Kirk Douglas: `I was always independent'
New York — YOU may not think of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster as tough guys, particularly, but that's what they play in their latest movie together. It's called ``Tough Guys,'' and the heroes are Archie and Harry, two old-time train robbers.
They're just leaving jail after a 30-year stretch, and they want to go straight. Yet it's hard for them to resist the call of the wild, if only as a way of getting their bearings -- and asserting their personalities in a world that seems determined to patronize them with ``senior citizen'' treatment they don't need or want.
Harry tries to behave himself in a home for the aged, and Archie tries to rejuvenate himself by carrying on with a young woman. But it's clear to both of them -- and even to their friendly parole officer -- that what they really need is another shot at train robbery. Now if they can only find a train, in 1986, with anything worth robbing on board. . . .
Working together is nothing new for ``Tough Guys'' stars Douglas and Lancaster, who first teamed up almost 40 years ago and have such respected films as ``Gunfight at the O. K. Corral'' and ``Seven Days in May'' among their co-credits. I visited Douglas when he stopped in New York recently and asked why he and Lancaster made such a strong partnership.
``I think it's just a certain chemistry,'' he answered in an energetic tone, each phrase accompanied by a wag of the long, dimpled chin that's his most famous trademark.
``I think that whenever Burt and I have worked in a picture, it's sort of like a formula: One and one makes three,'' he went on. ``There's an added dimension that happens. And why it happens or how, I've never tried to analyze or question. I just accept it. And it works. It works.''
Douglas attributes much of their success -- individually and together -- to old-fashioned diligence.
``I do know that both Burt and I have a working ethic,'' he says. ``A lot of actors today do a picture every three years. . . . I think we've averaged three movies a year. If you're an actor, you act! We've always had that enthusiasm, both of us. . . .''
What keeps Douglas's enthusiasm so fresh, after more than four decades in show business?
``To me,'' he replies without hesitation, ``making movies is exciting. Every movie is a new adventure. When we made `Tough Guys' it reminded me [of] when I was a poor kid. I always wanted a set of trains, but I never had any. Well, here I have a big set of trains, and I can ride the locomotive, and run across the top of the speeding train, and have fun!
``So there's a childish element to being an actor that you always have to retain. I don't know what will be the next movie I do. It'll be a new adventure. It may take me to a far-off place, a whole environment that's different from anything else. That's what's exciting.''
Douglas notes that, while ``Tough Guys'' has a lot of action and comedy scenes, it also has serious themes running through it. These include messages about the value of friendship and loyalty, and about getting old -- which doesn't mean getting less active.
He warns that ``messages'' must be kept in their place, though, or they can spoil the effect of a good movie. ``I always hate that word message,'' he says with a friendly scowl. ``Of course, Burt and I often disagree on this. He thinks the important thing in a movie is: What is the statement?''
Douglas quickly acknowledges that he has done ``message'' films in his time, citing the ``beautiful, deep, profound antiwar statement'' of ``Paths of Glory'' as an example. But he insists that ``a message is secondary. You make a movie to . . . let people forget their problems for a couple of hours.''
This doesn't mean Douglas wants movies to be shallow. It's just that ``people look at `entertain' like it's a dirty word,'' he laments. ``If I see a Woody Allen movie, most of them I just love. I'm sure if you probe deeply, you'll find they have some pertinent statements. But primarily they entertain. . . . The statement has to come out as a byproduct. Then it's effective.''
As a sought-after Hollywood star, Douglas must choose carefully when deciding which projects to get involved with. He's not interested in new-fangled solutions to this perennial problem, though.
``I certainly don't go to computers and research demographics,'' he says. ``I don't understand that. They go through research demographics, and they think all people are like little kids under 16 just discovering sex. And then suddenly, in a couple of years, they find they've had enough of that.''
Douglas takes a more direct approach. ``All my life I have gone by gut instinct,'' he reveals. ``If I read something that hits me, I become fascinated, and I want to do it. That's all. I don't try to be smarter than the audience and try to analyze it.''
This puts him at odds with the marketing methods used by Hollywood studios, he says, but that's all right with him. When he tried to produce a film version of the novel ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' which he had already turned into a stage play, ``all their research was telling us this shouldn't be a movie.'' Yet his son, Michael Douglas, finally succeeded in getting the picture made, ``and it took in over $200 million!''
Over the years, Douglas's film activities have gone far beyond just acting. He formed his own production outfit, the Bryna Company -- named after his mother and still in business today -- back in 1955. A few years later he dealt a lethal blow to the McCarthy-era studio blacklist by proudly announcing that a blacklisted writer would do the script for a major Bryna project. In more recent years he has traveled the world on behalf of the United States State Department and other agencies and has earned a number of humanitarian awards in addition to his acting prizes, which include three Oscar nominations.
Douglas insists that when he formed his production company, he had ``no intentions of becoming a Hollywood mogul'' or making piles of money. Rather, he says, ``I formed it because I didn't belong to any studios. I've always been a maverick; I was always independent. The purpose was to enable me to participate more in the creative process.
``In other words, if I see a book that I like . . . I don't wait to go to a studio and say, buy the book for me. I'll gamble. I buy the book, pay a writer, develop it, and take my chances on . . . financing and distribution, and make a movie. That's exciting!''
Looking back on movies he has brought into being, such as ``The Vikings,'' he says they're ``like children of mine that I'm proud of. . . . I don't know that they would have been made if I didn't . . . buy the project and nurture it and develop it.''
In addition to these movie ``children,'' of course, Douglas also has actual children to be proud of. His four sons are all active in the entertainment business, and the Bryna Company is run by Ann Buydens, his wife.
The most famous Douglas offspring is Michael, an actor-producer like his father. ``He took over on `One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' when I couldn't do it,'' says Kirk, ``and he put it together. He's put several movies together.''
Yet at one point, the elder Douglas admits, he couldn't resist giving his successful son a bit of advice. ``I said, `Michael, we're both producers. You produced `One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' and it was a wonderful part for Jack Nicholson. `The China Syndrome' was a wonderful part for Jack Lemmon. How about producing some movies with a wonderful part for an actor called Michael Douglas?
``So after that, he did `Romancing the Stone' and `Jewel of the Nile' and had a lot of fun. They were both very successful!'' Like father, like son.
David Sterritt is film critic of The Christian Science Monitor.