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“Kirk Douglas is many things . . . But he is, first and foremost, a man of extraordinary character. The kind that’s formed when the stakes are high. The kind we always look for at our darkest hour.” —George Clooney
"A glorious book . . . Kirk Douglas is a wonderful writer and a courageous one, which should surprise no one. Courage has been his battle cry all his life." —Steven Spielberg
"The making of I Am Spartacus! is a remarkable story told with the wit and charm of a great entertainer. Kirk Douglas revisits the complex political and social context surrounding the production of a cinema classic." —Henry Kissinger
"Hugely entertaining." —Liz Smith, Chicago Tribune
"I Am Spartacus! is a great read." —Bill O'Reilly
"Kirk Douglas is a lion." —Bill Maher
"A lively new memoir about one of [Douglas'] greatest triumphs." —Los Angeles Times
"Carries the power of a self-made man who continues to meet life on his own terms but with grace and aplomb." —Associated Press
"In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled."
—Laurence Olivier as Marcus Crassus
IN THE CAUCUS ROOM OF the old House Office Building, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was gaveled to order by Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, Republican of New Jersey. It was Tuesday, October 28, 1947. Ten men, motion picture writers and directors, had been called before the Committee to testify about their current and prior political affiliations.
Nine of them were screenwriters: Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr., Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, John Howard Lawson, Samuel Ornitz, and Adrian Scott. One was a director—Edward Dmytryk.
These men—the so-called "Unfriendly Ten"—viewed the HUAC investigation itself as an un-American violation of their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association, and they intended to say so publicly.
The first witness on that cold October day was Dalton Trumbo. He raised his right hand and was asked if he would swear "to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God."
Trumbo replied, "I do." Yet it quickly became apparent to fair-minded Americans that the only "truth" desired by the Committee (which included an unknown freshman congressman named Richard M. Nixon) was anything—whether true or not—that confirmed their predetermined verdict of these ten men: guilty.
Seated directly behind Trumbo in the crowded chamber were members of the Committee for the First Amendment, a Hollywood group created to provide support for the subpoenaed witnesses.
The delegation of film stars that flew to Washington, D.C., on a private plane provided by Howard Hughes, included Humphrey Bogart and his young wife, Lauren Bacall, as well as Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, John Garfield, and John Huston.
I knew Lauren Bacall from New York. I first met her on a cold winter day in 1940 when we were both struggling students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was only sixteen years old, just entering the Academy. I was a senior, an "older man" of twenty-three. She was Betty Joan Perske back then. She's still Betty to me now.
Bacall, with a take-no-prisoners honesty that defines her to this day, bluntly described in her autobiography what she saw playing out in front of her in that room:
When witnesses such as ... Dalton Trumbo ... were asked "Are you a member of the Communist Party?" and refused to answer, they were exercising their rights as defined in the Bill of Rights. They wouldn't answer whether they were members of the Screen Writers' Guild either. Political affiliation was not the business of the Committee ... and Thomas was gavel happy. I couldn't believe what was going on—that jerk sitting up there with his title had the power to put these men in jail!
J. Parnell Thomas threw down the gauntlet to every witness who came before his committee, thundering:
The Chairman: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?!
Mr. Trumbo: I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence which supports this question.
What the arrogant Chairman hadn't expected was a witness as verbally agile and combative as Dalton Trumbo:
The Chairman: Oh. Well you would?
Mr. Trumbo: Yes.
The Chairman: Well you will, pretty soon. [Pounding gavel] The witness is excused. Impossible!
Mr. Trumbo: This is the beginning ...
The Chairman: [Pounding gavel] Just a minute!
Mr. Trumbo: ... of an American concentration camp for writers!
The Chairman: This is typical Communist tactics! This is typical Communist tactics! [Pounding gavel]
That officious bastard Thomas whacked his gavel and Dalton Trumbo was dragged away.
But those hearings were no joke. Dalton Trumbo and the other Unfriendly Ten literally lost their freedom. They would all be sent to jail for contempt of Congress.
At this point in my life, I was still an up-and-coming young actor. Along with millions of Americans, I listened to highlights of the hearings on the radio. Still a new medium, television didn't cover them. Just a month earlier, I had actually bought my first small set to watch the World Series, the first time it was ever broadcast on TV. Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the New York Yankees. Even on my tiny screen, I couldn't help but be impressed by the grace and talent of this game-changing Negro rookie.
Two years later, Jackie Robinson was also called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about his association with controversial singer Paul Robeson. Of course, he had none. The only connection they had was that they were both black, which was enough for J. Parnell Thomas. It was the era of guilt by association.
I wasn't subpoenaed as a witness, or asked to join with Bacall, Bogart, and the others, because I wasn't a big enough "name" to matter to the newspapers.
