KIRK DOUGLAS CENTENNIAL & THE LEE MARVIN CONNECTION

The legendary Kirk Douglas turns 100-years-old today and here are two largely unknown anecdotes about the star: One inadvertently connects him to Lee Marvin and the other is quite personal.
First, the Lee Marvin connection. It’s no secret that Kirk Douglas was rightfully nominated for an Oscar several times in his career, never won, and has said publicly how much he would like to have won an Oscar in competition. Well, he came close once and never even knew it! I was fortunate to interview Cat Ballou director Elliott Silverstein while researching Lee Marvin Point Blank in the 1990s. Much of what he told me went into the book but the details concerning how close Kirk Douglas came to playing Lee Marvin’s role did not. Here it is for the first time…

The author of LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK (left) getting "Cat Ballou" director, Elliot Silverstein, to sign his copy of the book at the Egyptian Theatre in 2013.

The author of LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK (left) getting “Cat Ballou” director, Elliot Silverstein, to sign his copy of the book at the Egyptian Theatre in 2013.

Elliott Silverstein:..So, the company wanted a major star. After meeting, the group [of producers] decided they wanted Kirk Douglas. I said that this was my first movie and I knew that I was going to ask the actor who played the character to do bizarre, dangerous things, chancy dangerous, career dangerous, esthetically dangerous — bold, bizarre things. I didn’t think a star of Douglas’ magnitude would be comfortable doing those, particularly with a first time feature director. Although god knows, I had directed every television show there was. I was concerned that Kirk Douglas, as a major star, would not feel comfortable doing some of the crazy things I was going to ask the actor playing Kid Shelleen to do. In fact, I had not the leverage that I would have liked. I said, “I would like you try to get Lee. You got to try to persuade him.”
Dwayne: Did you have Lee in mind from the beginning?
E: No.
D: How did you think of Lee?
E: I’m coming to that. They warned me that Douglas didn’t think the role was quite large enough and encouraged me to try to think of some things to make the role larger. I called Douglas. I was a good soldier I think. I did the best I could to persuade him. I told him about some expansions I could make. He said he felt the role was too small for a star’s part and not small enough for a cameo. I went back in and reported that. They said who else have we got? I had been thinking about who else. I remembered The Wild One. Lee Marvin had a wonderful moment where he got off the motorcycle. I just remembered the moment. It was like a gesture you remember somebody had made. So, I said, ‘I’d like Lee Marvin.’ Well, nobody else had any ideas so they said, ‘Okay fine.’ That probably reduced the budget a little bit. It did not make everybody actually happy as they considered it, but nobody had any ideas. We wanted to start in the fall and this was already the end of summer. They approached Lee Marvin and he went crazy for the part. People kept telling me, ‘Oh, he’s going around at parties reciting the speeches from it.’ Things of that nature. The next thing you know…

And the rest, as they say, is history. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way to ever know for sure if Kirk would have won the Oscar had he played Kid Shelleen, but who knows, right? Wonder if he regrets that as much as he regrets not playing McMurphy in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest? The speculation is endless. By the way, if you want to see what he would have been like as McMurphy, since he had played the role on Broadway, check out the underrated, bizarre western, There Was a Crooked Man. A personal favorite of mine and one of the strangest films EVER!

And now, the personal anecdote. Back in 1981, I had read that both Kirk Douglas AND Burt Lancaster were going to appear on stage together as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as older men in the 1920s. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to talk my childhood friend, Ty Elliott, into going with me up to San Francisco to see the two legends in the brief run of “The Boys In Autumn.” Why? Because ever since he and I were kids The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was our favorite book and Burt Lancaster was our favorite actor. Who could ask for more!

The theatre marquee in San Francisco for the short-run of "The Boys in Autumn."

The theatre marquee in San Francisco for the short-run of “The Boys in Autumn.”

So, off we went and it was quite an adventure. Truth be told, the play itself was not all that good, making Tom Sawyer (Douglas) a child molester pining over Becky Thatcher and turning Huck Finn (Lancaster) into a mercy killer of his dying wife…yech! The saving grace was seeing these two titans of film in person, with an ending in which they joked playfully while doing a soft shoe routine. Movie fan heaven. (Side note: the play was retooled and went to Broadway with George C. Scott & John Cullum in the leads and not surprisingly, it still flopped!)

A Newsweek tidbit I saved proclaiming Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster in the play, "The Boys in Autumn."

A Newsweek tidbit I saved proclaiming Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster in the play, “The Boys in Autumn.”

After the play, we went over to a Bar & Grille to get drunk and bemoan both the play and the fact that we didn’t get to meet either of the two legends in-person to actually talk to. We were on our umpteenth gin & tonic when who should walk into the crowded establishment to pick up a to-go order? That’s right, the dimpled chin one himself, looking every inch a movie star. He came in like a whirlwind, wearing slacks, a dapper tan trench coat over a ribbed red turtleneck, hair flipping as he walked looking 20 years young than his mid-60s. He sat down in the shadowy corner waiting for his food, while I screwed up my courage. I downed the rest of my drink, gathered my screwed up courage, and took the long jaunt over to where he impatiently sat, hoping not to be bothered by fools such as I. Good thing I was drunk.
I stood in front of him, cleared my throat and was about to speak when he put his finger to his lips, making that ‘shushing’ sign and said, “Son, I’m just leaving now and would rather not be bothered…”
I cut him off and said, “Mr. Douglas. I just came over to thank you. Thank you, for Spartacus, Lust for Life, Lonely are the Brave, Paths of Glory….”
He looked at me while I babbled as he tried to read my face. An eternity later, he jutted out his hand and said, “You know what? Thank you, young man. We in the industry don’t hear that enough from our fans. I want you to know that I appreciate it.”
It was a moment that for obvious reasons I’ll never forget. Incidentally, a few seconds later, I watched Ty down his drink and do the same thing before Kirk Douglas beat his hasty retreat.
And now, now that he’s made it to the one hundred year mark, I say again, thank you Kirk Douglas. And here’s to a hundred more!
Did I ever mention the time I met Burt Lancaster? Ahh, perhaps another blog entry….

