In Remembrance of Kirk Douglas
The family that acts together stays together. Below is an interview I was fortunate to have with Kirk Douglas and his family back in 2003.
Tottering into the room and speaking with a lisp resulting from his stroke, Kirk Douglas does not look like the strong and stalwart actor who made Sparticus, Detective Story and The Vikings among other great films. But the actor’s great sense of humor and incredible drive to go on are a match to the capable and vigorous actor he’s always been.
The Douglas family -- Kirk, Michael, his mother Diana and son Cameron -- have assembled to talk about their new film It Runs in the Family. Michael and Kirk have wanted to make a movie together for a long time but the idea never jelled until this project came along.
“I was in NY when 9/11 happened, and all you wanted to do was reach out to your family. I looked at Jesse Wigutow’s script because it had a great part for the grandfather and grandson and my part, which originally sucked,” Michael said with a laugh.
I then asked Michael how his mother got involved and he replied, “Fred Schepisi, the director, agreed to go with Cameron, and I said, ‘Thank you Fred, now I’d like to talk to you about my mother if this was a set-up. He got no for an answer.”
Rarely do journalists get to address an entire family of talent and part of the fun of this arrangement is retelling statements they make about each other. For example, when Kirk announced he was going to make In Harm’s Way with John Wayne, he wanted to take the boys to Hawaii to go surfing. “I caught Michael smoking pot,” said Kirk, “and told him he had to stay home and get a job. Michael became a gas station attendant, and he won Mobile Man of the Month. I was so proud of him. And when he got his two Oscars, I said, ‘Michael, to me the most important prize you ever won was Mobil Man of the Month.”
Michael beams with joy when hearing the story. “That’s a weird thing to say,” he comments. “How could be more proud of Mobil Man of the Month than my Oscars?”
Now along with Kirk’s and Michael’s Oscars, Michael’s wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones has her own (Chicago ) to boast about. I asked Michael how he felt about that moment?
“I can’t even begin to say,” he replies. “When you have such unadulterated love for someone, and to see this opportunity she never thought she’d have to sing and dance again, and all the hard work they did and then to win an Oscar, it’s been a heck of a year.”
Working with his son and mother has also been an incredible time, Michael said. “I realized that every family is dysfunctional, everyone has skeletons in the closet … most families don’t pay a lot of attention to each other unless there is a crisis and then, when a crisis happens, because your blood, you kind of come together. It was everything that I'd hoped for – both us serving the picture, the story of the Gromberg family, and just spending two months with my family.”
“Kind of like old home week?” I asked “Yes. Having all of those photographs, brought back memories with my mother and father who have been divorced for over fifty years, but who've always been good friends. Talking about things and sharing it with my son, too, is something that I'm just glad that we did it.
“Did working with Cameron change your relationship?” I asked.
“It's certainly better,” said Michael. “I think for him, even though he grew up with his father being an actor, it's the first time that he really got a sense of what the schedule and the hours are like. His experience now is like, 'Whoa, this is a lot of work here.' So I think that he had a much better understanding of what's been going on and what I've been doing.”
“So this is something you couldn’t relate to at the same age with your dad?” I inquired.
Michael replied, “I gained a lot of respect for him (Cameron) because it initially goes from worries like, 'I hope that he's going to be on time and realizes the importance of keeping on schedule.’ Truthfully I couldn't have done it when I was his age, working with my dad. I would've been too intimidated, and for him to kind of take on his first big part with his father and his grandfather, I was really impressed. So, it's a nice sense that I think he has the talent, that if he really wants to stay with it and have the discipline and do the work, he's going to have a real nice career.”
Cameron wasn’t sure at first he wanted to do the film. “After the first day when all the family was having such a good time together, they gave me a lot of genuine love and support which was real nice,” he said.
Kirk appreciated working with his son and grandson. “It was the apex of my career. I never thought, especially after my stroke, that I would get a change to work with my son Michael or my grandson. I thought Michael is a good actor, and I thought that I was a good actor, but that Cameron was a good actor, that came as a pleasant surprise.”
I asked Michael how it was for him doing the memorial scene, and he responded, “That was very weird, yeah, doing a thing where you're pretending that your mom is in the coffin was very strange. As far as the eulogy, we sort of rewrote it reflecting some of the qualities that I think about my mother, but that was bizarre. There were a couple of times that I thought were eerie.”
Another joy Michael is anticipating involves the birth of his next child. And he admits, this time he will try harder as a father. “I’m more patience now he said.” When Cameron came around I was at the height of my production company and still trying to make myself an actor so my ambitions were running my life and my family took second place. I think I was a good dad, I didn’t work as much as my father. But with Dillion and our new baby I have no ambitions. I like making movies, but I don’t have as much to worry about so my patience is better.”
Patience is also something that Kirk has used to overcome his afflictions. “In my book, My Stroke of Luck, I talk about dealing with depression and that no matter how bad things are, they could be worse. I realized that you have to have a sense of humor. It’s very important to be able to laugh at yourself. So now I have a new career,” Kirk jests, “because I have the monopoly. If they want an old guy with sloppy speech, they come to me.”
At this time Kirk next appeared in Illusions, and Michael was cast soon after in The In-laws, and Monkey Face.
This interview was a very special time for me, and I will never forget the big hug from Kirk right before I left.