At the time, I'd still only made one picture—The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
My memory of that time has a different title: The Strange Life of Kirk Douglas. Fresh off the train from New York, I arrived in Hollywood in 1945 with very little awareness of the political controversies that were just starting to affect the movie business. I knew nothing about the first round of HUAC hearings held during the war, while I was overseas in the navy. Nor was I aware that both Robert Rossen, the screenwriter of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, as well as Lewis Milestone, its director, held strong political views that would later get them both in trouble.
Hell, at this point, all I knew was that I was coming out to Hollywood to star in a movie. This is how little anyone told me before I left New York: I thought I'd been cast as the romantic lead in the picture, opposite Barbara Stanwyck.
When I got off the train in Los Angeles, I was promptly informed by the studio rep that Mr. Van Heflin would be playing that part, not me. I had been cast in the third lead. All across the country, I'd been studying for the wrong part.
On my first day of shooting, Paramount sent a limousine to pick me up and bring me to the set. I was flabbergasted. That was a big thrill for me. But when the driver pulled up to those big gates on Melrose Avenue, I was stunned to see angry picketers outside.
It was only at that moment that I learned there was a labor strike going on at the studio. This was the latest (and it would turn out to be the last) in a series of strikes involving the major studios and the left-wing Conference of Studio Unions. The unions asked the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to support the strike. But SAG, led by its president, George Murphy, and executive committee members Ronald Reagan and George Montgomery, refused to cooperate. They encouraged actors to cross the picket lines.
No one had bothered to tell me about any of this before I got out there. It wasn't until later that I learned what the strike was even about—protecting benefits for the set dressers.
One of those picketing outside Paramount was Robert Rossen. The driver pointed him out to me—"That's Bob Rossen, the writer."
I looked down at the script sitting next to me on the seat—Rossen's name was on the cover. The first time I ever laid eyes on him, he was carrying a protest sign.
Inside the studio, I got the next shock. My director, Lewis "Milly" Milestone, wasn't even on the set. As a show of support for the strikers, he was spending the day in Oblath's restaurant across the street. A substitute "director" would handle that day's shooting.
The first motion picture of my career and the director was literally out to lunch. Welcome to Hollywood, Kirk.
Things were so intense that the producer, Hal Wallis, decided I should sleep at the studio, rather than risk being locked out. I slept in my dressing room for the next several nights, until the strike was resolved.
All politics aside, my life would have been much healthier if that director, Lewis Milestone, had never come back. He was a nice guy, but he believed that actors should always do exactly what they were told.
"So, Kirk, in this scene, I think that you should be smoking a cigarette."
"But, Mr. Milestone, I don't smoke."
"That's okay, kid, you'll learn."
I shut up and did what I was told. Right after we finished the scene, I raced to my dressing room and threw up. Unfortunately, that was the only time I got sick from smoking. Milestone was right, I did learn. Two packs a day for forty years. Thanks, Milly.
The film turned out all right, although Miss Stanwyck ignored me for the first two weeks of shooting. I got good notices as the third lead, and she eventually told me I'd done a good job. I told her that her compliment came "too late." I was a cocky kid.
Two years later, both Milestone and Rossen were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, at the same time that the Unfriendly Ten appeared. Lewis Milestone fled to Paris. Robert Rossen admitted his membership in the Communist Party.
Both were blacklisted.
I didn't know it then, but my first movie was written by a card-carrying Communist. Looking back on it now, I couldn't care less.
I've always wondered what would have happened if I had arrived in Hollywood even five years earlier. Would I have been caught up in the middle of those fights? And if I had, would I have even had a career?
Of course, many people in Hollywood cooperated fully with the HUAC investigations. Ronald Reagan was a friendly witness. So were other actors like Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Adolphe Menjou.
Menjou told the Committee, "I am a witch hunter if the witches are Communists. I am a Red baiter. I would like to see them all back in Russia."
Funny thing about Adolphe Menjou: a decade later, when I hired him for a part in Paths of Glory, he was more than happy to take a paycheck from Bryna, my production company. I guess nobody told him that it was named after my Russian mother.
The country was deeply frightened and divided, much as it is today. Anti-Semitism was still a big factor. The name "Kirk Douglas" got me work as an actor. The name I was born with—"Issur Danielovitch"—wouldn't have gotten me through the door. Racial prejudice was still the accepted norm. Even though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball, President Truman's decision to integrate the military was still a year away.
But more than anything, it was the growing hysteria about Communism—the "Red Scare"—that shadowed life all across America. To many, it was seen as a real threat. Others believed it as just more fearmongering. But it was never far from our minds.
The same year that I arrived in Hollywood—1945—Gerald L. K. Smith, the religious demagogue and founder of the America First Party, began publicly attacking the "alien-minded Russian Jews in Hollywood."
Cynically, Smith combined anti-Semitism with fear of Communism into one package. Anyone who was Jewish, anyone who was Russian, was a traitor.
