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An Afternoon with Kirk Douglas

Your Guide, Diana SaengerFrom Diana Saenger,
Your Guide to Classic Movies.
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During an interview with Kirk Douglas for "It Runs in the Family" (2003), a film the famous actor made in 2003, Douglas was eager to share the floor with his family; son, Michael, his ex-wife and Michael's mother, Diana, and Michael’s son Cameron, all who also starred in the film.

Tottering into the room and speaking with a lisp, aftereffects from his stroke, Kirk Douglas did not look like the strong and stalwart actor who made “Spartacus,” “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.

Michael and Kirk had wanted to make a movie together for a long time but the idea never jelled. “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 Douglas said with a warm laugh.

So how did his mother get involved? “Fred Schepisi, the director, agreed to go with Cameron,” explained Michael, “and then I said, ‘Thank you Fred, now I’d like to talk to you about my mother,’ and he asked if this was a set-up. I said, no, it just happened.”

Just as Kirk Douglas’s career just happened. Who would dream that Issur Danielovitch Demsky, born with a clef chin in Amsterdam, New York in 1916, would someday be a famous Hollywood star. His family was not well off, so Douglas relied on an acting scholarship to open up a new world to him. He took on a few theater roles before serving his country in the US Navy in 1941. After the war he did more theatre and radio work before he landed the lead role in the 1946 “Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” His early interest in wrestling gave him a great physique which along with his natural good looks, made Douglas perfect for westerns, thrillers and dramas, many which kept him in the casting office continuously.

Rarely do journalists get to address an entire family of talent and part of the fun of this arrangement was the family’s retelling statements they made about each other during the interview for It Runs in the Family. Like when Douglas announces that when he was going to make In "Harm’s Way" in 1965 with John Wayne and wanted to take his boys (Michael, Joel, Peter and Eric) to Hawaii to go surfing. “I caught Michael smoking pot,” said Douglas with his now lopsided speech, an after effect from his stroke, “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 a paradoxical joy when hearing the story. “That’s a weird thing to say,” replied Michael. “How he could be more proud of Mobil Man of the Month than my Oscars?”

Having pride was something Kirk Douglas did not inherit from his own dad. In his latest book, “My Stoke of Luck,” he stated, “I tried to find one pleasant memory with my father – Pa, who never gave me a pat on the back . . . I couldn’t find a single one.”

Trapped in the whirl of building a Hollywood career, Kirk and Michael both admit they were sucked into the infectious drive to succeed. A career that required endless hours away from the family.

Time not only mellows ambition, but allows many moments to reflect and both Kirk and Michael have obviously addressed the parenting aspect in their own minds many times. Michael has the luxury of starting a new family with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He admits Dylan Michael, almost three, and the couple’s daughter, Carys Zeta, born last year, will benefit from his past regressions.

“I’m more patience now,” said Michael. “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 didn’t work as much as my father did, but I think I was a good dad. With Dylan and our new baby I have no ambitions. I like making movies, but I’m more relaxed. I don’t have as much to worry about so my patience is better.”

Finding his own connection to the movie, Douglas explained how "t Runs in the Family" reflected life. “There is a line in the picture where I say to Alex, ‘You’re a much better father than I was,’ and he says, ‘Well dad, you didn’t raise the bar too high.’ Later I said, ‘Michael, you said that with too much meaning.’”

Find out about the time spent on the set of "It Runs In The Family" on the next page.

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