observations and opinion
Kirk Douglas marked his 100th birthday on Friday. It’s impressive when anyone finishes a century of life, more so when the life is so accomplished and renowned as Mr. Douglas has managed. The career of Kirk Douglas seems too successful to summarize: young movie hunk, Hollywood star, trailblazing producer, political activist.
He’s probably shaken a few hands over ten decades, so I will forgive him if he has forgotten shaking mine. My memory of the occasion endures.
Looking at the life and work of Kirk Douglas now is a bit like running your hand across a map of the world: wherever you stop and point, he has been there or done something. His life is just too vast, too complex, too rich and textured to capture in a page or even a hundred pages. All you can do is stop and look at specific moments.
My moment with Kirk Douglas is somewhat a story of struggle and failure – not mine, his. It would be fair to say that Kirk met me during a rough patch and that, whether coincidentally or not, afterwards things started looking up for the guy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
His life began 100 years ago in Amsterdam, New York – a son of Jewish immigrants. The hardscrabble, scraping poverty he knew then (named Izzy Demsky) sounds much like that of my dad, who was born 3 years later in the coalfields of northern England. It seems that Izzy decided to cut loose from his roots, giving up his name and his religion to join the Navy. Wounded in combat, he went out and became an actor. There is just too much life there to talk about.
As an actor, Kirk Douglas was very early distinguished by one character trait: he was tortured by his own thoughts. Sometimes by imagination and madness (Lust for Life, the supercharged biography of Van Gogh) and often by conscience. Look at his big film successes (Spartacus is the biggest, but also Paths of Glory) and we see this aching soul, pushing those fine bones through the flesh of his face like a heartbeat.
My first window into that tortured soul was in his portrayal of Jiggs Casey, an Army Colonel who deduces that his commanding officer plans the military overthrow of the U.S. Government. In Seven Days in May, Jiggs commits career suicide by taking the crazy conspiracy theory to the President, but his courage and instincts are borne out. Jiggs’ idealism is too, when the coup is averted.
Kirk Douglas lived his life somewhat in the same way, for example when he decided to break the anti-communist blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to work on Spartacus (see the recent film “Trumbo” for a bland but friendly depiction of the star’s moral certitude). Yet despite his devotion to Democratic politics, the innate simplicity and total “straightness” of Kirk Douglas – plus his sometimes overwrought acting style – put him outside the bubble of coolness by the late 1960s.
Which brings us back to me, Kirk Douglas and the worst movie he ever made.
By the early 1970s Douglas was famous enough to get movies made, but uncool enough that not many people went to them. So he tried different things and, in 1973, he tried directing and starring in his own production. A broad comedy. In costumes. With cowboys, and horses. With kids. For kids. He made a pirate movie, called “Scalawag.”
That’s where I come in.
You haven’t heard of Scalawag and honestly, I think that’s a merciful truth both for you and for Kirk Douglas. It probably cost him a few shekels to make and I doubt somehow, he made them back.
The original New York Times review of the film, by Vincent Canby, is utterly kind: the writer doesn’t so much review the film, as avoid doing so:
“Scalawag” is of some historical interest on two counts: It is the first film to be directed by Kirk Douglas (who shows no great flair for the job), and it is a very loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” although it is set in Mexico and California and never puts to sea. I assume the property is in the public domain.
Douglas stars himself as the Long John Silver character, a one-legged, landlocked pirate here named Peg, who not only has a heart of gold but also a couple of chests full of doubloons, which have been stolen by a renegade associate. Mark Lester (“Oliver!”) plays the Jim Hawkins character.
Douglas tries unsuccessfully to give the tale a nice, old-fashioned heartiness. He rides a horse that always rears up on its hind legs before charging off somewhere. There’s a wisecracking parrot, and the pirates spend a great deal of time, when not doublecrossing one another, going ho-ho-ho, like the supers in “Naughty Marietta.” The violence is constant but bloodless. The film, which was photographed in Yugoslavia, opened yesterday at the Forum Theater on Broadway and other houses.
The movie opened in late 1973 and closed not long after. One reviewer notes that the involvement of Douglas’ wife and two sons on the production team at least meant they had work. The TV Guide summary notes pithily “The Douglas family dog also stars.”
The use of the word “dog” was probably not an accident. As a comedy it was unfunny, as a thriller it was unthrilling, as a pirate movie it lacked boats and as a western it lacked, well, pretty well everything. It was not a very good movie. It was not even a good movie, and I say that despite having attended what was billed as “the world premier of Scalawag” with the star, director and producer himself. I hope he forgives my disloyalty.
Yes, I attended the world premier of Kirk Douglas’ worst film, in person with Kirk Douglas. It was the culminating event in a long, long-forgotten day of excitement for my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Even my own memory is choppy now, over forty years later, but basically it goes like this:
– Kirk Douglas had a new movie – “Scalawag”.
– He decided to “premiere” it in Hamilton (this I still do not really believe, but it all happened).
– He (or his people) figured it would be a good idea to marry-up the premier with a local charity (this I really DO believe, because it’s exactly what I would do if I had made a really bad movie).
– The proceeds would go to the charity (as I recall).
– The event would open with a parade, a chain of cars rolling along King Street for several blocks until they reached the new downtown mall, Lloyd D. Jackson Square.
– Mr. Douglas would be the star of the parade.
– Kids were also required for the parade. Kids associated with the charity.
– The chosen charity was the Big Brothers Association – the group that pairs up fatherless boys with helpful men, who through example and time spent, give the boys a solid male role model.
– I was a Little Brother (a fatherless boy) and a member of the Hamilton chapter.
