Kirk Douglas – life in acting

by | Mar 1, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Kirk Douglas, Yes, some of you young en’s might not have heard of him but if you heard of Michael Douglas then I’m sure you can work it out. 

He was born in the early nineteen hundred into abject poverty. His name back then was – wait for it – Issur Danielovitch and his Parents came from Russia as illiterate immigrants and brought him up as a poor boy in upstate New York, therefore Kirk had nowhere to go but up.

Kirk wanted to be an actor and had more than forty jobs during his youth before becoming one. He found living in a family with six sisters to be stifling and he was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under him. 

When he was learning his craft Kirk ended up staying in a small apartment in Greenwich village with bunk beds. The guy who ran it named Peyton Price was a graduate at the Academy where Kirk was studying and when Kirk finally got a job and could afford to move out he tried to pay Peyton back but Peyton refused to take his money, instead he said ‘you don’t owe me anything. I’ve been helped by others, and I pass it on to you. Now you owe it to someone else.’ 

Kirk learned a valuable lesson that day about paying it forward – the chance to help someone else so that they continue the cycle. He believed it to be a beautiful philosophy which can increase in geometrical progression like a chain letter. 

One of his acting teacher called Jehlinger kept criticising Kirk about his acting performance during rehearsals. It nearly came to blows when Jehlinger yelled at Kirk in the middle of a scene and Kirk was close to picking a chair and smashing it across his head. Jehlinger was notorious for driving students mad with frustration. But eventually Kirk realised what his teacher was working towards. 

He was working against a certain glibness that Kirk had, a quick facility, a lack of depth. And that’s what he kept harping on. Jehlinger actually taught Kirk how to build a character. It was not about making an entrance but to be going from one room to another with an intention, to know why he was going from one room to to the next. Jehlinger would make him find things out for himself. He would let you go on and on and on until just as you thought you were going crazy, you finally figured out that what he wanted was truthful behaviour. 

When Kirk graduated from the American academy of dramatic arts he tried to get an agent but found it very difficult. He did the rounds at agents offices, doing read throughs and getting rejected. There was a period that he thought to himself why bother, with all the humiliation and discouragements why go into this business? 

His feeling was that there’s only one way to go into the acting profession and that is if there’s nothing else you can do and you HAVE to do it. The insurmountable obstacles that actors have to overcome to achieve success is immense and if you don’t have that drive, if you don’t have that tough skin to protect you from those rejections then it can affect you in a deep way. Therefore the definition of an actor  for Kirk — was someone who loves rejection. 

After several performances on stage he managed to break through into Hollywood and made a name for himself starring as a selfish boxer in the film Champion. In accepting the role he took a gamble and turned down an offer to star in a big budget MGM film which would have earned him three times the income but Kirk saw something in playing the part of a troubled pugilist.

One Film historian said that Kirk “saw Champion as a greater risk, but also a greater opportunity … Kirk took the part and absolutely nailed it.”

It seemed that Kirk had that insatiable drive and would go after a role and milk it dry. His compulsion to nail the role would get to his wife when he’d wake her up in the middle of the night thinking about the role and asking for his wife to rehearse the lines with him, saying ‘let’s go over it again.’ She’d say ‘you’ve got it. You’ve got the best out of it and now you’re running it into the ground.’ But Kirk just couldn’t leave it along.

Due to his relentless determination Kirk eventually secured his first nomination for Champion at the Academy Awards for Best Actor. 

When Kirk became famous in Hollywood he never sought out any of the studio moguls and never tried to become friends with the influential agents – in other words he was never very good at ‘playing the game’. He always suspected collusion, which he believed exists to this day even more so between agents and heads of studios. 

Kirk believed that in life when things get too complicated you can tinge the realties with make believe, dull the lines between what is real and what is fantasy. It’s a protective measure, letting a little bit of the unreality of the acting profession creep into the reality of one’s own life. It softens the focus. 

Kirk went on to say that actors become actors partly to escape reality, to be grown ups who still play childish games? Acting allows the person to spend time lying in bed at night thinking about make believe people, always so much easier to deal with than real ones. It allows the actor to escape from the realties of life. Sometimes life becomes too harsh. Sometimes personal relationships become too overpowering. Then the actor can get lost. Writing his memoir was a way for Kirk to get on the ball, to force himself to look more clearly and to sharpen the focus.

Kirk was one of the first actor in Hollywood to form his own production company. His purpose was to participate more in the creative process of making films. He couldn’t just wait around for the perfect script with the right director to come along. He had to make it happen. 

He found that producers and sometimes directors got angry with him because he insisted on being heard. He didn’t object if they didn’t accept his suggestions but all he asked was that they listen to him, then accept or reject what he’d said. Of course, they had the last word. 

Forming his own company gave him the last word. 

Playing the character of Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Lust for Life’ Kirk found it hard to get the character out of his system. He was very close to getting lost in Van Gogh while filming since he always wore the same clothing as him, walked like him, talked like him and eventually showed up at home after the shoot like the character – fully absorbed in him. He felt himself going over the line into the skin of Van Gogh where at one point Kirk had to stop himself from reaching his hand up and touching his ear to find out if it was actually there.

This shook up Kirk’s theory of what acting is all about. To him, acting was creating an illusion, showing tremendous discipline, not losing yourself in the character that you’re portraying. The actor never gets lost in the character he’s playing; the audience does. When an actor plays the role, they are trying to think of the thoughts of the character. When it’s over, they become themselves and must control that. 

At one point of his exultant career Kirk wanted to return to the stage and his agent wanted to kill him. Why give up millions of dollars in movies to do a play for nothing? Why? Because Kirk believed he was still a failure. He wanted to be a star on the stage. Flesh and blood, not a shadow on the screen. The eye of the movie camera for Kirk was an evil eye. When an actor acts in front of it, that cyclops keeps taking from the actor, until they feel empty. On the stage, an actor gives something to the audience, more comes back. When the curtain comes down in a theatre, the actor has a feeling of exhilaration – that something has been completed, fulfilled. It’s so different from an exhausting day of shooting at the studio. 

Making a film, to Kirk, was like making a mosaic – laboriously putting little pieces together, jumping from one part of the picture to another, never seeing the whole, whereas in a play, the momentum of the continuity works for the actor and takes them along. For Kirk doing a play was like dancing to music. Making a movie was like dancing in wet cement. 

To round off Kirk believed in ignoring the critics – It’s not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, fails while doing greatly, so that his or her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. 

And finally Kirk Douglas was proud of his Son’s Michael Douglas achievement in the industry but it wasn’t because of his success but rather how he handled his success which was more interesting and compelling. 

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