Growing up in the 1950s, I was mesmerised by the stars of Hollywood’s golden era: Cary Grant, Gregory Peck. Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Lana Turner, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, June Haver (a special favourite) – and of course Issur Danielovitch Demsky, otherwise known as Kirk Douglas, who has died aged 103.
He was born in Amsterdam, an industrial town in New York state, to Russian immigrant parents from what is now Belarus. He was brought up with six sisters and spoke Yiddish at home. He had an impoverished childhood. His father was an alcoholic who pushed a rag and bone cart around the streets.
He talked his way into university and got a degree before plunging into an acting career that began on stage. His friend Lauren Bacall persuaded him to go into films – the first of the 90 he made was in 1946, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, with Barbara Stanwyk.
He was nominated three times for an Oscar, the first for Champion, a 1949 film about a boxer, that made him a star. Two of his greatest films, in my view, were Ace in the Hole and Paths of Glory, neither of which were big box office hits at the time. He was also a powerful presence as the terminally sick Doc Holiday in Gunfight at OK Corral.
He was outstanding in Lust for Life, about the artist Vincent Van Gogh, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. Many film buffs think he deserved an Oscar for his explosive performance.
My particular favourite is Lonely are the Brave about the last cowboy failing to come to terms with modern life. His energy and athleticism in Spartacus are still memorable after 60 years; so too his aggressive role as a defence counsel in Town Without Pity.
Douglas was a disruptive presence on set, arguing violently with script-writers and directors; so much so that he went on to form his own production company. His friend Burt Lancaster, who made seven films with Douglas, said of him: “Kirk would be the first to admit that he was difficult – and I would be the second.” He used this raging aggressiveness in his films, once saying: “I’ve made a career of playing sons of bitches.”
He might have had reason to be jealous of his son Michael, who has won two Oscars, but he once said: “I want my sons to surpass me, because that’s a form of immortality.” Michael was his son by his first wife, Diana Dill.
Kirk had an astonishing talent for survival, suffering numerous injuries while making films, escaping from a helicopter crash and having a heart attack in his seventies and living another 23 years after suffering a severe stroke when he was 80.
He and his wife Anne gave away an estimated $80 million dollars to a variety of causes, including schools, colleges, playgrounds, theatres, a children’s hospital, a centre for homeless women and medical care for ageing actors suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Three big tasks for Boris
Several people have asked me if I rejoiced on January 31 when Britain formally left the European Union. I didn’t rejoice or even think about it much, because the key date was December 12 last year when Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a majority of 80 in the general election. From that moment Britain’s departure was a formality.
Besides, I was brought up not to gloat over other people’s misfortune. And although the divorce from Europe has been legalised, the bickering over the alimony still has some way to go. And the early signs are not propitious.
I hope Boris, or his hit man, Dominic Cummings, are restrained in their recriminations over Brexit. What matters now is healing – or, better still, forgetting – the divisions that nearly tore the country apart.
I have no problem with Kenneth Clarke, the arch-Europhile, being translated to the House of Lords after 50 years as an MP and having served as a very competent Cabinet Minister. He was always open about his opposition to Brexit.
That certainly wasn’t true of the other proposed elevation, that of Philip Hammond, who was a snake in the grass, constantly undermining Theresa May’s attempts to secure an agreement with the EU. As for the perfidious Lord Bercow, that is surely an impossible outcome.
When Boris moved into Downing Street, I had a hopeful, even wistful, manifesto of my own. One was stopping the absurdly over-spent HS2 project, or at least the southern bit – tearing up much of the Home Counties to knock a few minutes off the short time it takes a train to get to Birmingham seems ridiculous.
I applaud the decision to build or expand the northern rail stretches, but why not start there? The whole point of HS2 is to make the country’s transport network less dependent on London. Starting in the north would be hugely symbolic.
I also hoped that the government would not permit the Chinese company Huawei to build the next stage of the country’s most vital communications network. As someone said, it “beggars belief” that we should allow any foreign country, especially a suspiciously dangerous one like China, to become privy to Britain’s most sensitive secrets.
Third, the Government must surely have the power to protect the public by halting the release from prison of unreformed Jihadists who are plainly hell-bent on killing British citizens. Sudesh Amman, the man who stabbed two people in Streatham last weekend, evidently boasted in prison that he was planning an atrocity. The police knew he was dangerous, tried to track him and eventually had to shoot him dead in the street.
In considering the release of the next batch of prisoners, the most important test is surely this: is he likely to endanger the public? If there is the slightest doubt, he must be kept behind bars. A government that is denied by law the right to control this situation must surely be allowed to change the law in the overriding interests of public safety.