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Countdown to the Oscars : Always a Champion : Despite recent setbacks, Kirk Douglas plans to be there to receive an honorary Oscar for being 'a creative and moral force' in film.

March 22, 1996|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kirk Douglas, who will receive a rare honorary award at Monday night's Oscars for "50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community," looked fit and feisty one afternoon this week, despite having suffered a stroke two weeks earlier. It has left him sounding temporarily somewhat like a man with a jawful of Novocain after a dental appointment. But the impairment--the only damage the stroke caused--is responding to therapy.

"What's been frustrating," said Douglas, 79, "is that my thoughts have been running so far ahead of my ability to express them. But I'm getting back there in a hurry.

"I've had a double whammy. Two months ago I had back surgery and then two weeks ago what they called this minor stroke. To an actor, my friend, I have to say it seems major. But you play the hand that's dealt you."

Douglas was in a helicopter crash five years ago and it has changed his life, he said. "Two young people were killed in that crash. I survived. I've been thinking about that ever since. Why didn't I die? Why did those two young people die? I've been working on another autobiography, to follow 'The Ragman's Son' [1988], and I'm trying to answer those questions in the book."

The crash affected him spiritually, Douglas said. "I've been studying the Torah, the five books of Moses. Just now I'm studying Deuteronomy, the last of the five." He grinned and said, "Why, it's the greatest screenplay ever written. Incest, murder, adultery, passion. Everything."

The recognition of Douglas as a moral force in the industry refers in considerable part to his hiring of Dalton Trumbo to write "Spartacus." The blacklist was still in force in 1960, and Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who went to prison for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee, was distinctly on it. Trumbo gave Douglas credit for breaking the blacklist in the industry.

"I took a lot of heat for hiring Trumbo," Douglas said the other afternoon. "But when you're young and foolish, you have the guts to do something like that. I ask myself whether I'd have done the same thing last year, or this year. Later on you get too conservative, too cautious. What you have to do is retain a certain naivete, especially if you're a writer." (Douglas has published three well-received novels as well as his autobiography.)

He has also been quietly active in good works through his charitable foundation, supporting Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Los Angeles Mission (where the Anne Douglas Center for Women opened recently) and the Access Theater for the Handicapped. Douglas is also notably proud of the Alzheimer's Unit at the Motion Picture Hospital and Country Home in Woodland Hills.

"I raised something like $2 million for the Alzheimer's wing," Douglas said, "and we named it Harry's Haven, after my father. Somebody complained that that made it sound like a saloon. That would have made my father very happy because he used to spend a lot of time in saloons. It's the highest-rated unit of its kind in the country. People come to study it all the time."

It has a large, tranquil enclosed garden that also contains an aviary. "And," Douglas added, "everything in the garden is edible, because you have to protect the patients from themselves sometimes. And we've made it attractive when families come to visit."

Looking back (an inevitable process on receiving a major award), Douglas said: "I've made, what is it, 82 movies. Twenty-two of them I like. 'Lust for Life,' of course."

Playing Vincent van Gogh in 1956 earned the third of his Academy Award nominations, the first was for his ruthlessly ambitious prizefighter in "Champion" in 1949, which confirmed his stardom, followed by "The Bad and the Beautiful" in 1953, in which he was a hard-driving movie mogul.

" 'Spartacus,' certainly," Douglas continued. "But I think the one I'm proudest of is 'Lonely Are the Brave' [1962]. Dalton wrote that one, too. It wasn't a big picture, and it was a downer, but I liked it."

In the film, directed by David Miller, Douglas plays a rebellious modern cowboy in a West that has tethered the free spirits like himself. On the lam on horseback from the law, and pursued by Jeeps and helicopters, the cowboy is undone on a rain-slick highway by Nemesis in the form of a hurtling semi-trailer full of toilet seats (Trumbo was never long on subtlety). The film is melancholy, powerful and unforgettable, and now has classic status.

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