The cleft chin, the jutting jaw, the piercing stare.
Kirk Douglas was in Boca Raton promoting his new novel, "The Gift." The movie star-turned-author already has two best sellers behind him, his autobiography "The Ragman's Son" and the novel "Dance With the Devil.""The Gift" (Warner, $21.95) has received mixed reviews. What hasn't? Publishers Weekly says, "The rough charm and heat that fueled "Dance With the Devil" are largely missing from Douglas' second novel, which reels through more melodramatic tragedies than the book of Job." And The New York Times says, "If Denver is, as they say, in your travel plans, or for that matter any place that takes four hours, you might do much worse than take along Kirk Douglas, or at least his new thriller, `The Gift.' "
Says Douglas, smiling as he sits down in a hotel library for an interview, "My wife gave it an A-plus."
Q. One theme in "The Gift" is a son's struggle to measure up to his father's fame. Were you thinking of Michael?
A. You know, nobody believes me when I say when I first started it, was writing it, I didn't think of Michael.
And then, after I'd been working for a while, I thought: "Subconsciously what I'm doing is writing about what I think my son Michael's reaction was to his father." In "The Gift," Miguel . . . is a Portuguese bullfighter competing against his father, who was the greatest horseman in the world, has all the fame. And there's a lot of friction between the two of them. And then, of course, I worked out how I assumed Miguel my son would feel and the resolution of their problems.
So, in a way, I think that you can in a novel say a lot of true things, a lot of things that you feel.
Q. Though he wasn't famous, were you also thinking of your father?
A. Well, of course. To me, you know, father-son relationships are fascinating. I felt I couldn't live up to my father, and he was a ragman. Physical. The strongest man in the town and all that. . . .
I often say my kids have not had my advantages. Because I had the advantage of coming from abject poverty, I had nowhere to go but up. . . . What would I have been like if my father was a movie star?
And what is it like when a kid has to - he's growing up, he watches TV, and he sees his father killing Romans and Vikings and all that. You know, bigger than life. It gets confusing. It gets fuzzy, the difference between make-believe and reality. You know, you have to know what is real.
Just like every actor has to know that. You have to know, Hey, I am not the character. I am not Doc Holliday. I am not Spartacus. I'm not the Viking or whatever it is I might play. My job is to create that character. I draw on myself for a lot of the things, but I create that character. Because, you know, people who can't handle it, it's like people like Marilyn Monroe, they get lost. They get lost. Their success, their glamour confuses them.
That's why I admire Michael. As I said to him in a note once, "I admire you in the way you handle success more than I do your success." He knows the difference between make-believe and reality.
Q. Are you close to him?
A. Yes. Especially the last eight, 10 years, we've gotten very close. But we've had all our friction, all the friction that I've expressed in "The Gift." . . .
See, I think Michael and I were at a distance for a while, you know. Michael is very restrained. I think as he developed, as he became more secure, you know - after all, it's tough for kids going into the same profession. As he became more secure and successful within his own career, as he developed a family, had his own son, I think it made much more of a bond for us.
Q. Do you think your fame has been hard on all of your sons?
A. Oh, sure. I think that it's tough. . . . I tried to get them not to come into this business because I think it's such a painful, poignant business. And my youngest son, Eric, he competes. He's competing against his brother Michael. He's competing against me. Of course, Joel and Peter are behind the camera. They produce and Peter writes. But Eric is an actor. I acted with him. We did a thing together called "Yellow," an HBO project from "Tales From the Crypt." He was very good at it, and I liked it. Sometime I'd like to do a thing with Michael.
Q. You tried to discourage them from getting into the business.
A. Yeah. Oh, yes, I discouraged all of them. I'd discourage any-body.
Q. But you were so determined when you were younger.
A. That's right. Because my feeling is if someone can talk you out of being an actor, you shouldn't be an actor. It has to be like an incurable disease.
Q. You dedicated "The Gift" to your wife, Anne.
A. I dedicated my three books to my wife. We've been married for 38 years. We met in Paris when I was doing a movie in French. That's when I learned French. I was doing a movie called "Act of Love," that's when I met my wife in Paris. And she's quite a dame. She handles all the financial elements of my company.
A. Because she's capable of doing it. I mean, why are you interviewing me? Because obviously you must be capable of doing your job.
Q. What do you find most attractive in a woman?
A. Well, I like women - see, I think men should have a little bit of femininity in them. By that I mean a little bit of softness, vulnerability, a gentleness, and, you know, not try to be so macho.
