CATCHING UP WITH CAPTAIN KIRK

His hair is pure white. His walk is no longer fast and aggressive. And his voice, the one that intoned so many passionate speeches and incited so much celluloid action, has become slow and somewhat slurred, the result of a massive stroke suffered 11 years ago. But one thing is absolutely clear when you meet Kirk Douglas at his Montecito home ¬– and the still steely eyes are the first indication: the Hollywood legend remains an indomitable maverick, a fighter, headstrong and opinionated, however the years and fate may have taken their toll on his body.

Douglas made a very long career out of playing tough guys marred by human shortcomings, virile men whose frailties often proved their undoing, in such landmark movies as “Paths of Glory,” Gunfight at the OK Corral,” Lust for Life,” “Lonely are the Brave,” and, of course, his iconic turn as a steadfast slave fighting for freedom in the title role of “Spartacus.” That was also the film that enabled Douglas as executive producer to break the Hollywood blacklist, the era when writers were forbidden to work in the movie business following McCarthyism.

These days, Douglas mostly spends his time finishing up some philanthropic work that has seen him and his family help foster vast improvements to playgrounds all over Los Angeles and create a center for the arts in Culver City (not to mention the local Douglas Family Preserve on the Mesa, which although orchestrated by his actor-producer son Michael, bears the patriarch’s name in perpetuity). His Santa Barbara digs, just off Upper Village, feature a well-manicured pool and lush gardens, which are also home to one of his most cherished recent possessions, scrap-metal statues of David and Goliath bought in Israel that perch on opposite sides of the pathway to the pool.

It’s out on the back porch overlooking the grounds that we spent a few minutes on a warm weekend morning in mid-July discussing his career as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival prepares to give him an award for Excellence in Film at the Bacara Resort on July 30. The award was created to honor Douglas, and SBIFF will make it the centerpiece of an annual benefit each summer.

Q. How are you today?

A. Good, good. I’m always good when I’m here in Montecito. I like my statue of David and Goliath, my pool, etc. I’m happy here.

You moved here six years ago to be closer to your family, right?

Yes, even before I moved here, I spent a lot of time up in Montecito. Michael went to UCSB, and he lived here with his first wife (Diandra) for twenty-two years. My son Peter lives here now, and he has four grandchildren. So Montecito and Santa Barbara are not strangers to me. And we’re starting to spend more time here than in L.A. Our weekends keep stretching. Sometimes we are here from Thursday to Monday.

You’re getting this award from SBIFF, and it will be given annually in your name. What does it mean to you to receive this?

You know, any sort of recognition for things you have done in life is meaningful. But I always joke that if you live long enough, you eventually get all the awards. I built the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City that I hope will get clear roads, access and opportunities for people to perform, so this award really relates to that – even though I hesitate to encourage people to come into my profession because it is so tough. For every hundred that have found success, there are thousands who have failed. So I’m glad to receive this award because it will help aspiring people in the theater.

One of your sons did quite well in the business…

I never encouraged Michael; in fact, I discouraged him. I had thought he would be a lawyer. But he turned out to be a pretty good actor.

Do you have a specific film role, or favorite movie, that stands out for you?

Yes. My most important picture to me is “Spartacus,” and not just because it’s a very good picture and I’m pleased with my acting. Most important to me was breaking the blacklist and insisting on having Dalton Trumbo, who had been using the pseudonym Sam Jackson, have his name in the credits. I insisted on putting his name on the screen, and that was the first time in ten years. That was very gratifying for me.

People don’t realize it today, but that was a pretty courageous act. Why did you think that the time was right at that moment? I mean, you could have been blacklisted yourself.

I was young enough to be impulsive but old enough to have some wisdom. People did say I was crazy, but I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of the studios bowing to McCarthy, and they were looking the other way if one of the blacklisted writers was working as long as he used a false name. But he could never appear at the studio. When I brought Dalton Trumbo to the studio for the first time, it was quite an event – and he was so moved – and I’m still very proud of that.

You played a lot of very strong, virile men in your prime of your career, but they were often the villains or at least somewhat flawed in their character. Why do you think you were drawn to or cast in those roles?

Why did I play so many unsavory characters? They’re more interesting. Sin is more interesting than virtue. A bad guy has more dimensions that good guys. But I have played good guys. In “Spartacus,” I was fighting for freedom of the slaves. As an actor I think the picture most impressive to me was “Lust for Life,” when I played Van Gogh. That was very difficult. People say you shouldn’t lose yourself in the character, but I did lose myself in him. We shot it outside of Paris, where he died and is buried next to his brother Theo. We saw all the places he went to, I was in the room where he died, and I read all the letters that he wrote to his brother. So it had a strong impact on me.

Do you think some of those roles reflected your own personality? And were they cathartic for you?

Yes, I think so. Every role you play is a part of yourself, because you draw on whatever is inside that relates to the character. Maybe playing those people helps to get rid of the rage and anger inside you.

I have to tell you that I’m impressed with how good you sound, how much you’ve recovered from your stroke. What do you think helped you to heal? How did you learn to accept it?

When I had my stroke it was a time when I had a suicidal impulse. Because what is an actor who can’t talk? My joke is that you wait until silent pictures come back. But then I realized that suicide is very selfish – you are only thinking about yourself. So that gave me the courage to really deal with my stroke. I have dealt with it completely; I haven’t cured it, but considering that I started as a man that couldn’t talk, I think I’ve come a long way.

Absolutely. It must have been tough considering that the characters you had played were so brash and tough and virile and aggressive, and a stroke is so debilitating – that must have been hard to get your head around?

Of course, of course. But I had the stroke in my late seventies, so I figured I had already made a few pictures, and that made it easier to accept.

One question about your family and Hollywood. I read all about the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” situation – explain that.

Oh my God, that’s a long story.

Well, I know we don’t have time to go over the whole thing, but do you feel like you’ve finally resolved it now? Because it seems to still pop up when you talk about Michael and it even was a big part of that documentary you two made just last year.

Well you know, it was a book that I bought. No one else wanted to do it. I paid Dale Wasserman to write the play and I played R.P. Mc…. For six months on the road. It was a hit in Boston, but the critics didn’t like it, and it didn’t do well in New York. Then I tried to make a movie out of it for ten years. Then my son says, “Dad, let me try.” And he did it. He made a wonderful movie. But of course my disappointment was that they thought I was too old to play the part. Jack Nicholson did such a wonderful job, and I was proud of what my son accomplished.

Did you feel that it should have been your Oscar?

I have been nominated three times for an Oscar. I didn’t win for “Lust for Life,” which I thought I should have. So what? Then they gave me the award for lifetime achievement. That’s fine.

You’re one of the last of your generation from Hollywood’s golden era. What do you see as your legacy?

I don’t want to talk about legacies because I think I still have too much to do in life.