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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT