Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kirk Douglas on SPARTACUS

90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning
by Kirk Douglas

Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who received a one-year jail sentence. At the time, my production company, the Bryna Company, was producing SPARTACUS with backing from Universal Pictures. The book had been written by Howard Fast, who was also under scrutiny by McCarthy's committee. We had an all-star cast for this epic: Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis. I played the part of Spartacus, a slave in Roman times who led a revolt against the emperor. I'm ashamed to admit that I joined the hypocrites by employing Dalton Trumbo secretly to write the script under the pseudonym of Sam Jackson.
Since he was not allowed to come to the studio, we would meet like thieves in the night at his house. He usually received us while soaking in the bathtub, with a parrot - a gift from me - perched on his shoulder. He wrote a wonderful script and we were in the middle of making a fantastic picture.
Our director, Anthony Mann, was a very nice guy whom the studio insisted on using. I was against it. A few weeks into the picture, the studio said, "Kirk, you were right. Fire Anthony Mann." That was very difficult for me but I did it. I felt that I owed him something, though, and a few years later I acted in a picture under his direction, THE HEROES OF TELEMARK.
It was the end of the week. Here was one of the biggest-budget pictures in Hollywood history shooting without a director. Then I heard that Marlon Brando was starring in ONE-EYED JACKS, which was being directed by Stanley Kubrick. Marlon fired Stanley and took over the direction himself. (He did a good job, too.) In a minute I was on the phone with Stanley and during the weekend arranged for him to become the new director of SPARTACUS...
Then the question came up as to what name we should use on the screen for the screenwriter. I felt awkward using "Sam Jackson". It was so hypocritical. Our country was in danger of losing one of our freedoms. Talented people were not allowed to use their names because McCarthy had spread such a veil of suspicion over them. What would happen next? It made me feel unclean.
I talked with my producer, Eddie Lewis, and Stanley. Stanley suggested, "Put my name on the screen as the writer."
I was shocked. "Stanley," I asked, "wouldn't you feel funny taking credit for a script you had nothing to do with?"
"I'm only trying to help you out," he answered.
I looked at Eddie and saw disgust in his face.
That night, in bed, I couldn't get it off my mind. I had to make a decision. I slapped the bed and Banshee [Kirk's dog.] jumped up and lay down next to me. I stroked his back - I could almost hear him purr. "Banshee," I asked, "how would you like to be called Rover? Here, Rover!"
Banshee looked at me quizzically.
I smiled and went to sleep. I had made my decision.
At the studio the next morning, I told Eddie and Stanley, "I've decided to use Dalton Trumbo's name on the screen."
Eddie smiled at me with approval. He was always against the blacklist.
Stanley looked at me, said, "You must be crazy," and left the room.
Eddie and I were stunned, but I was determined to put "Written by Dalton Trumbo" on the screen for the first time in ten years.
The next day I invited Dalton to the studio. I left a pass for him at the gate. He looked at Eddie and me and said with a wry smile, "This is the first time I have been in a studio in ten years. Thanks for giving me back my name."
It was the most important decision that I made in my career. We never held a press conference, but word got out. People said I had ruined my career, that I would never work again. Otto Preminger called from New York, quite upset, He was directing EXODUS, which Dalton Trumbo had also written under an assumed name. In his German accent he said, "Vat are you doing? Are you crazy? Don't do dat!"
I answered, "Otto, it's done."
He hung up the phone. Soon he held a press conference to announce that he would give credit to Dalton Trumbo as the writer of EXODUS. Otto was a smart producer. He didn't want to be caught using a nom de plume for Dalton Trumbo when I was using Trumbo's real name.
When SPARTACUS was released there were lots of reactions, both positive and negative: "Kirk, you're a hero." "Kirk, you're a shmuck!" "What's the matter, don't want to work in this town anymore?" Hedda Hopper, an important columnist at the time, lambasted me: "...from a book written by a Commie and the screen script written by a Commie, so don't go to see it."
A few people wrote threatening letters, but the sky didn't fall in. The blacklist was broken. And the movie was a success.
I can't think of anything in my life that made me more proud. Sometimes you just have to be the person your dog thinks you are.

[Of course Spartacus didn't revolt against the emperor. At the time of SPARTACUS, Rome was still a republic ruled by the Senate, as depicted in the movie. Rome's first emperor, Julius Caesar, appeared as a young officer in SPARTACUS - many years before his rise to power. - The usual story regarding the direction of SPARTACUS was that Douglas wanted Stanley Kubrick, with whom he had made PATHS OF GLORY, while Universal wanted Anthony Mann, with whom they had made a series of successful Westerns starring James Stewart. The usual way the story went was that after a week Douglas finally succeeded in getting Mann replaced by Kubrick, but in this telling Douglas refuted that perspective. Also some disputed Douglas' claim to have broken the Hollywood blacklist because Otto Preminger announced that he was crediting Dalton Trumbo for EXODUS. Here, Douglas established a timeline showing his action was first, and that Preminger followed but with a press conference.]

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