And women should have what I call a little bit of masculinity in them. By that I mean, you know, being capable in some ways. I think that women are stronger than men, generally speaking. I feel that women are more practical than men. I think that men are more romantic than women. . . .
But I like women - see, I don't like a woman to be sort of a frilly, what's considered the Southern type, you know, helpless; I always suspect them. So I like women who have a little bit of toughness in them. It's that combination of elements that makes a woman attractive.
Just like I think, I don't know that a woman would like a man that's a John Wayne type, just completely so macho. It would become boring.
Q. You're 75. How does that feel?
A. I feel like a young kid starting a whole new career. Geez, I've made 80 movies, and now here I am writing three books. I'm just beginning.
Q. Tell me about your transition from actor to author.
A. I know most people expect me to say, "Oh, I always dreamt of being a writer."
Not at all. I've always been intrigued with the writing process because when I'm working on a movie I always want to talk to the writer, you know.
What's it all about? It's the written word. When you're doing a movie, it's about a story that somebody wrote.
You know, when I first came to Hollywood, they kept writers sort of locked up in little cubicles. When I first came, I said, `I'd like to talk to the writer.' They thought I was crazy. . . .
So I had that appreciation for writing. But it was only after "The Ragman's Son" became such a success that people said, "Why don't you try to write a novel?" And I had the idea for "Dance With the Devil" in my mind, so I wrote it. Then, of course, "The Gift" came from, "Whatever happened to (the character) Patricia?" It's exciting and it's gratifying.
Q. In your autobiography, you're haunted by Issur, the image of you as a poor boy in Amsterdam, N.Y. Does he haunt you anymore? Does Kirk Douglas ever have a problem with self-confidence?
A. Well, everybody has a problem with self-confidence. But Issur is always there. To me, everybody has that little child deep within them that is the quintessence of what they are. And I feel that, in a sense, you nurture it. It's always there. To me, Issur is deep inside of me, and whatever talent I have I think comes from Issur, whether it's acting or writing. I made peace with him a long time ago. And writing my life story helped me to do that. So now he's openly my ally.
Q. Who is your best friend?
A. I think my wife is my best friend. . . . I'm a bit of a loner, you know. I always have been. It's like how I started. At the beginning of my motion picture career, when everybody belonged to a studio, I was a maverick. So I think there's always been a part of me that's a bit of a loner.
Q. You're Jewish. Do you still observe Yom Kippur?
A. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is to me a very mysterious day that I think is a very important day. . . . Everyone should have one day like that a year because that's the day where you take inventory, where you try to atone for your sins, where you try to make plans to be a better person in the future. So, I'm not a very religious man in the orthodox sense. But that to me is a very, very important day. And I think to have one day a year that you do that is not asking too much of myself. And I encourage other people to do that. In a way, my life's story, "The Ragman's Son," was a Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement, in a way, sort of working out, looking at all of your faults.
Q. Isn't it true that in "Spartacus" a homosexual scene between Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier was pared down to be less explicit?
A. Well, it was cut out of the original movie and it was put back in with the, you know, when they reissued it. I mean, it was a beautiful scene. The homosexual aspects of it nowadays wouldn't even - would even escape some people. It's a very subtle scene, beautifully done by Olivier and Tony Curtis. I pushed to have it put back into the recent version of it.
Q. What do you think of movies today?
A. The criticism I direct against movies for the most part is the excess violence.
I mean, sex - I don't think there's any excess sex. Sex is important. There's no book that I write that doesn't have sex in it. Sex is a part of life.
But for kids to see so much violence, I think that's bad. And gratuitous violence. That's what I don't like. I've done a lot of tough, rough pictures, but I've tried, even from years ago, never to just have violence for violence's sake. . . .
But outside of that, I think there's a lot of wonderful actors. There's a lot of good movies that are being made.
I think there's a danger in when you have too many different techniques of doing special effects and all that, to lean on them too much and not create good character relationships, which to me is the basis of any movie or any book.
Q. You're not giving up acting, are you?
A. No actor ever gives up acting if there's a really good part. What I've given up is just doing movies. I prefer to do books. . . .
I'd love to do a movie with my son Michael. If we develop the script that we're working on now, if we're excited about it, we'll do it.
Q. So you and Michael are writing a script now?
A. We're having it written.
Q. What is it about?
A. I'm not going to tell you. It's too early. I don't tell you everything. You think you're going to get out of me everything?