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CHARLES CHAMPLIN, 1926-2014

L.A. Times film critic and arts editor Charles Champlin died last Sunday at the age of 88 from complications involving Alzeheimer’s Disease. Being a lifelong movie fan, as a rule, I’ve never been a particular fan of most film critics, but Champlin was an exception. I found the more well-known critics to be pompous, pretentious and more often than not, just plain wrong about the films they reviewed. For the most part, that exception was Champlin. He wrote of films from a place of appreciation, and was generally less stuffy and esoteric than many of his contemporaries. To me, that translates to a simple yet all encompassing difference: He genuinely liked movies.
When I was in the earliest stages of researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, I traveled with fellow biographer Marshall Terrill (Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American  Rebel) to Lone Pine, California, for the annual film festival held there. It was a rather small town affair for anything deemed a film festival, yet there were a surprising number of interesting guests and speakers. Marshall told me to be prepared to catch a good interview on the fly so with tape recorder at the ready, I did just that. Since Lee Marvin had filmed the likes of Stranger Wore a Gun and Bad Day Black Rock in Lone Pine, I was fortunate enough to speak with such co-stars as John Ericson, John Mitchum, Anne Francis, and several others.
At one point, I found myself simply having chat with Charles Champlin. When I told him I was working on a book on Lee Marvin, he began giving me his thoughts on Marvin, at which time I asked if hed be willing to go on record. He simply nodded as I fumbled with the tape recorder. Below is the transcription of that all too brief conversation which was already at full steam by the time I hit ‘RECORD.’ Enjoy…..

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at Lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Champlin:…I could put you in touch with Frankenheimer.
Epstein: I would love that!
C: Because you know they did Iceman Cometh and Iceman Cometh is one of the best things Lee Marvin ever did. But I think they worked together two or three other times, at least in live television.
D: Right. I was just going to say that I think they did some TV together.
C: Yeah. And John was a terrific admirer of Lee Marvin’s.
D: I know he took a lot of flack in the beginning for casting Marvin and not Jason Robards, which everybody anticipated him doing. He said in an interview at the time that he didn’t want somebody who knew the part inside and out and wouldn’t add anything new to it.
C: That’s exactly right. It made sense. Marvin was an interesting man. In some ways a tragic figure. You always had the feeling about Lee Marvin that there was more work that should have been done.

Lee Marvin as 'Hickey' in Frankenheimer's film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

Lee Marvin as ‘Hickey’ in Frankenheimer’s film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

D: Capable of a lot more than…
C: He’ll be remembered for Cat Ballou. But it’s a problem that actors always have. I remember interviewing Robert Ryan once. Of course, they were both in Iceman
D: Several films; The Professionals
C: ….Dirty Dozen. Ryan said, “I made 75 films and all but three of them were dogs.”
D: That’s a great quote. I remember reading that.
C: Of course, it wasn’t true. Ryan brought great dignity to everything he did. He was one of those actors that couldn’t do anything wrong.
D: Terribly underrated.
C: I told John Ericson here that the first laser disc I bought was Bad Day At Black Rock because I thought Ryan was just wonderful. His villains were heroic, too. It’s nice to go both ways. He dared to go both ways.
D: I thought he was most….he was like evil personified.
C: Absolutely right. Like I said, Marvin was a terrific actor, too.
D: What quick thought come to mind when you think of Lee Marvin?
C: I have one of those memories of Lee Marvin explaining in Stanley Kramer’s Ship Of Fools how he never made it in baseball because he couldn’t hit a curve.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

D: Curve ball low and inside, to Michael Dunn. Great scene.
C: That’s my memory. I never did an interview with him, to my knowledge, that I can remember. Cat Ballou of course was just a classic piece of film acting and film making, really. It was a wonderful idea. It’s Elliot Silverstein’s best film by far. There’s no question about that.

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin had a great versatility. Probably, he tended to get typecast, I suppose in those action roles because he did have a kind of lean and hungry look about him. But he was a good actor. I just think that all actors are the victims of what they can do. I think there’s so many. Maybe Ryan, too, is a causality of a system that puts you in a certain niche. Then it’s hard for you to get a decent role.
D: Maybe more so than Marvin because Ryan never seemed to have the kind of choices in roles that Lee Marvin did.
C: Yeah, well that’s true. Thank you very much.

Once I turned off the tape recorder, Champlin was as good as his word and did indeed put me in touch with Frankenheimer. Naturally, I wished I had spoken with Champlin at greater length but still feel very fortunate to have the time with him that I did. Yet again, another example on my part of not appreciating my luck at the time. He will be truly missed.

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