Kirk Douglas was born in my hometown, Amsterdam, New York. Growing up, my mother would tell me stories about sitting next to Issur Danielovitch in class, how he would often poke her asking her to pass a note to one of his friends. (One time she got in trouble, she told me, but refused to tattle). My grandmother would join in, telling me how Kirk’s father, a rag picker, would make his rounds, often stopping to have a cup of strong Italian coffee in her kitchen while she gathered up clothing to give him. Even back then, according to my mother, everyone knew that Izzy Demsky, the surname his family later adopted, was destined for stardom.
He didn’t disappoint and continues to amaze his fans. While his acting days may be over (he suffered a stroke in 1996) he has taken to writing. And does he have tales to tell! Now 95, he has outlived nearly everyone he mentions in his new book, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist. Besides a fascinating look inside the making of a movie that was considered the blockbuster of its day, I Am Spartacus reveals how the McCarthy hearings and the aftermath destroyed so many Hollywood careers. While Douglas tells his story without casting himself as a hero, George Clooney does that for him in the introduction:
Kirk Douglas is many things. A movie star. An actor. A producer. But he is, first and foremost, a man of extraordinary character. The kind that’s formed when the stakes are high. The kind we always look for at our darkest hour.
No one was more surprised by his Hollywood success than Kirk himself. By 1950, he was “a bona fide movie star.” His eighth film, Champion, earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. “And the money! I was making more money than I’d ever dreamed of. My six sisters and I grew up during the Depression era….Now I was earning more in one year—in one picture—than my father made in his entire life.”
Although he was pleased by the rise of his own career, Douglas was painfully aware that others were suffering. The novelist Howard Fast and the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo spent most of 1950 in prison, held in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before the House’s Committee on Un-American Activities. As a member of the film community, Trumbo’s plight, in particular, hit home. A few years earlier, he had been one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters, earning $75,000 a picture. Writing to his wife, Cleo, from jail, Trumbo predicted: “It will probably take years to recover from the blow dealt by the blacklist.”
Fast made good use of his prison time, spending nine months writing a novel called Spartacus, the story of a Roman slave who mounts a rebellion. Still tainted by the blacklist, Fast was forced to publish the book himself, turning his New York basement into a shipping room. Within four months, Fast and his wife had printed and sold 48,000 copies.
Like Fast, Trumbo needed to write. Fleeing to Mexico after his release from prison, he continued to churn out stories for women’s magazines under his wife’s maiden name and screenplays under pseudonyms.
In 1953, Douglas made films abroad—The Juggler in Israel, Acts of Love in Paris, and Ulysses in Rome. He fell “head over heels in love,” with Pier Angeli, a 20 year-old Italian actress, and though that engagement didn’t work out, he did find in Europe his soul mate, Anne Buydens (above). They were married in 1954. (Kirk remained on such good terms with his first wife, Diana, the mother of Michael and Joel, that he and Anne referred to her as “our ex-wife”).
By 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt had begun to backfire, mostly because the Congressional hearings were televised. The turning point came on June 9, when the army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch, asked McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?”
That December, Congress voted to condemn McCarthy and President Eisenhower coined the term “McCarthy-wasm” to signal the end of the senator’s crusade. “But the blacklist survived—Hollywood hell-bent on persecuting itself,” Douglas writes. “What Brutus said of Caesar was also true of McCarthy: `The evil that men do lives after them…’”
With Spartacus, Douglas didn’t set out to make history; he set out to make a movie. Like other big stars of his day—Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra, to name two—Douglas began to produce and act in films with his own production company, Bryna, named after his mother. He knew a good story when he read it. Fast’s novel was a great story and one that Douglas was determined to make.
From the very beginning, Douglas ran into obstacles, some involving the blacklist, others involving Hollywood’s studio system, still others, temperamental stars. Douglas wanted Trumbo to write the screenplay. Still suffering from the aftermath of the blacklist (gossip columnist Hedda Hopper kept up a steady drumbeat), Trumbo won two Academy Awards that he couldn’t accept in person, having written them under other names. In 1975, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented him with his statuette for The Brave One and, in 1993, he was recognized posthumously for Roman Holiday.
Douglas’s plan to film Spartacus with United Artists was thwarted when he was told that the studio was committed to a similar project, The Gladiators starring Yul Brynner. On the suggestion of his agent, Lew Wasserman, Douglas agreed to team up with Universal-International Pictures, even though that studio was “where you went in desperation.” (What Douglas didn’t know was that Wasserman’s MCA would soon purchase Universal and Wasserman would head up the studio).
Douglas had a wish list for the Spartacus cast: Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton. Amazingly enough, he landed the trio. Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, and Nina Foch were eventually added to the lineup.
Anthony Mann signed on as director but had problems reining in the star-studded cast, particularly Ustinov. Production was behind schedule and the budget was spiraling out of control. At the studio’s insistence, Douglas fired Mann and was allowed to hire one of the directors he had sought from the beginning, the 30 year-old Stanley Kubrick. That relationship would have its ups and downs throughout filming, producing as many battles behind the camera as in front of it.
With the film’s challenges mounting, Douglas had no choice but to disguise the name of his screenwriter during production. However, when both Ustinov and Laughton began to write their own lines, Trumbo had had enough. He sent a telegram quitting the picture. Douglas raced to Trumbo’s home and did what he knew he should have done from the beginning: no more subterfuge. Trumbo would receive the screenwriting credit he deserved.
The studio censors had their day. Douglas found their objections “time-consuming, infuriating, and creatively destructive.” Homophobia was rampant and scenes between Olivier’s character, Crassus, and his slave, Antonius, played by Curtis, were targeted for their sexually suggestive tone. (In 1991, some of the offending scenes were redubbed into a new version of the film with Anthony Hopkins redoing the deceased Olivier’s lines.)
Spartacus opened on October 6, 1960, at the DeMille Theater in New York and was hailed a hit. For Douglas, the film was a triumph on many levels. The story of a slave battling against oppression was made while Douglas and others battled against the blacklist and censorship. Art truly imitated life. “Dalton Trumbo said to me, `Kirk, thank you for giving me back my name.’ It shouldn’t have been mine to give—no one, certainly not the government, should have the power to deprive a man of his birthright….If Spartacus helped change that shameful practice—where indifference became a substitute for integrity—I am proud of that.”