I’ve always admired Kirk Douglas. Not only did he make some splendid films, but he—along with Humphrey Bogart—was one of the few Hollywood stars to stand up to the McCarthy-era blacklists and witch-hunts.
Yesterday we had a chance to see Kirk Douglas in his one-man show, Before I Forget (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, a theatre he endowed as part of LA’s Center Theatre Group. At one point, he remarked: “I never wanted to be a movie star; I wanted to be a star onstage. Finally I figured out the trick: build your own theatre.”)
The show had a short run—four sold-out performances. The theatre is in Culver City, right across the street from Sony Pictures (the company that used to be Columbia Pictures, and recently gobbled up MGM as well). As you might imagine, in a company town like Culver City most of the attendees were people “in the industry,” but it was a pleasant gathering anyway.
Kirk Douglas is 92 years old. Not too many nonagenarians decide to attack a 90-minute, no-intermission, one-man show—though when you’re a legend all you have to do is show up, right?
Well, not in this case. This is a man who has been through the wringer physically. In the early 1990s he survived a helicopter crash that broke his back and required knee replacements, and later in that decade he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. As he was recovering from the stroke, he said he realized he would never make another movie, never do another stage show, and after a good long cry he decided to kill himself. His physical condition was low enough that when he put the barrel of his pistol in his mouth he hit one of his teeth, painfully hard. “And that’s why I’m still alive,” he said, “all because of an aching tooth.”
He has learned to speak again, but the evidence of his stroke is still clear; enunciation is still a chore, and he has to speak slowly to be understood. Yet he has turned this debility to his advantage. “When I speak ve-ry slow-ly, it turns out…that people listen.” He also uses his deliberate enunciation as a running aside to the audience: “…but we still lived in this di-lap-i-dated—pretty good word, huh?— di-lap-i-dated house…”
The show was funny, self-deprecating, touching, and sometimes even profound, and I don’t think there were many people who sat through the whole performance without at least a few tears welling up.
The performance itself was wonderful, but what I found myself mulling over was the fact that he had found a way to carry on with his chosen art and craft, despite his age, despite huge physical barriers. Frankly, when I think about some of the things I let get in the way of my work, he makes me feel a bit ashamed.
And he made me feel extraordinarily young, too, which isn’t a feeling I often have of late.