For the world at large, he is the last giant of the Golden Age of American cinema. Yssur Danielovitch according to his birth certificate, alias Kirk Douglas, has been with us for more than a century. For fans of the Seventh Art, his filmography is studded with masterpieces. He distinguished himself in Stanley Kubrick's ‘Paths of Glory’, ‘Spartacus’ by the same director and ‘Lust for Life’ by Vincente Minnelli - three films, three absolute gems. His name also appears in the credits of several dozen films, including ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’, ‘Is Paris burning?’, ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ and ‘Seven days in May’.
Before experiencing the intoxication of success, this son of an illiterate Russian ragman suffered many deprivations. But that would not prevent the man with the famous dimple from enjoying the good things in life.
You once said on ABC, in Barbra Walters' 20/20 show, that you “only liked 22 of the 80 or so” films you shot. I won’t ask you to name the 22...but at least the one you rate above all the others!
Without hesitation: ‘Lonely are the brave’. Unlike ‘Spartacus’ or ‘The Vikings’, this wasn’t a blockbuster film. I played a cowboy ahead of his times. We shot the film in the mountains, at an altitude of 3,300 metres in the middle of May. Despite the season, we had snow, a blizzard and a whole host of problems. Because of the lack of oxygen, for example, people were dropping like flies! With hindsight, I can now say that the best relationship I had during filming was with my horse! At least he didn’t talk, complain or moan. But then of course, he probably didn't know I was the producer of the film! To cheer up the troops, I remember asking my team to send us a case of Château Pétrus at our camp. I'm not sure why, but the wine had been left out overnight, at temperatures that are not really recommended! It must have been -10 degrees. A cameraman thought he had found a solution so we could drink the wine - he warmed up the bottles in a bain-marie. But it was a lost cause, the wine tasted weird. I can’t tell you how frustrated we were!
What is Kirk Douglas’ definition of a star?
For me, you can’t measure a star by a single film, but by an entire career! A star is also measured in real life. It's not just about shining on film, being a star is also about shining daily through your kindness and generosity. Your question reminds me of an anecdote. It occurred a few years ago in Paris, on the set of ‘Apostrophes’. Bernard Pivot had asked me to come and promote my book ‘The Ragman’s Son’. In this great literary program, there was also a man named Jacques Séguéla, a publicist. During the show, this kind of weird guy gave us his definition of a star. To my great dismay, he knew absolutely nothing about it. How could this dude be so arrogant? How could he advance such inaccuracies about a world I know so well and he so badly? So I said to him: “But who are you to decide who is a star and who is not”? I soon forgot the incident because I went to a good Parisian restaurant afterwards.
I still remember the mushroom soup I ordered and the wine list too. The sommelier, who was a charming and literate man, spoke to me of the great growths with such love, such theatricality that we had the impression that the bottles he offered us were all women with whom he had shared his life! Frankly, I drank those words before I even tasted what he poured into my glass. Not only did he talk to you about the wine, but also about the person who had made it, the specificities of the vineyard, its geographical area, etc. Such was his knowledge that he even told us the landmark dates in the history of France through the wines on the menu! I said to myself, "I could end up going back to my hotel room very late if his colleague, the guy who serves the cheese, is as cultured and voluble as he is!”
At what point in your life were you able to educate your palate, and go from being an amateur to a connoisseur?
By hanging out with people like Francis Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Burt Lancaster and Ronald Reagan. All these people I’ve just mentioned were, or are because Francis is still with us, great Epicureans. Burt, who was a dear friend, almost a brother to me, couldn't imagine a meal without a bottle of Bordeaux at the dinner table. It cost him a fortune, but he didn't care. He felt strongly about sharing his knowledge of wine with those around him. He had acquired his knowledge through his travels and his filming. I can still hear him talking about the meals served on Visconti's ‘The Leopard’ set. The minute he started talking about Palazzo Gangi, the place in Palermo where the great fresco was shot, he was unstoppable. Apparently at every meal he was served local wines from which he drew his inspiration. I can totally believe it - he was remarkable in this masterpiece.
Interview by Frank Rousseau, our correspondent in the United States