In One-Man Show, Kirk Douglas Recounts Life At 92, film legend Kirk Douglas has returned to live theater for a one-man show that's a biography of his life and career. The last performance is Sunday at, fittingly enough, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif.
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In One-Man Show, Kirk Douglas Recounts Life

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In One-Man Show, Kirk Douglas Recounts Life

In One-Man Show, Kirk Douglas Recounts Life

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Tonight, a movie legend adds another chapter to his incredible life story. Kirk Douglas appears live on stage in Culver City, California. It'll be the third of four sold-out performances of Douglas' one-man show called "Before I Forget." But even at the age of 92, the actor has not forgotten much, as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: Kirk Douglas has a slight hitch in his step as he moves around the stage. Maybe it's from the two knee replacements, or the debilitating injuries from the 1991 helicopter crash or the 1995 stroke that impaired his speech.

Mr. KIRK DOUGLAS (Actor): When you have a stroke, you must talk slowly to be understood. And I've discovered that when I talk slowly, people listen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: They think I'm going to say something important.

JAFFE: His most important memories fill this nearly 90-minute show. Douglas has written about these events before in his autobiographies, but you can't hear readers laugh and applaud. Many stories are intensely personal and go back to his earliest days.

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York. His Russian immigrant father sold rags from a horse-drawn cart. Other than that, the old man's main activities seemed to be going to the corner saloon and ignoring his son. When Douglas' mother and six sisters found a better place to live, his father refused to move with them.

Mr. DOUGLAS: I wanted to be with Pa. I kept looking at him, waiting for him to say, Issur, don't go. Don't go. He said nothing and went in the house.

JAFFE: But he did attend Douglas' very first acting gig, a kindergarten play.

Mr. DOUGLAS: After the show, not a word was said. He bought me an ice cream cone. That ice cream cone was my Oscar. From that day on, I was determined to be an actor.

JAFFE: That determination brought him to acting school in New York City, then small parts on Broadway and finally, to Hollywood. His breakout role came in the 1949 film, "Champion." Douglas played the ruthless, ambitious boxer, Midge Kelly.

(Soundbite of film, "Champion")

Mr. DOUGLAS: (As Midge Kelly): Do you hear that crowd? For the first time in my life, people cheering for me. Were you deaf? Didn't you hear them?

JAFFE: Douglas was nominated for an Oscar for that role, one of three nominations during his career. But the only statuette he received was an honorary one, presented in 1996 by Steven Spielberg.

Mr. STEVEN SPIELBERG (Director): Because he's done nearly everything on film. He's directed, he's produced and in the process, he's helped to hammer the blacklist to pieces.

JAFFE: In 1960, Douglas was one of the first producers to give a blacklisted writer screen credit when he acknowledged Dalton Trumbo for a film about the leader of an ancient Roman slave rebellion.

(Soundbite of film, "Spartacus")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified People (Actors): (As character) I'm Spartacus.

JAFFE: Well, none of those guys was Spartacus or Kirk Douglas. Here he is.

(Soundbite of film, "Spartacus")

Mr. DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) Tell them we want nothing from Rome, nothing except our freedom.

JAFFE: Douglas' show touches on a bit of everything: his deepening spirituality, for example, and his considerable role as a philanthropist, which included rehabbing this very theater, now called The Kirk Douglas.

But the show finally comes back to the topic of fathers and sons. He had four. One of them, Eric, died of an overdose five years ago. There's film of Douglas at Eric's grave, one of several filmed interludes that give the 92-year-old actor a chance to sit down and rest. He also shows a clip from an HBO documentary about his relationship with his most famous son, Michael.

(Soundbite of documentary, "A Father…a Son…Once Upon A Time in Hollywood")

Mr. DOUGLAS: Was I a good father?

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): You have ultimately been a great father.

JAFFE: That pause, Douglas tells the audience, was all he heard. But there were no awkward pauses during this performance, just uncritical adoration and a long standing ovation at the end.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: As Douglas stood there, soaking it up, his son Michael walked out on stage and handed his dad an ice cream cone.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Culver City.

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