At 87, Kirk Douglas is frail, suffering the clear aftermath of the stroke that impeded his speech. Yet there remains a power to the man. Age has not dampened but rather strengthened his sense of humour.
Promoting his first major film since the stroke, It Runs in the Family, produced by and co-starring his famous son Michael, the legendary actor arrives to be interviewed with his grandson Cameron, who makes his acting debut in the same film. “You better be nice to him because he’s going to become a famous actor. So you have to be nice to him. I’m nice to him because he’l give me a job in his next picture”, he quips.
Asked where his sense of humour comes from, he suggests reading from his latest book in which he recounts, with both humour and pathos, life after his stroke. “In the book, I had my operator’s manual. One, when things go bad, always remember it could be worse. Two, never, never give up and keep working on your speech and on your life. Three, never lose your sense of humour: Laugh at yourself, laugh at others. Those things are the most important. Everybody has depression. I found out that the way you deal with depression is you try to think of other people, other things, because if a person is so self-centred, oh woe is me. Of course, my wife was very helpful. I would be in bed and she’ve say come on, get your ass out of bed and work with your speech therapist.”
Douglas did just that. He may not quite be the Hollywood idol of The Vikings, Lust for Life or Spartacus, but Kirk Douglas remains every bit the movie star. These days, the classical Hollywood star thrives on his work, and had a ball returning front and centre to It Runs in the Family, a sometimes wacky comedy about fathers and sons, grief and family bonding. It gave the actor, who rediscovered his Jewishness following a near fatal helicopter accident some years back, the chance to work with much of his family, including of all people his ex-wife Diana, who plays his wife in the film.
“It was wonderful because we have always had a good relationship and she’s a very good actress, so that was very easy working with her. I think we both like working together and Diana is a very good friend of my wife. They have lunch together. It’s part of our life. You can’t cut out part of your life. I had two sons with her. AS a matter of fact, after I got married to my wife, Anne, my wife was pregnant and I was shooting a picture in Oregon called Indian Fighter and there were good parts for my ex-wife Diana, so I gave her the part. So, we had Diana and I in Oregon making the movie and my wife Anne was taking care of little Michael and Joel. So, we go back a long way”, Douglas recalls, forcing a half smile.
As for working with Michael, with whom he has a had a sometimes testy fraternal relationship over the years, Douglas jokes that his son was a tough boss. “He doesn’t pay well but he’s fair. He’l give you a shot and helps you as best as he can. It was a wonderful experience.” Kirk says that he regrets not having worked with Michael earlier in their lives. “I always wanted to work with Michael. When I had my stroke, I thought well, I will never work as an actor again because what can an actor do who can’t talk? He waits for silent pictures to come back. It was a big thrill to finally do a picture with Michael and to top it off, I never expected to be working with Cameron. So, it was a big thrill. When he found It Runs in the Family it was before my stroke and after I had my stroke, Michael tried to encourage me. He said well, Dad, listen. Just work with your speech therapist. Then we’l make the movie. That made me mad. I said Michael, why don’t YOU work with my speech therapist and then when you talk the way I talk, we’l do the movie. We all laughed at that. But, first of all, it’s hard to find scripts of any kind that’s good. I mean, nobody sets out to make a bad movie and how many bad movies are there? But we were lucky with this picture, I think, because it was something that people can relate to. Every family is dysfunctional and every family has problems. The sons are always doing this or that and fathers like Michael have a lot of problems with Cameron, but I’m the grandfather. I have no problems.” Kirk Douglas remains a Hollywood legend who knows how to make an exit.