam, New York, in almost unimaginable deprivation.

The family’s income came from his father’s daily attempts to sell scraps from a horse and buggy.

Douglas fought his way out of his circumstances with his wit and wiles.

He talked his way into a college scholarship and then bagsied another for acting school in New York, where he became lifelong friends with another Jewish student, Betty Perske, later known as Lauren Bacall. Along the way he contended with appalling anti-semitism. When he started to become successful in Hollywood, he was invited to join a tennis club. The actor Lex Barker warned him: “Of course, Kirk, you understand we can’t run a club the way we do back east. Here we have to let in a few Jews.” “I am a Jew,” Douglas snapped back.

He shed his Jewish name early on, but not his roots. Today, a mezuzah is affixed to the frame of his front door, and he credits his Jewish sense of responsibility for making him one of the greatest philanthropists in Hollywood.

Kirk, who wed wife Anne in 1954, recently donated £40million to, among other causes, his old college to help students from the minorities. 

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