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People Top 5
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- October 03, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 14
Still Tough, Still Cocky, the Legendary Hollywood Champ Beats Up on Everyone—including Himself—in His New Book
The book is his angry, raunchy, opinionated, sometimes moving, jarringly frank autobiography, The Ragman's Son. It tells the old, heart-stirring story of the American Dream come true, of a first-generation ghetto kid who became one of La-La Land's most creative superstars—and outrageous personalities. In his heyday Douglas was described in Photoplay as "the most hated man in Hollywood" and was called a screaming bully who directed his directors, threw tantrums on the set and carried an armor-plated wallet.
Yet Douglas was also one of the first stars to defy the tyrannical studio bosses and set up shop as an independent producer. And it was Douglas, staking his career on a point of principle, who in 1960 gave scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo a screen credit for Spartacus and with that one blow broke the back of Hollywood's loathsome blacklist. What's more, in a 46-year career that has generated 72 films, Douglas has starred in nine cinema classics (A Letter to Three Wives, Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, Paths of Glory, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, Seven Days in May), produced four of them himself, and won four Oscar nominations—though so far no Oscar. He has also had the distinction of squiring more notable beauties than any superstud since the late, incorrigible Errol Flynn. Among the entries in his little black book: Joan Crawford, Linda Darnell, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Evelyn Keyes, Marilyn Maxwell, Patricia Neal, Ann Sothern and Gene Tierney.
"MIKE!" Douglas bellows. "IT'S KIRK AND I'M COMING UP!" With a whoop he goes bounding up a narrow staircase that leads to an elaborate gym set up in the penthouse of a Beverly Hills office building. Flinging off his sweat suit, Douglas stretches out on a low table and does 10 quick abdominal lifts. "This is my trainer, Mike Abrums," he announces, as an aloof Adonis topped by gray spit curls comes sauntering over. "He set up a program for Ron Reagan too. He's the best. I've been coming here every morning for 25 years. What takes most people an hour we do in 15 minutes. Right, Mike?"
Mike smiles mysteriously, then slams Douglas through a superaccelerated series of floor and machine exercises. Stripped for action, the plated torso that once swelled the screen in The Vikings (1958) and in Spartacus (1960) now looks touchingly frail. The outlines are still there: the pie wedge of the upper body, the Popeye forearms, the mat-flat gut. But skin hangs in aging ruffles on the neck and arms, the lithe legs have shriveled to hairy toothpicks, and that small rectangular implant sits ironically on the arrogant pecs. Douglas, however, is game. As the weights increase, his muscles bulge to the challenge and his fierce eyes glitter with delight. "Get a shot of those biceps!" he hollers at the photographer.
Twenty minutes later, shimmering with energy, the Champ charges into his Beverly Hills offices. No mile-deep carpets, no taxidermic rhino. Just four plain, practical rooms: a workplace. "Man, I feel GRRREAT!" Douglas proclaims. "That workout really set me up for the day." So did an encounter with two attractive young women who gasped in unison as he left the gym. "He-e-llo," the sly old seducer murmured and, aglow with glamour, went strolling by.
"People just go silly when they see him," says Kirk's son Peter. "He's still this 45-foot superstar who wins all the gunfights and gets all the girls." Who knows why? He makes at most one movie a year—his latest was Tough Guys (1986)—and hasn't had a real hit since Victory at Entebbe (1976). Yet adoring fans continue to write more than 300 letters a week. And these days, as he prepares an HBO special, records The Ragman's Son on audiotape for Simon and Schuster and tours the talk show circuit to huckster his memoir, Mr. Superstar is burning bright. The book is selling well—No. 2 on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list—perhaps because it features some of the straightest talk to come out of Hollywood since Mary Astor's hard-core boudoir diary made headlines in 1936. Douglas labels director Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Spartacus) "a talented s—-," dismisses director Edward Dmytryk (who testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities) as "a fink," blasts gossip columnist Sheilah Graham with a four-letter word that is more than blunt, and presents Salvador Dali as a would-be orgy master who thinks it takes three to tango.
He's also deliciously indiscreet about the famous females he has pursued. Gene Tierney, he says, made him climb in her bedroom window and take her by surprise. Patricia Neal used to cry when they "grew affectionate" because she felt unfaithful to Gary Cooper. Rita Hayworth, whom he found beautiful but very simple, told him, "Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me." He says he adored them all—except Joan Crawford. He went out with Joan just once. All through dinner she played the innocent flirt, and the instant her front door closed behind them she flung off her dress and grappled Douglas to the foyer floor. Exciting? Not exactly. The lady had bad breath and, phobic about dirt, interrupted what they were doing to compliment her partner on his cleanliness. Afterward, Mommie Dearest took him upstairs and "proudly showed me how the two children were strapped tightly into their beds." Douglas adds, "I got out fast."
About himself Douglas is even more stunningly frank. "I'm a sonofabitch, plain and simple," he once told a biographer. "I'm probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood. And I feel pretty good about it. Because that's me.... I was born aggressive, and I guess I'll die aggressive." In his book he admits he went berserk hunting big game in Africa. "I looked at something and BANG! I had total control. I enjoyed [killing]; the Masai gave me a shield and a spear and called me Killer Douglas."
Co-workers have noted the trait. "He's a vicious bastard," says a former associate, "who thinks he's God and treats everybody else like excrement." Burt Lancaster, who has made half a dozen pictures with Douglas, once remarked: "Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a very difficult man. And I would be the second."
Son Peter calls his father "a driven man, an obsessive man." He is obsessed with sex, with fitness, with punctuality. When he is involved in something, he is involved totally: He is a passionate collector of pre-Columbian art, and he has learned to speak five languages fluently. By the same token his resentments are fierce and unremitting. He still seethes when he describes how, while an unknown actor, he escorted a pretty actress to a Hollywood party, only to have the lady lured away in a limo by two famous guys named Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda—never mind that the event transpired almost half a century ago.
Anti-Semitism enrages him; he never lets a prejudiced remark go unpunished. "Being a Jew myself," he informs the speaker coldly, "I feel somewhat differently." A red face is usually all the revenge he requires, but for one woman he devised a cruel and unusual punishment. He took her to bed, and at the climactic moment announced: "I am a Jew! You are being f—— by a Jew!"
Dragged this way and that by raw emotions, Douglas is also, according to his wife, Anne, plagued with self-doubt. "He's insecure," she says. "He needs constant reassurance. Basically, he's still a big child."
He is also shrewd, disciplined, responsible, wise and delightfully witty. Ray Stark calls him "a rascal with a wild sense of humor—always willing to dive from the 40-foot board—and a hell of a good friend." Douglas himself recalls Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin planting a naked showgirl in an all-male sauna just before he took off his clothes and walked in. Chuckling, the pranksters sat waiting for their victim to hurry out, sputtering apologies. They waited. And waited. Finally, 10 minutes later, Douglas reappeared, nodded to his friends and casually murmured: "That's a real nice guy in there."
The rough edges were filed into Douglas' character while he was very young. His parents, Herschel and Bryna Danielovich, were illiterate Russian Jews who had settled in Amsterdam, a small nest of WASPs in Upstate New York. They had six girls and a boy, the fourth child, whom they called Issur, all born with the Danielovich dimple. Bryna was a warm-hearted woman who told Issur he arrived on earth "in a beautiful gold box suspended from heaven by thin silver strands." Herschel was the local ragman, a hard-drinking brute who collected domestic debris and sold it, who crushed shot glasses with his teeth and who once took on seven men in a bar and "laid them all out."
The family was cruelly poor. Herschel's liquid requirements left barely enough money to feed the children. "Often," Douglas says, "we had nothing to eat." To keep going, little Issur stole food from the local grocery and picked up small change as an errand boy. He hated being poor. In his fantasies, he opened the gas jets and put the whole family out of its misery. But the one he really wanted to kill was his father, who most of the time behaved as if little Issur didn't exist. Some days he loved him, some days he hated him. One day, feeling "I would die if I didn't do something," 9-year-old Issur flipped a spoonful of hot tea into his father's face. With a roar of rage, Herschel flung his son like a basketball into the next room. "That," says Douglas, "was one of the most important moments in my life. At that moment, he knew I was alive!" Issur had learned a lesson he never forgot: Aggressive menshen get attention.
Issur had another painful problem: He lived in a community afflicted with "a tremendous hatred of Jews." On the way to Hebrew School, he was regularly attacked by gangs of Christian kids. When he came home bloody and weeping, his mother gave him fair warning: "As a Jew, you will have to be twice as good to get ahead in life."
