I've Made About 90 Feature Films, but These Are the Ones I'm Proudest Of
Editor's note: For the release of Kirk Douglas' new book, Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Love, Loss, and What Really Matters, HuffPost Entertainment asked the decorated actor to recall some of the fondest memories from his storied career. We sent Douglas a list of select films, and he graciously responded with a personal reflection on his work. Read on for what Douglas had to say of his 68 years in the business.
Over some 70 years, I made about 90 feature films, starting with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946 and ending with It Runs in the Family in 2003 -- a wonderful experience, because I got to work with my son Michael, my grandson Cameron and my first wife, Diana Dill. I have forgotten most of them, and so has the public. However, I am proud of the ones I will tell you about, especially those I made through my own production company Bryna. They include Paths of Glory,Spartacus, Seven Days in May, and my favorite of all, Lonely Are the Brave. A few films are sentimental favorites that mark meaningful times in my off-screen life and milestones in my rise to stardom. Others are meaningful to me because, while entertaining the public, they also gave insight into serious issues. I will tell you my choices.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Let's start with my first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a film noir made at Paramount. You know, I never wanted to be anything but a New York stage actor, but that was a precarious career for a man with a young family. I was in a play called The Wind Is Ninety -- don't ask me what the title means -- when I got a visit backstage from an important Hollywood producer, Hal Wallis. My friend Lauren Bacall had urged him to see me when he was in New York because I had gotten good reviews. He offered me a job. I could not turn down a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. Besides, it was a better paycheck than I could get on Broadway. All across the country on the train, I memorized my part so I could hold my own with the seasoned film stars. I remember saying my lines perfectly during the first rehearsal. Pretty impressive, I thought, until I saw the way everyone was looking at me. I had learned Van Heflin's part instead of the role of the weak, alcoholic husband of Martha Ivers. How mortifying! My next humiliation was not far behind. The director told me to light a cigarette. I didn't smoke, but I obeyed. It made me dizzy and nauseous, and I ran to my dressing room to throw up. After the film wrapped, I went back to New York and got parts in a few more flops. So I became a film actor out of necessity, and soon I was working regularly in Hollywood -- as well as smoking four packs a day.
Champion was a turning point in my young career. I had an opportunity to make a big Technicolor picture at MGM called The Great Sinner starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, and Lionel Barrymore. I turned it down to play Midge Kelly, a not-very-likeable boxer in a small independent film put together by young unknowns -- producer Stanley Kramer, writer Carl Foreman, and director Mark Robson. My agent was very unhappy. I was in pretty good shape, but I had never boxed. I didn't want them to use a body double, so I went into serious training with Mushy Callahan, an ex-welterweight champion. You know, it's hard to make a movie punch look real. In the scene where my opponent was to catch me with a faked uppercut as I bounced off the ropes, he actually knocked me out. Now that's movie realism! Champion got me a Best Actor nomination for an Oscar and made me a star. And that other film, The Great Sinner? It was a flop.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
To no one's surprise, I again played the self-serving bad guy in Billy Wilder's drama about a disgraced journalist trying to reinvent his big career in small-town Albuquerque. When a tunnel collapses outside a small town, he sees a big opportunity in his exclusive coverage of the man trapped below, convincing him to delay rescue for the sake of the headlines. My co-star was Jan Sterling, playing the the victim's scheming wife. In one scene I am supposed to choke her. Before the cameras rolled, I told Jan to let me know if I was being too rough. When she turned blue and went limp, I released her. "Why didn't you stop me?!" I demanded when she came to. "I couldn't," she rasped, "because you were choking me." Ace in the Hole, redubbed The Big Carnival in America, was not a hit at the time, but it became a cult favorite. I loved working with Billy, who became a good friend.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Wasn't I lucky that Clark Gable turned down the role, since it earned me my second Academy nomination? Lana Turner played my beautiful discovery. We shot at MGM with Vincente Minnelli directing. One day I had a chat with Francis X. Bushman, who had a small part. Bushman had been a major star in the silents and talkies, but he had just faded away. Now I learned why. At the height of his fame, he inadvertently offended the all-powerful Louis B. Mayer by keeping him waiting a few minutes. Mayer, in turn, banned him from MGM and blackballed him in the industry. This was his first time on the lot in 25 years. Bushman's story gave me some useful insight into the ruthless, selfish character I was playing -- still another tough-guy antihero. I was doing well with these roles.
