A Tribute to Kirk Douglas

Join Dr Rad as she reminiscences about one of her film favourites and pays tribute to the man that has unwittingly dominated her life for over a decade.

Special Episode – A Tribute to Kirk Douglas

2020 has been on my radar for a while, listeners, as it marks sixty years since the iconic movie Spartacus was released. However, just a few days before the Oscars, the star of this film has passed away at the age of 103. Given the helicopter crash, the strokes, it is amazing that he lived this long, but I still feel very melancholy that a film star of his stature is no more.

The Chin Dimple that COULD launch a thousand ships. Kirk Douglas’ magnificent face-acting during the famous ‘I’m Spartacus’ scene. Image courtesy of https://hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/simpson-sunday-cartoon-without-pity/

I have a strong affinity for Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas) and not just because I grew up watching his movies (which I did). Loyal listeners will be aware that I ended up studying the production of Spartacus (1960), the historical film based on the famous slave revolt against Rome. As the titular hero, but more importantly as the producer of this film, Douglas played a key role in shaping the representation of the rebellious gladiator.

Indeed, it was quite an accomplishment that this movie made it to the screen at all, as film star/producer Yul Brynner was also championing a Spartacus project at the same time. On top of this rivalry, Douglas’ project was plagued with personality clashes and squabbles about the overall vision for the film. This led to constant changes to the script, and Douglas did little to contain this, earning the nickname ‘General Mixmaster’ on set.

Douglas in costume on set talking to his young, and not particularly well-known, director Stanley Kubrick. The men had worked together previously on Paths of Glory, but the tensions over Spartacus would cause a rift to open between them. Image courtesy of https://www.rapportoconfidenziale.org/?p=36320

However, it is undeniable that Douglas’ drive is one of the most important factors that led to the completion and success of this film in 1960.

The movie is largely remembered these days for the iconic ‘I’m Spartacus’ scene and its’ status as the film that finally broke the blacklist (in America at least). The real story about the breaking of the blacklist is a little more complicated, which you can read about here.

During this dark time in America, screenwriters were some of the only professionals in this environment who could potentially evade the restrictions placed on their employment. One such blacklistee, Dalton Trumbo, had been hired by Bryna (Douglas’ production company). Trumbo had been working tirelessly to see his name restored to the credits by the time he started writing the Spartacus script. Douglas probably did not intend to grant this desire during the early days, but he had changed his mind by the time of the premiere.

Kirk Douglas spent hours trying to get his scene on the cross just right. Whilst he may have been one of the causes of confusion on set, no one could question his dedication to Spartacus. Image courtesy of https://www.nieuwsblad.be/cnt/dmf20161208_02615140

There were a variety of external pressures that went into this decision (cough cough Otto Preminger), and we shouldn’t imagine that after Spartacus, the blacklist vanished. Really, this was a sign that change was ahead. The blacklist lingered painfully into the 1960s, but the rebel gladiator had once again struck a blow for freedom.

Although there’s a lot more to the end of the blacklist than this one film, Douglas does indeed deserve a large share of the credit for making what was a bold decision for the time, and one that could have had unfortunate consequences for himself, Bryna Productions or Universal-International.

Farewell, Kirk Douglas, you charismatic egomaniac. Like Spartacus, you will not be soon forgotten.

If you enjoy learning about the 1950s in Hollywood, check out our previous episode on Spartacus and the blacklist series of You Must Remember This.

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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