Kirk Douglas' voice crackles like an iconoclastic beacon. "I don't think that people are ever completely who you think they are," says the 77-year-old actor ruefully. "Hedda Hopper once said to me: 'You know, Kirk, people say that ever since you did "Spartacus," you've become a sonovabitch.' I said: 'No, Hedda. You're wrong. I was a sonovabitch before "Spartacus" but you didn't notice.' "
Douglas knows all too well that after five decades of Hollywood stardom, he is assumed to be a combustible, bullish, tough-edged juggernaut whose indomitable will has fueled one of the most enduring careers in cinematic history. In more than 80 films, he has excelled at playing defiant, angry, passionate heroes, as his three Academy Award-nominated performances in "Champion," (1949), "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) and "Lust for Life" (1956) certainly attest.
Douglas' often stormy personal life also reinforced an image as a stubborn and uncompromising maverick, Yet, in a recent interview from his Beverly Hills home, Douglas was a surprisingly effusive pussycat.
Perhaps the lighter touch is in keeping with his new starring role in the comedy "Greedy," which opened earlier this month. Douglas portrays a manipulating millionaire whose relatives are chomping at the bit for him to die so they can divide the financial spoils. The role represents a striking departure for the actor who remains more known for his intensity than his ability to deliver a pithy one-liner. After "Greedy," that might change. He is unforgettable in an otherwise utterly forgettable comedy as he chews up the scenery, stealing virtually every scene he is in from comedy veterans Michael J. Fox, Ed Begley Jr., Phil Hartman and Coleen Camp.
"I've always played all these bigger-than-life characters," he observes. "Destroying Romans and Vikings and then the boxing and all of that. I loved the idea of playing comedy. To play comedy, you play the character--you don't try to be funny."
Landing the role in "Greedy" over Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Anthony Quinn was apparently the result of a palpable connection between dimpled actor and character. "This is a guy who wants to know who really loves him," he says. "And that's the thing that people who are famous, people who have a lot of money, are always concerned about. Is there anyone who really loves them for themselves?"
The actor's last appearance on the big screen (besides a brief cameo three years ago in "Oscar") was 1986's "Tough Guys," which teamed him for the seventh time with close friend Burt Lancaster, who is now ailing following a stroke. Some of Douglas' best work in recent years has been in made-for-TV movies including compelling performances in "Amos," "The Secret" and "Inherit the Wind."
Returning to work on a major motion picture was somewhat daunting for the actor. "The first day, I walked on the set, and everyone said: 'Oh, Mr. Douglas.' I said: 'Call me Kirk. You make me feel so old!' Later in the day, someone said to me: 'Well, you're a legend,' and I said: 'You sound like I'm dead!' "
In fact, if a fountain of youth exists, it would appear Douglas slurps from it daily. He works out with a personal trainer and takes long walks near his Beverly Hills and Palm Springs homes where he is often accompanied by his wife, Anne. "Old age gives you wrinkles but the worst wrinkles are the wrinkles inside of you, the wrinkles on your soul," he says.
"I had an accident about three years ago," he says quietly as if unaware of the worldwide headlines following the 1991 helicopter crash that killed two people and hospitalized him and left him with an overwhelming feeling of guilt. "Why am \o7 I\f7 alive when two young people were killed? I realized that I needed to get my house in order."
Over the past decade, Douglas has started a successful second career as an author. His candid 1988 autobiography, "The Ragman's Son," became a worldwide bestseller. He followed it with two novels, "Dance With the Devil" and "The Gift." His third novel, "The Last Tango in Brooklyn," is due from Warner Books in June. "I have become increasingly absorbed in writing novels," he says. "To be old is to shrivel up and do nothing. But to be young is to keep creating, to keep blooming, to do something." Next, he will write a nonfiction account of the helicopter tragedy and its aftermath.
Douglas wants to make a movie with his son Michael, one of his four sons. But the script would have to meet the creative needs of these two box-office stars of succeeding generations. "Hell, do you want to play second fiddle to a fantastic special effect?"
While "Greedy" is unlikely to go down in cinematic history as one of Douglas' most definitive films, it does give audiences a rare lesson in how one movie star can turn his legend into more than yet another tribute on the rubber chicken circuit. In fact, Douglas couldn't care less about being a legend.
"Oh, that word," he growls. Perhaps he has good reason to reject it, with a bristling energy that many actors half his age would envy. "I think it's that spark that doing what you like gives you. I think it's the feeling that I have--\o7 elan vital.\f7 "
\o7 Elan vital? \f7 "That," he says, "is the driving spirit within you."