Act of Love (1953)
I don't know if this is a good film, but to me it's a great film because that's where I met my wife, Anne Buydens, to whom I have been married for 60 years. I write about our strange romance in Life Could Be Verse. Anne was hired to do publicity for Act of Love, and we became friends. I, of course, wanted more (she was beautiful and had a fantastic sense of humor), but she didn't want to be a movie star's latest fling. One evening I took her with me to a charity event at Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, in which French movie stars were the featured performers. I was known as "The Darling Brute" in French media, so the organizers asked me to participate. I went backstage, where they found something "appropriate" for me. Right after the elephant act, I came out -- still in my tuxedo -- with a broom and shovel to clean up the droppings. Anne laughed so hard that I knew I had won her over.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
This was the first movie Walt Disney made with live characters. We were on a six-day-week shooting schedule, so Anne and I flew up to Las Vegas after work on Saturday to get married, took in Sinatra at the Sahara, and flew back to L.A. the next night. I played the banjo and sang in the film. I also recorded "Gotta Whale of a Tale," and it became a hit. It even topped Sinatra's latest record for a few weeks -- which I enjoyed teasing him about over the years. It became a song my kids and I liked to sing together. During a scene in It Runs in the Family where Michael, Cameron and I are fishing in a canoe, Michael suggested we warble it together. I enjoyed that.
The Indian Fighter (1955)
When I started Bryna, my own production company (named for my mother), this was our first picture. It was a Western shot in Oregon, and I offered my ex-wife Diana a good part. Anne was pregnant with our first son, Peter, but she readily agreed to have my older boys, Michael and Joel, stay with her in Beverly Hills while Diana and I were on location. To this day, we call Diana "our first wife" and remain good friends. The film did well, and the Bryna Company was on its way.
Lust for Life (1956)
I wanted to make Lust for Life at Bryna, but it turned out that MGM owned the rights. I still wanted to play Van Gogh, especially since John Houseman and Vincente Minnelli, my team from The Bad and the Beautiful, were attached. I loved being back in France, and we shot in all the places where Van Gogh had lived and painted. But it was also horrible. I became so immersed in his tortured life that it was hard to pull back. In makeup I looked like him, and he had been my age when he died. Sometimes I would reach my hand up to touch my ear to make sure it was still there. After its release, I was contacted by Marc Chagall to do his life story. I admired him greatly, but I never wanted to play another artist. My friend John Wayne was not happy with me playing Vincent. He said we owed it to our public to play only strong, tough characters. I told him that I would continue to play any role I considered interesting. Despite my difficulty in shedding the Van Gogh persona, I did eventually come back to myself. On the other hand, I don't think John (I never called him "Duke") ever dropped the role of John Wayne that he so carefully crafted for his life.
Paths of Glory (1957)
I had seen an interesting film called The Killing by a young director named Stanley Kubrick. I contacted him to see if he had any other projects. He gave me Paths of Glory, and I loved it even though I knew it would never be a commercial success. I got financing from United Artists, and we headed off to Germany to shoot around Munich. When I arrived, Stanley had completely rewritten the script. It was awful. He wanted to make it more commercial, he explained. As it was a Bryna film, I insisted we use the script I loved. I was right. It didn't make money, but it was a critical success. I found Stanley to be supremely talented but extremely difficult. With a bigger budget and a bigger payday on Spartacus, he became twice as difficult, but what a talent!
"I am Spartacus" is the most remembered line of the film and is often parodied. I used it as the title of my 2012 book about the making of the movie. Believe it or not, Stanley Kubrick hated the scene where all of Spartacus' men claim to be him. He didn't want to shoot it, but I insisted. After all, I was not only the star but also the producer who signed his paycheck. Our screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo, working under the pseudonym "Sam Jackson" because he was on Hollywood's notorious blacklist. What a shameful period that was, especially since we were all hypocrites, hiring the blacklisted to use their talents at reduced wages. I wanted Dalton to writeThe Last Cowboy, which Universal retitled Lonely Are the Brave, but I asked him to write Spartacus first. I was in a race to show a finished script to my dream cast of British actors -- Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton -- before Yul Brynner, with a rival project called The Gladiators, could approach them. Spartacus was a demanding movie, and I was crucified not only on screen but off of it, by the likes of powerful columnist Hedda Hopper and the American Legion, for using a book written by Howard Fast, a Communist, and giving Dalton screen credit. But the public embraced it, especially after the popular new President John F. Kennedy came to see it in a Washington theater and then proceeded to praise it.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
As I have said, this is my favorite movie. I love the theme that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you. I play a modern-day cowboy still living by the code of the Old West. Dalton wrote a perfect screenplay -- one draft, no revisions. My character gets into a bar fight with a vicious one-armed man. He was actually Burt Lancaster's stand-in, who had lost his arm in the war. It was a tough shoot in and around Albuquerque -- high altitude, snow, fog and freezing rain in May! I didn't get along with the director very well; plus, he had no regard for safety. When we were shooting on a narrow ledge with a steep drop, he asked me to walk around my horse on the outside. I wanted to be on the inside against the wall, because the horse instinctively would protect itself. Even after I explained, he argued with me, but I had seen too many unnecessary accidents to agree. The best relationship I had on this film was with my horse, Whisky. Of course, the horse couldn't talk back.
Seven Days in May (1964)
I was advised that making this movie would be risky because it concerns an attempted military overthrow of the U.S. government. But I ran into President Kennedy in Washington at a fancy buffet dinner. He had loved the book and spent 20 minutes telling me why it would make a great film. I could have played either of two roles: the bad guy behind the takeover plot or the good guy who blows the whistle to the president. I sent the script to my pal "Boit" Lancaster, telling him to choose whichever role he wanted to play. I would take the other. I did enjoy playing a nice guy for a change. We needed a shot of me entering the Pentagon, and nothing but the real thing would look authentic. We stole the shot, concealing the cameras in a van parked across the street. I was dressed in my Marine colonel's uniform. The guard saluted me. I saluted back and walked in, waited a bit, and walked out. Seven Days in May had its first sneak preview the night I closed in the play of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nes, which limped along for five months -- my final attempt to make it as a major Broadway star.
Bonus: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
And that brings me to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a movie I neither produced nor starred in despite all my best efforts. My son Michael asked if he could take a crack at producing it, so I gave him the rights, not at all sure whether he would have any more luck than I did. Well, it opened to raves, and on Academy Awards night, the film won all five major Oscars. I couldn't have been prouder of Michael, even though he wouldn't let me play McMurphy. "You're too old," he said. And this was in 1975, some 40 years ago! I forgave him. Jack Nicholson was superb.
Out of the Past (1947)
This was Douglas' second and final film as a director; it's a smart little Nixonian Western about a corrupt marshal, Howard Nightingale, who hunts down bank robber Jack Strawhorn (the ever-wonderful Bruce Dern) in the hope that it will accelerate a career in politics - then the tables are turned as Strawhorn kidnaps Nightingale and the posse resort to robbing a the town to raise the ransom, thus turning the people against the marshal.
Based on A, B. Guthrie's novel, Howard Hawks' film tells of two young men (Douglas and Dewey Martin), who join an expedition to travel up the Missouri River in the 1830s to trade with the Blackfoot. On the way, they fight off their rivals, The Missouri Fur Company, and Crow Indians - and are rivals themselves for the attention of a beautiful Indian woman. Although the trip is finally successful, Douglas loses out to Martin as far as the woman is concerned and he returns down the river alone.
Anthony Mann's fact-based winter time war film is a perennial favourite on British television. Neither Mann's nor Douglas' best work, this is, nevertheless, a tense adventure about Norwegian physics professor Rolf Pederson (our boy) dragged into the war by a resistance fighter Knut Straud (Richard Harris) in a attempt to stop the Nazis developing heavy water. The British commando troop assigned to the plant are wiped out, so it's up to Straud, Pederson and a small group of resistance fighters to carry out the raid themselves - which they do, but not without serious complications.
Brian De Palma's supernatural conspiracy movie sees Douglas playing an ex-CIA agent trying to find his son (Andrew Stevens), who has been kidnapped by an agency (led by John Cassavetes) within the Agency, because it wants to use his psychic powers to serve the US government. Douglas is pit into contact with a girl (Amy Irving) who has had psychic contact with his son and whose powers the agency also want to harness. They manage to find his son and although their reunion is tragic, Irving manages to use her powers to destroy Cassavetes in spectacular fashion.