In kindergarten, Issur already knew how he wanted to get ahead. When he recited a poem about a robin, everybody applauded. Then and there, Issur decided to become an actor. But nobody paid any mind to the dreams of a ragman's son—until he met an English teacher named Louise Livingston. She was an elegantly patrician widow in her late 30s, and she developed a flagrant passion for the husky, blond 14-year-old who stared at her with the intensity of a lover as she read Swinburne to him after school. She introduced him to culture, to sex, to hope. They kept in touch for more than 30 years. "I helped take care of her," he says, "until she died."
Thanks to Louise, the 18-year-old boy who now called himself Izzy Demsky had the courage to withdraw his life's savings ($163) and thumb his way north to St. Lawrence College in Canton, N.Y. In his four years there, he held down several jobs at once, but still found time to become president of the student body and head of the dramatic club. After graduation, hell-bent for stardom, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas (all stars had WASP names in those days) and won a scholarship to Manhattan's prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Graduated in '41, young Douglas played a couple of minor parts on Broadway before enlisting in the Navy the following year. His war was short and inglorious: Shipped out for Hawaii as a deck officer on a patrol boat, he came down with amoebic dysentery and, in June 1944, was discharged. Back on Broadway he found sudden fame. The Wind Is Ninety brought him rave reviews ("Nothing short of superb") and a solid role in a Hollywood movie, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He was neither humble nor grateful. When leading lady Barbara Stanwyck, then a superstar, failed to notice his minuscule contributions, Kirk slapped her down. "Hey," she said one day, "you're pretty good!" Replied Douglas: "Too late, Miss Stanwyck."
Star quality excused star temperament. Douglas was soon handed a prize part in A Letter to Three Wives, and in 1948 he was offered the lead in a low-budget fist fest called Champion. His agents implored him to decline the role, but Douglas rashly leaped for the brass ring and caught it. His superb portrait of a vicious pug won an Oscar nomination and made him a star. Issur at last had the whole world's attention. So why was he wretchedly unhappy?
He was unhappy because his private life was a mess. While still in the Navy he had married Diana Dill, a young British actress whose father was Bermuda's attorney general. "It was one of those electric things," Diana remembers, "but it was a mismatch." She was an easygoing, happy creature, and his manic drive drove her up the wall. Nevertheless, they stayed together for eight years and had two children, Michael and Joel. Kirk's frantic philandering and frenzied ambition brought their problems to a head. One day Michael saw them quarreling and burst into tears. Something had to be done.
Kirk moved out, and a year later they were divorced—without rancor but not without pain. Diana took the children to New York, and Kirk missed them grievously. Through all the storm and stress, he had remained a devoted father. "I had sworn," he says, "that I would never ignore my children the way my father ignored me." And he didn't. Michael and Joel spent vacations with their father and visited him on location. Sometimes Kirk called one son by another's name. Sometimes he even called one of them Kirk. "But we always knew he was there," Michael says, "and that he really cared."
Kirk himself didn't know where he was. For months after he left Diana, he had sex with a different girl every night. It was like eating Chinese food, he remembers: "An hour later you're hungry." But he kept on chasing. "I was afraid of falling in love," he says. "It's such a frightening process. You're vulnerable." Eventually, still playing safe, he fell in love with a fantasy of innocence. Pier Angeli was her name. She was an Italian girl who appeared in more than 25 movies and died at 39 of an overdose of barbiturates. When Douglas met her, she was 19 and exquisitely beautiful. First they played lovers in a movie. Then they played lovers in real life. But they never had sex. Douglas refused to sully her purity. He thought of her as an angel. In fact, he was told later, she was a round-heeled little devil, but he never noticed. The fantasy was in full force when he met Anne.
"Anne is an amazing woman," Kirk says. "She's like a spirited mare. No matter how I try, I can never master her completely. Our relationship is like a work of art. Something in continuous creation that endures and evolves."
The object of this adoration is small, slender, elegant, still touchingly pretty at 64. She is also a shrewd executive who oversees Kirk's career. Sitting now in her unpretentious office, she smiles as she recalls the stormy story of their passion.
"We met in Paris in 1953, when Kirk made Act of Love. I was 28, he was 36 was an assistant producer. Kirk asked me to be his secretary. I said, 'Thank you, no, but I'll get you a secretary.' That night he called me at home and invited me to dinner at the Tour d'Argent. I said, 'Thank you, but I'm tired. I'm going to make myself a little omelet and go to bed.' He was stunned. Women did not say no to him."
For a month she evaded his advances. She did not, as she told him, care to be involved with a movie star "on a superficial basis"—besides, she was seeing another man. Then one day, unexpectedly, they began to talk.
