Friday, February 14, 2020


Harkins Theatres pays tribute to the great Kirk Douglas Saturday with 1 p.m. screenings of Spartacus at several multiplexes; check out my "Friday Flicks" column about it... at Phoenix Magazine. But the time has also come, I regret to say, to tell my one in-person Kirk Douglas story.

I've gotten out of the habit of using this blog to obsessively mention the passing of every pop-culture notable, but there have been some keenly-felt passings in recent months and weeks: singer/actor Jack Sheldon, for instance, of "I'm Just a Bill," and “Conjunction Junction” fame, also comedian Jack Burns, who I just recently saw in his one superb scene in The Night They Raided Minsky’s, and of course the great Terry Jones, in whose honor I had Spam at Oak’s Diner in Cave Creek...

And then, of course, there’s Kirk Douglas.

Kirk Douglas was, I think, my first movie star. If you had asked me, when I was a small child in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, to name a movie star, Kirk Douglas is probably the first, and for a while the only, name I could have given you. Even before John Wayne, I would have known that Kirk Douglas was both Spartacus in Spartacus and Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and at some level I believe I would also have understood that he somehow had a public identity, as Kirk Douglas, that was greater than either of those roles.

Douglas, who passed on last week at 103, was a very good, surprisingly versatile actor, but far greater than any acting skill was his famed larger-than-life charisma, his electrifying, tightly-coiled intensity that was always on the verge of tipping over into self-parody, yet also had an edge of the glamorously tragic. He’s been a lifelong favorite of mine, which is part of why I hesitate to tell the story of my one real-world encounter with him. Before you read on, I must warn you that this story may constitute a textbook case of Too Much Information.

Because this, you see, is the story of how I once took a shit in front of Kirk Douglas.

Back in 1999, I was covering a film festival in Palm Springs, California. The fest’s big draw was an appearance by screen legend Kirk Douglas, who was there to introduce his new film Diamonds, in which he played a former boxer who had been afflicted with a stroke. It wasn’t a particularly good movie, but Douglas was in it, along with Dan Aykroyd, Jenny McCarthy and no less than Lauren Bacall.

The screening was in the auditorium of Palm Springs High School, and The Wife and I arrived early, quite excited at the chance to see, live and in person, this major Hollywood icon that we had enjoyed on TV and on the big screen all our lives. We got good seats, and then I excused myself, suddenly feeling the rather urgent need to use the boys’ lavatory.

When I walked in, by now in a bit of rush, I noticed two things immediately.

One was that Kirk Douglas himself was standing at one of the sinks, looking in the mirror, fixing himself up for his appearance in front of the crowd.

The other was that, this being a high school lavatory, there were no doors on the stalls.

There was really no choice at that point, however. I betook myself to a stall near the end of the row, dropped my trousers, took a seat, and began to do my business, praying it would be a relatively quiet affair. At the sink, the great man splashed a little water on his face, straightened his tie, and then…we made solemn eye contact in the mirror.

There he was, one of the last great leading men of Hollywood’s Golden Age. There was Van Gogh in Lust For Life, there was Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, there was Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory, "Jiggs" Casey in Seven Days in May and Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole. There was freakin’ Spartacus himself, looking at me in what I perceived as mild contempt for daring to exercise this particular bodily function in his presence.

But he didn’t flee in hasty revulsion. He sized himself up in the mirror, decided he was prepared to meet his public, and strolled calmly out of the lavatory, leaving me alone with my shame. When I returned to my seat and told The Wife what happened, she looked at me with a similar reproachful disdain. When Douglas was introduced, I had a momentary fear he might tell the audience what he had just witnessed and invite them to vent their scorn at me. But he just cheerfully introduced the movie.

RIP, sir, and thank you for all the wonderful performances. Sorry that that was the only performance of mine you ever got to see. I hope that it is among the earthly memories you’re able to discard as you head for eternity.

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