Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Kirk Douglas turns 96: Last of the screen idols

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
December 14, 2012 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Kirk Douglas was born in Amsterdam, New York, on December 9, 1916. He made his Broadway debut in 1941, served in the U.S. Navy and embarked on a screen career in 1946. Popular films include "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Spartacus" and "The Bad and the Beautiful." Douglas also worked as director. Douglas is shown in a studio portrait, circa 1955. Kirk Douglas was born in Amsterdam, New York, on December 9, 1916. He made his Broadway debut in 1941, served in the U.S. Navy and embarked on a screen career in 1946. Popular films include "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Spartacus" and "The Bad and the Beautiful." Douglas also worked as director. Douglas is shown in a studio portrait, circa 1955.
HIDE CAPTION
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says Kirk Douglas is Hollywood's last remaining Golden Age idol
  • In "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," he played a seafarer and sang a memorable song
  • Greene watched a TV version in which song was cut; he called Douglas, who was appalled
  • Greene: Douglas turns 96 today, has come far from his early N.Y. days as Issur Danielovitch

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- At dinnertime the other evening I walked into a seafood restaurant in a small strip mall off U.S. 41 in southwestern Florida.

The décor was faithful to an under-the-ocean theme, right down to bubbling water behind portholes built into one wall.

Along a corridor, on the door to the men's room, was a framed photograph of a young, smiling Kirk Douglas. You couldn't look at it without grinning.

Even if you had never set eyes on him in your life, you would know in a glance that this guy was some sort of star. The business he was in -- the movie-star business -- has always been built on instant visceral reaction. You've got star quality, or you don't.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

With Kirk Douglas, there was never a question. He was golden.

I bring this up because Sunday is Douglas' birthday. He is turning -- believe it or not -- 96.

He is the last man standing of all the great name-above-the-title stars of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable -- all of them, except him, gone.

I knew exactly why that photograph of Douglas was on the door to the men's room in the submarine-themed restaurant. One of Douglas' most unforgettable movies was 1954's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," adapted from the Jules Verne saga. Douglas played the swashbuckling seafarer Ned Land.

From the archives: Kirk Douglas, 92, takes stock of his life

It was the first favorite movie of my life. I must have seen it at least six times in the big palace of a downtown theater in our Midwestern hometown. I kept making my parents take me.

The whole movie was thrilling, but one scene topped them all:

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Douglas, in a red-and-white-striped T-shirt, a guitar in his hands, sang a song called "Whale of a Tale" to his shipmates:

"Got a whale of a tale to tell you, lads. . . ."

No textbooks are needed to define what constitutes star quality. That one bit of film contains all the information necessary.

About 25 years ago, I saw in the paper that "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" was scheduled to be broadcast in prime time on ABC. This was in the pre-YouTube, pre-Netflix era; if a wonderful old movie was going to be aired, your one shot at seeing it was at the whim and convenience of a network.

I eagerly awaited -- especially for the chance to see and hear Kirk Douglas sing "Whale of a Tale" one more time.

I watched the movie -- every minute of it.

No "Whale of a Tale."

They had cut it out, for time reasons. "Edited for television."

I couldn't believe they'd done it. The next morning, I remembered that I knew someone who knew someone who claimed to know Kirk Douglas. I made a few phone calls, and was given a California number that I was told was Douglas' business office.

I called, expecting to leave a message.

And Kirk Douglas picked up the phone.

I asked him if he'd heard about how the movie had been edited.

He hadn't. "I rarely watch my own films," he said. "They're for other people, not for me."

I told him that "Whale of a Tale" had been taken out of the TV version.

He became livid. Furious.

"That's a sacrilege," he said. "I had no idea they'd done that. If they can't use 'Whale of a Tale,' then they shouldn't run the picture at all."

I could barely concentrate on what he was saying, because it was hard enough processing the fact that I was talking with Kirk Douglas.

"It was really a rollicking song that everyone liked," he said. "'20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' holds a very special place in my heart, because it was the movie that made me a star to young kids. In my earlier movies I had played rather rough characters -- characters that kids probably shouldn't have seen. But when I played Ned Land in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' all of a sudden I had a whole new audience."

From the archives: Douglas deals frankly with stroke, depression

And then, in the middle of our conversation, without prompting, he did something that will stay with me forever.

He started to sing "Whale of a Tale" over the telephone:

"Got a whale of a tale to tell you lads, a whale of a tale or two. . ."

The sound of that voice, across all the years. The magic of a movie star:

". . .'bout the flapping fish and the girls I've loved, on nights like this with the moon above, a whale of a tale and it's all true, I swear by my tattoo."

Being 96 is often not much fun for those who make it to that age, and Douglas has battled health problems in recent years. The last of those legends with the special something that turns out to be eternal. All those indelible roles, in "A Letter to Three Wives" and "Ace in the Hole" and "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Strangers When We Meet" and "Spartacus" and "Seven Days in May". . . .

When Douglas started making pictures, Charlie Chaplin was still acting in movies. Douglas' son Michael has already had a long and full movie career. Ninety-six. I stood in that restaurant and looked at him grinning off the painted door, the wattage of the smile above his cleft chin undimmed.

Happy birthday, sir. What a life for Issur Danielovitch, as he was named by his parents on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York -- what a life for the self-described ragman's son who decided he would be Kirk Douglas, and see where that might take him.

A whale of a tale, and it's all true.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT