Kirk Douglas at 89

The Ageless Actor Gets His Own Award

by Charles Donelan

KirkDouglas.jpgThe Santa Barbara International Film Festival will give its inaugural Kirk Douglas Award for Career Achievement to the man himself on July 30 at the Bacara. Douglas, who is 89, will be doubly honored by being both the first recipient and the namesake of the award. I spoke with Douglas — who is not only a distinguished actor but also the author of several best-selling books — recently at his home in Montecito.

Hello Mr. Douglas. Is that a tape recorder? I’m always amazed how these tape recorders get smaller and smaller.

It’s digital, so there’s no tape, just a chip. Before I get carried away asking questions, let me find out what you are working on. I am just polishing up my ninth book, which will come out in December, when I am 90. The title is Let’s Face It. There are so many things in life that we must face. I dedicate the book to my seven grandchildren. I am concerned that the world is in a mess. How are our children going to deal with all the problems we have given them? That’s what the book is about. It’s also got a lot of humor in it, because I feel that you can’t face the hard problems in life without a sense of humor.

Your books are inspiring to people who have suffered some of the things you have written about — a serious accident, a stroke. Have you gotten a lot of response from them? Oh yes. My book about my stroke — so many people have written to me that the book has helped them, or their relative. I got a call from Lucy Baines Johnson. She was reading the book to Lady Bird, who was finding it very helpful. I sent it to Lady Bird with the inscription, “You’re a big girl now — you should have your own book.”

The books help people to feel that no matter what happens to them, they are not alone. Is that something you set out to do? I have been aiming for that for a long time, even since before I became an author. A movie is made to help people. Movies exist to take you out of your life for a few hours while you identify with the people on screen. That is a very therapeutic thing. To make someone laugh, that’s a wonderful gift.

I am going to ask you a couple of serious question, then one that is more fun. First, today Israel is at war with Hezbollah. I know that this must concern you. Do you have any thoughts on the fate of Israel? Oh yes, I have great feeling for Israel, and I have been there many times. I have made four movies in Israel. One of them was with John Wayne, Yul Brynner, and Frank Sinatra. Israel was never the same. These statues [points to his garden] are by an Israeli artist.

The thing about Israel is it’s such a small piece of land. It’s the size of Maryland, and think of the impact it has had. I have lots of friends in Israel, and I’ve met [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon when he was mayor of Jerusalem. But when you look at the map, Israel is surrounded. [He lists all the neighboring countries.] All enemies. You can’t believe it still exists.

They say if the Arab countries put down their weapons, there would be no war. If Israel put down its weapons, there would be no Israel. It’s almost shameful that in our life now we have people killing people and most of it is in the name of religion. I think that is horrible. When I look at the blue sky, I know there is a god. What must he think of these people killing one another?

Down at the Getty Center in Brentwood [Los Angeles] they are opening a replica of a Greek theater to stage Greek tragedies. Is the connection between drama and democracy that was established by the Greeks alive today? Of course! Movies help us to be better citizens. I have never met a good actor who was not intelligent, or who did not have other talents — writing or painting. Frank Sinatra was a good painter. Anthony Quinn was with me on Lust for Life and he made me some beautiful cuff links that my son who lives here stole.

Lots of people at magazines make their living knocking actors. If they have a marriage and a quick divorce, that’s news, but when I celebrate my 50th anniversary, that’s not.

My son Michael made a documentary in the Sierra Leone with children who are suffering. Most of them were 11, 12, or 13 years old. And what they have been through! It made me cry. One kid was very sad. He had lost his mother, and Michael started singing, “I love you a bushel and a peck,” and he smiled. Michael got an award from the UN for that film. He has done so much — given away millions of dollars. A million and a half to the Katrina fund alone. As far as that goes, I am proud of my son and of the people in my industry.

I received the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1981, and for years I traveled the world for this country, mostly just telling my own story, about an immigrant who came to this country from Russia to give me, his son, a better chance. That’s what’s really American, to give everyone a better chance.

Here’s a hypothetical question. You have a big love scene coming up, and you are cast opposite the contemporary female star of your choice. Who would that be, and why? Hmm. I like thinking about this question. A female star from contemporary Hollywood? I will say Angelina Jolie, because I know she’s a good person. I know her father and he is a great man. He’s done so much for other people, so I know that she has that in her genes. And she’s so sexy. I am back on the open market to be her leading man. I don’t even need to see the script. I’ll do it.

Last question. My favorite, and I know one of yours, is a movie called Lonely Are the Brave. What made that one so special? It’s my favorite of all my films. At one time, they were going to call it The Last Cowboy. I guess I love it because I was the hero, and for once I was the good guy. (Laughs.) That picture is great because it is so simple. He loves the horse. He has got people coming after him, but he can’t leave the horse. It’s beautiful.

Thanks, we are out of time. You asked interesting questions. I look forward to this one — it will be different from the others.

4•1•1 Kirk Douglas will be presented with the Kirk Douglas Award for Career Achievement at the Bacara on Sunday, July 30. Call 963-0023 for tickets.

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