Did he mean me? I was a Jew of Russian heritage. My parents emigrated from Belarus. But they never saw themselves as anything but Americans. My mother, who could not read or write in English, taught me to love this country as much as she did. "America," she would say, her voice filled with amazement. "Such a wonderful country!"
I had enlisted in the navy after Pearl Harbor and served in the Pacific with pride. Now here was this vicious anti-Semite, Smith, essentially questioning my loyalty, as well as the patriotism of anyone in Hollywood who was of Jewish or Russian descent.
One month after Dalton Trumbo (who, for the record, was not Jewish) appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a group of four dozen top motion picture executives and distributors met privately for two days at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
When their closed-door meetings were over, these great and powerful men issued what came to be known as the "Waldorf Statement." This was the beginning of the Hollywood blacklist. Its key provision declared:
Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives. We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not re-employ any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.
Wow. I need to take a moment here and come up for some air. As I look back on these words more than sixty years later, I feel anger, revulsion, and a deep sadness.
Of the Unfriendly Ten, six were Jewish. I'm sorry to say that most of the men who issued the Waldorf Statement were also Jewish.
How could Jews, who themselves had been the victims of thousands of years of persecution, including the most horrific example of fear and genocide the world has ever known—the Holocaust in Europe—justify perpetuating a similar climate of fear in America?
The answer is found in the question itself. Fear breeds fear. These men—people like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and Harry Cohn—were terrified their great power would be taken away from them in a heartbeat if their loyalty to America was ever called into question.
So they became superpatriots. And to prove themselves right-minded, they were more than willing to sacrifice the lives of others, even their fellow Jews. They were like the Vichy government in France, collaborators who held on to their influence and position at the expense of their fellow countrymen.
Hollywood had gone crazy. The witch hunts that Adolphe Menjou had stupidly encouraged were spreading like raging wildfires all across the country. Like most Americans, I watched it happening and felt helpless to stop it.
Fredric March, speaking on the national radio broadcast "Hollywood Fights Back," saw the handwriting on the wall:
Who do you think they're really after? Who's next? Is it your minister who will be told what he can say in his pulpit? Is it your children's school teacher who will be told what she can say in classrooms? Is it your children themselves? Is it you, who will have to look around nervously before you can say what is on your minds? Who are they after? They're after more than Hollywood. This reaches into every American city and town.
Freddie March got it right. He could see the storm coming. Maybe that's why I chose him to play the president of the United States when I produced Seven Days in May.
In the years that followed those hearings, thousands of lives were ruined. Careers were ended with the stroke of a pen, and not just in Hollywood.
Almost three years after the HUAC hearings, in 1950, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeals of Dalton Trumbo and the other Unfriendly Ten. Their convictions for contempt of Congress were allowed to stand. Dalton began serving ten months in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. His wife and three young children were left without a husband or father to provide for them.
At the same time, in a twist that no screenwriter would have dared to invent, that pompous ass Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas was convicted of padding his payroll with phony jobs. He then pocketed the money himself. His defense was essentially that "everybody did it."
That didn't fly with the judge, who sent the now-former Chairman to a federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut. It was also the place where two members of the Unfriendly Ten, Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr., were serving their sentences for contempt of Congress. Ironically, they found themselves in prison with the same man who'd put them there.
I often wonder what they said to the once-mighty congressman when they passed him in the prison cafeteria—"Pass the gavel, please"?
Justice may be blind, but sometimes she has a terrific sense of humor.
An obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, quickly thrust himself into the vacuum left by the imprisonment of J. Parnell Thomas. He began by lying about how he had numerous "lists" of Communists who had infiltrated all walks of American life.
Excerpted from I AM SPARTACUS! by KIRK DOUGLAS. Copyright © 2012 Bryna Company. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 2, 2014
Posted November 30, 2012
Posted June 18, 2012
When I ordered this book I just saw the title I AM SPARTACUS! and expected it to be just about the making of one of my favorite movies. However, Kirk Douglas also gives a good portion of the book to talking about the infamous Hollywood Blacklist of writers and pperformers in the 1950's, and how SPARTACUS openly broke that balcklist. The book is fast reading and consistently entertaining and informative about the era and this film. A must for film buffs and those interetested in how McCarthyism affected the entertainment industry.
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Posted May 8, 2013
This is a fascinating, very entertaining account of the making of a great film. There are two rather jarring misquotes (at least in the paperback edition). On page 87 there's a quote attributed to Laurence Olivier that was actually spoken by Charles Laughton, and on page 103 there's a quote attributed to Charles McGraw that was actually spoken in the film by Peter Ustinov.
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Posted July 25, 2012
Kirk Douglas writes in a wonderfully honest and easy way about his recollections of the people and time of the blacklist and brings back the Hollywood of my childhood.
A really good book.
Posted July 23, 2012
Kirk Douglad gives us an incredible look back aone of the greatest films ever made and trials that went on behind the scenes. In many ways, the story of the making of the film is as grand as the film itself and would make a good movie like "RKO 281"?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.