"Everything came tumbling out," she says. "How I was born and spent my early childhood in Germany, how my parents divorced, how I went to live in Belgium, how I fled to France just ahead of the German armies, how I spent the war putting German subtitles on French movies. I told him I was having an affair with a French industrialist named Ramon Babbas, who didn't want to marry me. Veils fell away. We saw each other in a different light. At the end of the evening, I kissed him goodbye—with feeling. The next day we became lovers. I knew he was engaged to Pier Angeli, but my feelings for him had become stronger than myself."
When her lover told her he was going to spend New Year's Eve with Pier, however, her strength returned. "I told him, 'When you come back, I won't be here.' I had to end it. I was getting badly hurt. Out of spite I gave him a farewell party and invited all the girls he had slept with since we had been together. It was a large party. Then I left for the South of France. Only my maid knew where I was, and I made her swear not to tell Kirk."
Kirk takes up the story. "At midnight, Pier and I kissed. No passion. I couldn't figure it out. I had this sweet thing alone in Paris. And I felt—unhappy." Suddenly he understood: "The whole relationship was a silly fantasy."
He broke off the engagement, tracked Anne down the next day and persuaded her to rush back to Paris on the next train. But he never mentioned marriage and neither did she. For four happy weeks, the reunited lovers frolicked in the snow at Klosters, Switzerland. Then Kirk flew off to make a movie. Several months later he called and asked her to come visit him in Los Angeies. She agreed.
"I thought, 'Either I'll be married or it's over,' " she says. "Ramon Babbas tried to stop me. He burned my face with a lighted cigarette and tried to jump out of a window, but I pulled him back in. It was a terrible scene.
"I stayed three weeks in Los Angeles. Then I said I had to leave. Kirk said nothing. But the next day he went down on his knees and proposed. I went down on my knees too. He said, 'Let's get married on Sunday.' I said, 'What's wrong with Saturday?' So we flew to Las Vegas and were married by a justice of the peace with a Texas accent. I couldn't understand him, so I repeated after him, 'I, Anne, take thee, Kirk, for my aw/a/wedded husband!' "
Awful he has sometimes been, by his own admission: "I've been guilty during my marriage as much as anyone else. Maybe more." Anne knew about some of his sidesteps. About some she didn't—until he showed her his manuscript and requested permission to go public with his peccadilloes. Outwardly, she reacted with calm. She told Kirk to tell the truth, and she told everybody else: "It's up to me to handle it." Inwardly, Michael says, "I'm sure she was disturbed. But they work such things out between them. What outsiders think doesn't matter."
The Douglas clan (which includes Kirk's four sons—superstar Michael, 44, Joel, 41, Peter, 32, and Eric, 30) keep in constant touch. "To this day," says Michael, "Dad is the biggest advice giver in the world. I tell him, 'I'm in my 40s. It's too late! Enjoy us or don't see us. Relax! I'm not doing too bad!' "
Nevertheless, Kirk goes right on giving advice to the son whose fame now exceeds his own: "I kept telling him he should play a villain. So finally he did, in Wall Street, and when he did that wonderful, horrible greed speech, I just kvelled [beamed]!" Was he jealous when Michael won the Oscar he himself was denied? Kirk insists happily, "I'm attaining immortality through my loins."
Has he attained immortality as an actor? Douglas isn't sure. "I've been more adventurous in my choice of roles than most stars of my generation. That's a strength. And my intensity is a strength too—I've never been afraid to pull out all the stops—but it's also a weakness. I came close to being typed as macho. Which is a shame, because in my best roles I express weakness and vulnerability too."
About any other kind of immortality Douglas has grave doubts. "When a dog dies," he wonders ironically, "does he go to heaven? Why should we think we're so special that we cannot just die? No, you only go around once and just hope you get the brass ring. The rest is ego." Yet his own ego finds it hard to believe that Kirk Douglas will ever actually cease to be. "Everybody else gets older," he says with a wry grin. "I don't. I'm the Ponce de León who found the Fountain of Youth. And suddenly you realize it isn't so. Death is up there ahead, the end of the road. Nobody likes the idea, but you get used to it. You get used to the idea that in nature there's no justice, that God doesn't run a nice, clean shop."
"But what the hell!" he says, brightening. "Being 71 has its advantages. I've always had a big mouth. Now I can say anything I damn please. There's plenty of life in the old carcass yet. Construction workers still holler when I walk down the street in New York. 'Hey, Koik!' What, me retire? Never!"
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