Because he was Spartacus | Daily News


Because he was Spartacus

The generosity, professionalism and old Hollywood charm of Kirk Douglas

“What sort of a name is Kirk?” said Kirk Douglas contemptuously to me.

“What’s your real name?” I said. “Issy Danielovitch. Haven’t you read my autobiography? I’ll give you a copy. The studio liked the name Kirk Douglas. I didn’t know Douglas was Scottish. And as for Kirk …”

So many movie stars of the 1940s and 50s had WASP tough-guy names: Marion Morrison sounded wimpy so they called him John Wayne; Rock Hudson was more butch than Leroy Harold Scherer, Jr; Frederick Austerlitz became Fred Astaire and Bernie Schwartz became Tony Curtis because heroes couldn’t have foreign names, still less if they sounded Jewish. Which Kirk was. This conversation was on the set of my film Greedy, which was about a grasping family of adult children waiting for their rich uncle to die so they could get their hands on his money. Universal Studios wanted a big star as Uncle Joe and the choice soon came down to Anthony Quinn or Kirk Douglas. They came to meet us – the producer Brian Grazer, the writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, and me. I was intimidated by meeting Zorba the Greek and Spartacus. They both were charming and funny. It seemed an impossible choice.

Physically, they were surprisingly different. Quinn was a big man, as I expected. Kirk, on the other hand, was barely an inch taller than me and I’m only 5’6”. On the screen, he was giant. The illusion was created by his powerful presence, by short leading ladies and by shooting from low angles. His shape was perfect for a movie star – broad shoulders, slim hips, immensely muscular. Later I learnt he had been a wrestler before he was an actor. He was elderly but still did a workout every morning, with weights. He told us about an incident that had changed his life: he had been in a helicopter crash. Others were killed, but somehow he walked away. “I feel guilty”, he said. “Why should I have survived and the others died?” Babaloo said, “Because you are Spartacus!”

Word reached Lew Wasserman, the mogul at the head of Universal Studios, that I had not yet cast anyone and a message came indicating that he would like me to cast Kirk. Lew had been Kirk’s agent before he ran Universal, and they were old friends. I suggested meeting Kirk again and was invited to his house. It was a bungalow in Beverly Hills, not the mansion I expected.

I was nervous. He had worked with the best directors, some of my heroes. Even if Kirk had never acted at all, he’d have earned a place in the history books as one of the most significant of all producers, from epics like Spartacus to perhaps the greatest American war film, Paths of Glory. But all that was on my mind, not his. He came straight to the point. “What’s your problem? Why are you hesitating about casting me?”

I plucked up my courage. “Two reasons”, I said. “First of all, although you’re very funny in person” (which he was) “comedy has never really been your thing on the screen. Second, I’m intimidated. You’re a living legend. You’re famous for being a tough guy, both on and off the screen.”

Kirk sat on his sofa, underneath one of his Toulouse-Lautrecs, nodding in judicious agreement. “So …?”

“So I’m wondering – will you take direction from me?”

He was astonished. “Of course I will”, he said. “I always do. Ask anyone. You can’t see yourself when you’re acting. You have to trust the man behind the camera, otherwise you could end up looking ridiculous. And that’s what we all fear the most, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes and no”, I said. “It’s true that you never look ridiculous. You always retain your dignity. But perhaps that’s why comedy isn’t your thing. Comedy is about looking ridiculous, one way or another, it’s about the absurdity of the human condition. Maybe the actor shouldn’t have to look ridiculous, but the character must.” Kirk was interested in this notion, and said he was willing to take that chance. I cast him.

Before we started shooting, I invited Kirk and Anne, his wife, over for dinner. Kirk brought a six-foot-high orchid for my wife Rita – this was old Hollywood. When I said Rita was still making dinner, he said, “Well, let’s all go in the kitchen and help”, and he took off his jacket and did so. He was elegant and yet charmingly informal.

On the set, his attitude was impeccable. I had just worked with Eddie Murphy, who was brilliant but invariably late and unprepared because he liked to improvise. Kirk was never late, always knew his lines perfectly and we almost always had a perfect performance on the first take. He never needed more than three takes and was frustrated by some of the younger actors who would need five or six to get up to speed. After three, Kirk was done, impatient, and wanting to move on. He hung out with the cast and crew on the set, told funny stories and was friendly to absolutely everybody.

One day, I asked him about Kubrick. “He was the one who made me break the blacklist”, he said. I was surprised and asked him how. “It all started with Kubrick on Paths of Glory. I had come across this clever twenty-five-year old kid director. I’d had Paths of Glory written, I liked Kubrick’s work, I gave him the script and asked him if he’d like to direct it. He said yes, took it off with him to France for the summer and came back with a completely new script that he had rewritten.” Kirk rejected Kubrick’s script out of hand, told him it was nothing like as good and said if he wanted to direct the film it would be the script Kirk had given him. Kubrick acquiesced.

Spartacus was Kirk’s next project. He was the producer as well as the star. Universal told him to hire Anthony Mann to direct it. Kirk thought it was a bad choice, but did what he was told. The studio disliked the dailies, however, and after the first ten days, they told him to fire Mann. Embarrassed, he phoned Mann, who was also not happy with the work so far, and Kirk promised to hire him for his next film The Heroes of Telemark. Which he did. Meanwhile, Kirk had to find a new director for Spartacus and he phoned Kubrick. “Would you like to take over directing Spartacus?” Kubrick said “That depends who’s in it”. Kirk remained calm. “Well, there’s me, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov … will that do?” “Let me read it”, said Kubrick. He read it over the weekend and agreed to take over. On Monday Kirk gathered the entire cast and crew together on the Universal backlot.

He told them that Anthony Mann had left the picture and that Stanley Kubrick, who was standing next to him, would be taking over. Everyone stared at the skinny twenty-six-year old kid in sneakers, and thought he was joking.

Kirk offered him a lift home that night so that he could catch up on everything Kubrick needed to know. Kubrick had a question: “Dalton Trumbo wrote this and he’s blacklisted – who are you gonna credit as writer?” Kirk said he hadn’t decided what to do about that yet. Kubrick said “You can credit me if you like”. Kirk was astonished. “You only read it twenty-four hours ago!” Kubrick said, “I don’t mind if you credit it to me”. It was at that moment, Kirk told me, that he decided to credit Dalton Trumbo. That’s why he always said that it was Kubrick who made him break the blacklist.

- Times Literary Supplement

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