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Friday, August 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Kay McFadden

The Douglases: two stars crossing

Seattle Times TV critic

The usual process for an old movie star is to become the subject of adoring, lightweight TV tributes while the cable news obituaries lie in wait.

Luckily for Kirk Douglas, along came someone who knew him too well and was too smart for such nonsense. Lee Grant, the Oscar-winning director and actress, has been acquainted with Douglas since they did "Detective Story" back in 1951.

Grant wanted to make a documentary portrait of the Douglases: Kirk and son Michael. "The ground rules," she said, "were simply that it not be phony."

She has succeeded. "A Father ... A Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," airing at 8 p.m. tomorrow on HBO, can be as clumsy as its title. But that only reflects the awkwardness of two powerful subjects who have circled each other like prizefighters for decades before finally embracing.

En route, blows were landed. In the mid-1950s, Kirk Douglas left his wife and two young sons, Michael and Joel, for another woman. In the mid-'70s, producer Michael failed to star his father in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," even though Kirk Douglas had originated the role of McMurphy on Broadway.

All is not forgotten. Soon after tomorrow's program begins, Michael dares to ask his father how he, Michael, could have handled the issue of "Cuckoo's Nest" differently.

Kirk Douglas aggressively insists that Michael should have demanded his father get the part. Tempers flare. They lock eyes until Michael Douglas says in the same menacing tone with which he once threatened to kill Glenn Close: "Don't raise your voice at me."

I was ready to leave the room so they could duke it out. Grant, the unseen mischief-maker, has given us a portrait of alpha-male behavior complicated by blood that's as intense as any "Beyond the Glory" exposé and yet transcendently universal.

There's also a touch of gallant defiance to the proceedings. Though he is perfectly understandable, the 86-year-old Douglas has never fully recovered from a stroke. He speaks slowly and carefully — frustrating to a man known for his intense, biting delivery.

Still, if sympathy is the goal, Michael is not prepared to join the pity party.

Listening to his father complain about how much he has to use his lips and tongue to articulate speech, Douglas interjects, "It's great for oral sex," and bursts out laughing.

But dad gets the last word. "Yeah," he says. Pause. "I don't know why I put up with you."

Although the exchanges between Michael and Kirk Douglas anchor the film, Grant has plenty of other material. Her interviews include Catherine Zeta-Jones; Michael's brother, Joel, and half-brother Peter; and Kirk Douglas' wife, Anne, and ex-wife, Diana.

Both spouses offer chilling accounts of what it meant to be married to a philandering symbol of virility, and of the bargains each tried to strike ("tried" is the operative word) to make their marriages work.

Grant also coaxed such powerful industry figures as motion-picture lobbyist Jack Valenti and Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing into commenting.

In fact, the title of the documentary keeps all its promises, for the connections that run through it represent a Hollywood rapidly vanishing.

Lee Grant originally was Lyova Rosenthal; Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Their fellow actor Karl Malden, who worked with Kirk 60 years ago in summer stock and mentored Michael in "The Streets of San Francisco," was Mladen Sekulovich.

With many others, they formed a nucleus of Americans that shed their parents' Eastern European identities to pursue fame in front of the camera — not, as an earlier generation generally did, behind it.

Other sympathies exist. After an Oscar for "Detective Story," Grant was blacklisted for refusing to testify against her producer husband to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1960, Kirk Douglas killed the blacklist by hiring banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for "Spartacus," a film that echoed the growing civil-rights movement.

Grant eventually resumed her film work and also starred in theater and television productions. When she became a director, one of her first projects was "Down and Out in America," which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1986.

Despite an impressive portfolio of nonfiction films and celebrity profiles (she's done a lot of work for the "Intimate" series on Lifetime), Grant does inflict some weaknesses on "A Father ... A Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

She occasionally conflates personal image and screen image by showing film clips meant to underscore who Kirk Douglas is in real life. It's a heavy-handed technique.

And at times, Grant pads in observations that aren't particularly informative, as if she felt obliged to include everyone that agreed to be interviewed. These slow the pace.

The list of sensitive topics has limits. Kirk Douglas does not discuss youngest son Eric, who died last year from drug-related causes, although the program is dedicated to him. Eric's brother Peter delicately suggests Eric felt overlooked growing up.

While the chats between Kirk and Michael Douglas are loosely woven by topic, the documentary moves chronologically from parent to child. Early highlights and lowlights of Michael's career are recounted before he emerged as the cute co-star of a hit TV series, then turned producer with "Cuckoo's Next," then returned onscreen.

There's a lot of "like father, like son." Both had hasty first marriages. When Michael became a cinema heartthrob in the 1980s, he indulged in dad's temptations. Kathleen Turner renders a slyly demure tale about their steamy time "Romancing the Stone."

Some experiences were new. Michael Douglas entered rehab for alcohol and drug abuse in the early '90s, sparking a British tabloid fabrication that he was a sex addict.

While the accusation still rankles with Michael, Kirk thinks it's funny. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to find what they have in common — including an old-fashioned droit du seigneur that's the prerogative of big stars when they spy an attractive woman.

Not that some women couldn't resist.

A half-century ago, Kirk Douglas courted future wife Anne with authority and impatience: "She was so hard to get into bed," he recalls. Michael Douglas' dazzling pursuit of Zeta-Jones was similar. "A kiss or two for the first nine or 10 months was all I got," he says.

"A Father. A Son. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" recounts the recent trials of Kirk Douglas' life: a helicopter crash, the stroke and an intense depression from which he recovered in part by studying the Torah and having a second bar mitzvah.

The documentary concludes with a flurry of clips, among them the 2003 Academy Awards at which father and son were co-presenters, and home video of Anne and Kirk Douglas' 50th wedding anniversary last year.

But we are borne back to the father-son chat at the dinner table. "Was I a good father?" asks Kirk. Michael sighs, then starts. "You have ultimately been a great father. But fatherhood would not have been one of the highest parts of your résumé early on."

Kirk Douglas hangs on every word. When it's done, he leans over and kisses his son on the cheek. Then they look into Grant's camera and sing "A Whale of a Tale."

Cutting humor

"Barbershop," debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, is a reminder that movies aren't alone in the struggle to transform material from another medium.

Based on the hit film (and sequel), this effort at serialization has some good actors and some fine bits and pieces that don't quite come together.

Although shot semidocumentary style without a laugh track to give it that real feel, inorganic elements cheat the effect. There's no ambient sound from the settings — no hum of the street or shop — and no overlapping dialogue. It's very sitcom-formal.

The dialogue and jokes can be funny (my favorite: "Talking dirty to your wife is like huntin' in a zoo. You know you're gonna bag somethin.' ") But some setups are forced.

"Barbershop" aims high with the difficult "Seinfeld" formula of multiple subplots.

Establishing character in any pilot is a challenge. The standouts were Barry Shabaka Henley as Eddie, the bemused veteran barber, and Toni Trucks as the perpetually going-off Terri. Anna Brown and Omar Gooding had comic chemistry in domestic scenes.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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