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.