In His Own Words

By Stephen Whitty, ReMIND Magazine

Even though he was 103, it was still a shock when Kirk Douglas died.
Because he seemed indestructible.
He survived a devastating helicopter crash in 1991, a serious stroke in 1996. And still went back to work as soon as he could. It was 1999, just over 20 years ago, when he sat down to talk while he was promoting his comeback movie, Diamonds. Candid, as always, Kirk discussed his health, his children and never wanting to be Superman. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation.

“Real friendships are difficult in my profession. Betty Bacall, though, I’ve known her for more than 60 years. We were at the same acting school and she had a big crush on me; she even gave me her uncle’s overcoat one winter. And I repaid her on a rooftop in Greenwich Village by trying to seduce her. Without success! … And I really liked my friendship with Burt Lancaster. He was interesting and I like interesting people. I used to tell him, ‘Burt, I’m going to destroy you — I’m going to tell people you’re really an intellectual.’ Because he loved opera. Who would have thought Burt Lancaster loved opera? I really miss him. But you know, he had a stroke, and his wife wouldn’t let me see him. She said if I came over, looking so healthy, that would depress him.”

“The worst thing is the depression. The shame. I went through that for about a month. I didn’t want to see anybody, I didn’t want anybody to see me. And then with my wife’s help — well, she kicked me out of bed, got me working with a speech therapist. And now I get more invitations to make a speech than I ever did! It makes me laugh.”

“They’re more interesting. Also, people are composed of many things, and in my work, what influences me is the complexity of people. When I play a strong guy, I try to find, where is he weak? And, conversely, where I play a weak guy, where is he strong? I’ve never wanted to be Superman. I always wanted to play a guy who’s fighting for something.”

“My kids, it was tough on them, I think. They’d look at television, and their father was leading an army, or conquering the world, or being crucified. He seemed like a myth. I have four sons and with Michael, for a long time, we had a strained relationship. We went through a long time where I would say, ‘Michael, you never ask me for anything.’ If I gave him something, he would take it, but he never asked. And years later it was my birthday and I went to my office and there was a new car in the parking lot with a big ribbon and a note: ‘I never asked for anything, but you gave me a lot.’ Wow. … He’s grown into a wonderful actor. But he gets mad sometimes. I tell him, ‘That part you won the Oscar for, Wall Street, that was too easy. I could have played that part!'”

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