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Kirk Douglas celebrates 99th birthday

Kirk Douglas celebrates 99th birthday

Iconic actor Kirk Douglas, an Amsterdam native, celebrates his 99th birthday today.
Kirk Douglas celebrates 99th birthday
Actor Kirk Douglas arrives at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscars Viewing and After Party on Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 at the Sunset Plaza Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif.
Photographer: The Associated Press

EDITOR'S NOTE: In honor of iconic actor and Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas' 99th birthday, we're reprinting this story from the Associated Press, "Still-combative Kirk Douglas completes new film at 82," originally published Sunday, May 23, 1999.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Gone is the muscular strength of "Spartacus," and the agility of the cocky fighter in "The Champion" has been replaced by an uneasy gait. But the combative spirit that helped define his long career still bursts through even the most challenging changes in Kirk Douglas ' life.

Douglas has been a movie star for more than half of the 20th century. He fought the Hollywood blacklist and won. He has survived an air crash and a stroke, and at 82 he has completed his 82nd film and is talking about his next one.

Not only has he seen the changing pattern of the American motion picture in the past 50 years, he has been an intrinsic part of it.

Foreseeing the decline of the studio system, Douglas was among the first actors to form his own production company, thus taking command of his career, as he so often had done when choosing film subjects. And the movies he went after often challenged America's thinking about social issues.

Impatient youth

Some contemporaries viewed him as a combative figure who resented authority and fought for what was best for Kirk Douglas .

"I admit I was impatient in my younger years," he once remarked. "But throughout my career in films, I never expected anyone to work harder than I do."

That work resulted in three Academy Award nominations: "Champion" (1949), "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1953) and "Lust for Life" (1956). The nominations made for much family bantering that while Kirk has never won an Oscar, his son Michael has two: for co-producing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and for his performance in "Wall Street" (1987).

Three years ago, the Academy compensated by presenting Kirk Douglas with a special award for career achievement. Millions of television viewers were shocked to see the always dynamic actor walking hesitantly and speaking with a thick tongue.

And earlier in the decade, in 1991, Douglas was seriously injured when a helicopter in which he was riding collided with a small plane at the Santa Paula, Calif., airport northwest of Los Angeles. The two occupants of the plane died.

"I was really tormented," he said later. "I don't think a day has passed without my thinking of . . . the two young men who were in the airplane when we smacked. You have to think: 'Wow, I was in my 70s; they were young. How does that happen?' "

Shortly after surgery to repair a back problem caused by years of movie stunts and aggravated by the crash, Douglas was having a manicure at his Beverly Hills home when he felt a strange sensation on the side of his face. He tried to explain to the manicurist, but all that came out was, "wub wub wub." His wife drove him to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a stroke.

Douglas , chin still dimpled and hair full and white, spoke on a recent day of his continuing therapy and his return to acting. The interview took place at his comfortable but unostentatious home on one of Beverly Hills' main residential streets, where homes-of-the-stars tour buses can be as common as the locals' limousines.

Speech therapy

Douglas maintains his daily physical and speech therapy (he calls it "oral aerobics"). His speech seems much improved since his Academy appearance, though traces of the stroke are apparent. And he is agile enough for an occasional nine holes of golf.

"That's important for me," he said. "Otherwise, you begin to think, 'Gee, you're really a cripple.' "

Douglas spoke proudly of having just completed Miramax Films' "Diamonds," a road movie shot on a tight schedule in northern Nevada. The film, in which he co-stars with Dan Aykroyd and Lauren Bacall, will be released early next year.

His major concern in accepting the "Diamonds" role was his voice.

"If I'm excited, it's very difficult for me to talk," he explained. "If I talk slowly, it's pretty good. But when you're acting in a picture, you get pretty steamed up.

"Apparently it went pretty well. But when I started the picture, I said to my wife, 'I don't think I can talk.' She said, 'Listen, when the camera is rolling, you will talk.'

"I really am proud of myself. It's almost three years since I had my stroke. When I first had it, I -clever guy - said, 'In a few months I will be perfect.' I tell you, you have to have patience, which I don't have much of."

Particularly difficult for Douglas , as is the case with many stroke victims, is the depression.

"I think a lot of people with strokes just capitulate," he said. "At the beginning you cry. But then I said, 'What the hell.' I work with a speech therapist, I do exercises. And this movie was a very good challenge." Douglas plays the lead in the film, so he has a heavy workload.

"When they say 'Action!' he is there," Bacall said. "He's still got the energy and interest and curiosity. And he performs. He was always a wonderful actor, and he still is."

Douglas is cast as an 80-year-old whose boxing past is illustrated by scenes from "Champion." His "Diamonds" character is recovering from a stroke, and he resists his family's desire to place him in a retirement home.

He unabashedly calls his acting return "an accomplishment."

"I think people with all kinds of handicaps might think so. You should see the letters I get. What can you tell anyone? Just, 'Don't give up.' "

What was it like for a 28-year-old to direct an 82-year-old icon?

"I was really worried, directing a man who had twice worked with Stanley Kubrick," said John Asher. "Diamonds" was his first feature.

"On the third day, when I made a suggestion, Kirk said, 'All right, sir.' Then I figured I had it made. "He was amazing, calling me every night with ideas about the script. The good thing was that he said, 'Let's shoot it that way, and if you don't like it, don't use it.' "

Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, N.Y., to illiterate Jewish peasants from Russia. His father scraped together a living by driving a horse and wagon through the town's streets collecting used goods. Ever conscious of his roots, Douglas called his 1988 autobiography "The Ragman's Son."

"It's tough enough to be a Jew, but it was very tough in Amsterdam," he wrote. "There were constant reminders. No Jews worked in the carpet mills. No Jews worked on the local newspaper. No Jewish boys delivered the newspaper. Kids on every street corner beat you up."

Such a boyhood developed a resilience that proved valuable in dealing with the all-powerful moguls of Hollywood.

Abandoning family

The Ragman abandoned the family, leaving his wife with a son and six daughters. Young Issur escaped the world by conjuring up the fantasies he saw at the local movie house. He acted from kindergarten through St. Lawrence University. Then came Broadway and Hollywood.

Under contract to producer Hal Wallis, Douglas soon declared his independence by insisting on the right to make outside pictures. One of his choices was the low-budget "Champion," about an unprincipled boxer. It was a career-making move.

Douglas zealously protected his newfound stardom, challenging producers and questioning directors. In 1955, he established his own production company, which he named Bryna in honor of his mother.

"I had no ambitions to become a tycoon in the motion picture industry," he said in his book. "My purpose was to participate more in the creative process of making films."

As his fame grew, his wartime marriage to actress Diana Dill unraveled. Newly single, he dated Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, Evelyn Keyes, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and other film beauties.

While filming "The Story of Three Loves," he became entranced with a 19-year-old Italian with the face of a Renaissance painting, Pier Angeli - "Our romance started 30 feet above the Earth."

At the same time he was also romancing Anne Buydens, a German-born beauty who worked as a production assistant in Paris. They married in Las Vegas in 1954 and on May 29, they celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.

For years Kirk and son Michael have searched for a film in which they could appear together. Now Michael has a script they may film this year.

"It's only in the last six-seven years that we have become really close," Kirk said of his movie-star son. "Now he says, 'You know, Dad, I think the stroke really helped you; you're a much nicer guy now.' He might be right."

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