The actor Kirk Douglas is one hundred and one years old today and reportedly doing great. This year I read his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son”. It was another of my parent’s old books, a yellowing paperback that had been on a shelf for years and after Douglas’ 100th birthday last year I resolved to read it. I’m glad I did. It’s a great read if you like movies. Or life. Autobiographies let you to live other’s lives, learn (or be entertained) by their mistakes and they can have stories better than a contrived plot.
Kirk Douglas’ original name was Issur Danielovich, the son of a Russian immigrant, who collected junk, scrap metal and rags to sell– a ragman. How did Issur become Kirk? When he became an actor, he wanted a name that would lead him to fame and fortune. He writes: “I wanted a last name that started with “D”, that wasn’t Danielovich or Demsky. Somebody suggested ‘Douglas.’ I liked it. The first name took longer. Finally, someone suggested ‘Kirk.’ It sounded right. I liked the crisp ‘k’ sound. I didn’t realize what a Scottish name I was taking.”
My name is also Kirk. My mother got the idea for my name from Kirk Douglas. I too never thought of my name as Scottish, until I saw an old movie set in Scotland where they talked about going to the “kirk”, which means church in Scotland. Apparently there are a lot of actors with the first name Kirk, and a lot of sports men with the first or last name. I wonder how many parents got the idea from Kirk Douglas.
Kirk Douglas can act. John Kricfalusi, creator of the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, said “Kirk doesn’t have just three stock expressions; he doesn’t just act with his face– he can act with his back. Kirk’s the only actor I’ve ever seen who can act with his back. They’ll have a shot of him from behind, and you’ll see muscles twitching.”
According to the book, after seeing Kirk play Vincent Van Gogh in the 1956 movie “Lust for Life”, John Wayne told him, “How dare you play a weakling, an artist who commits suicide?” The movie had disturbed John Wayne. Kirk took it as a complement.
Kirk said it was the most painful film he ever made.
A friend told me he didn’t like director Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, because the characters were cold and unemotional, and that he preferred the sequel, “2010”. I think Stanley deliberately made the characters that way in 2001, he certainly has had emotional characters in his movies, a perfect example is Kirk Douglas in Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory”:
Stanley had changed the script from what Kirk had agreed to, and when Kirk found out he threw the script across the room and said they’re using the original or he’s not making the movie. They shot the original script and Kirk thought it was possibly the most important picture Stanley Kubrick has ever made.
Kirk’s book has an index so it’s easy to see what he has to say about your favorite movies, stars, and directors without reading the whole book, but if you don’t read from the beginning you won’t see the big picture.
In the foreword to “The Ragman’s Son”, Kirk Douglas writes, “I must hurry, for fear that my life will be over before all of the pieces of the mosaic are put together and I can step back and look at the finished picture.” He wrote that in 1988, when he was 72, which was 29 years ago! He then wrote 10 more books, and kept making movies.
Life is short, but maybe you have more time than you think.