If I could step into a time machine, I would set it for 1981 in San Francisco so I could see Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster play Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in a play called The Boys of Autumn, which ran for all of six weeks. The stars had hoped to take it to Broadway but as Kirk told me years later, “For the first time we realized we were getting old. It was a two-character play. I was an ex-vaudevillian. I played the banjo and sang… and at the end of the play, we were exhausted.” I sure wish I could have seen those titans together on stage.

Douglas always enjoyed working with his friendly rival and pal. “Burt was a really, really interesting guy,” he said. “To me, to be boring is the worst thing that you can do. Burt was never boring. We’d argue, we fought, but we did a lot together and when he died I missed him. I miss him now, because there’s no one else quite like him.” That quote is from a conversation I had with Kirk Douglas two decades ago. He could never have anticipated that he would live another twenty years.

I needn’t tally all his achievements on both sides of the camera. His career as a movie star and producer is unsurpassed. The number of memorable films he made is staggering: Out of the Past, Champion, A Letter to Three Wives, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lust for Life, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lonely are the Brave (his favorite), Seven Days in May, and The Man from Snowy River, to name just a few.

Yet in the end, his life was as colorful as any film on his expansive résumé. He survived a near-fatal helicopter crash that killed two people and valiantly fought back after a major stroke. Despite his macho persona he defied convention by allowing people to see him in a diminished state. Speech impairment didn’t send him into seclusion. He embraced God and, according to people closest to him, became a better person.

Asked for the secret to overcoming life’s struggles he credited a sense of humor. In our most recent chat he said, “I heard my son Michael referred to as ‘veteran Michael Douglas.’ What does that make me?”

Answer: a legend.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024