-So I got asked to do the parade with Kirk Douglas.
Now, I should stop for a moment just to say that this was a surprising invitation, because I wasn’t exactly a very successful Little Brother. I had in fact, failed miserably as a Little Brother, for reasons that were entirely my own doing. David at 13 was not the kid you would expect to be invited to sit on a “float” (the trunk of a convertible car) rolling through town, waving at strangers.
It wasn’t that I was a hellion but perhaps, that I was insufficiently hellion-like. I had the look and demeanor of an overfed owl, staring unblinkingly through unfashionable tortoise-shell glasses. Efforts to match me with a Big Brother had not worked out.
The first casualty was a man named Murray, a tradesman of some kind who would take me bowling and to eat fries out of cardboard containers. I recall several awkward occasions out doing Things That Boys Like to Do, with both of us being polite (I always felt sleepy on these encounters, something I now realize was a symptom of suffocating boredom).
Our last meeting turned out to be neither polite nor boring, however, when the topic of politics came up. Murray, it turned out, was a Marxist-Leninist. The topic likely came up in the context of the recent 1972 election, the only one in which I was an avowed Progressive Conservative. I did not approve of Murray’s politics and Murray did not approve of my disapproval (I get that now of course – sorry Murray). The details of our debate are dim today, but it was the first (and only) time Murray and I ever felt sparks fly in conversation. Unhappy sparks. I recall him dropping me off at the apartment building where I lived and, getting out of his car, knowing with complete certainty that would be my last night out bowling with Murray.
Every breakup involves someone firing someone else. Did Murray call the office and sever the link? I think so, because I doubt very much my mother -deferential to authority if nothing else – would have done so. So maybe I got fired – I didn’t care – I was just happy to be freed from the mind numbing dullness of Murrayness.
What they did then with errant Little Brothers was park them at the office, like Little Orphan Annie perched at a window waiting to be adopted by a billionaire. So I returned to my after-school appointments at the Big Brothers Association, in an old house on Victoria Avenue. This made me happy, because I could play ping pong in the game room or – best of all – table hockey on the desk of the officer manager Mr. Lauer. I loved Pete Lauer – he was really my Big Brother.
Yet despite my unfavorable reputation as a Little Brother, or perhaps because I hung around the office so much, I was invited to participate in the thrilling world premiere of Kirk Douglas’ new movie. We were told little, except that it was a pirate picture and so we – the Little Brothers – had to dress up as pirates.
I was poorly built to be a pirate: tall but chubby, moon faced and freckled, blind as a bat without my glasses. Efforts to paint grey stubble on my round rosy cheeks were a laughable failure. There are no photos, mercifully, but I suspect my appearance was that of Charlie Brown having been rolled in dirt.
No matter, we climbed into the convertible (probably a first for me) and sat up on the trunk, our feet planted on the back seat. Somewhere up ahead in the cavalcade sat Kirk Douglas and, for all I know, other stars of the picture, some local luminaries and the like. The cars jerked westward along King Street in the afternoon, moving slowly enough that we could all easily have been assassinated Dealey Plaza-style, had anyone cared. No one did. Pedestrian onlookers appeared at best surprised, puzzled or bored by the site of five or ten vehicles eking along. We waved to the buildings, really. It is weird to be in a parade.
Soon enough the cars all pulled up at the shopping center, we got out and there was something of a hubbub, in which we were as much spectators as participants. I recall a jumble of people and whatnot and handshaking, but felt disappointed at the brief brush with stardom. Still, if you’re going to be fatherless, be fatherless in a parade with a movie star.
We watched the movie in the same theatre where I had seen The Poseidon Adventure months before. Where the Poseidon Adventure had been thrilling and featured Pamela Sue Martin swimming in hot pants, not even the presence of Lesley Ann Down (whom I worshipped in Cinderella) could animate my interest in Scalawag. Recall that by now I had already seen Kirk Douglas in Seven Days in May, so a pirate on horseback wasn’t really my cup of tea. But at the end, we all cheered boyishly and applauded, because after all, we had been in a parade.
I never saw Mr. Douglas again. He probably got in a car (with a roof) and raced back to Toronto, which had good restaurants and hotels. I never saw Scalawag again either, although I am now – over forty years later – prepared to do so for personally anthropological reasons.
It was after that day when things turned around for me at Big Brothers (they found an 18 year old graduate Little Brother named George – who looked like George Harrison – to take me on. He was wonderful and among other things, taught me about the hazards of drug use in the 1970s, as well as introducing me to older girls who were nice to me and put their arm in mine on the way to a football game, once). And things turned around for Kirk too. He made more and better movies and by the 80s had re-burnished his coolness.
Shaking my hand at Scalawag probably didn’t change Kirk’s luck, or vice versa. Maybe good karma did – after all, he gave the film proceeds to the Big Brothers Association. That fact, actually, is emblematic of the kind of person who lived inside the fearsome exterior of the film star Kirk Douglas: he was and remains, an exceptionally good man, a man who turns his own good luck (and even sometimes, his bad luck) into something good for others.
That, truly, is the best memory I have of my day with Kirk Douglas: that a movie star came to our home town, put himself in a small motorcade with an unlikely collection of fatherless boys dressed up like pirates, waved to an indifferent city and told us all – in words and in deeds – that we were important. Important enough to be in a parade. Important enough to attend the premiere of a movie. Important enough to shake the hand of Jiggs Casey.
Kirk Douglas gave us a small part of his big life and now, decades later, the memory resonates more vividly than his movie does. That’s what he did with that tortured conscience of his. Thank you, Mr. Douglas. Happy birthday and Mazel Tov!