I’m sure you’ve heard by now that legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away this week at age 103. You can find plenty of obituaries recounting his storied career, including “Paths of Glory” and the amazing “Spartacus.” But I will always remember a personal chance encounter.
In May 2001 I purchased tickets to a Broadway revival of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” starring Gary Sinise. I was able to get Actor’s Fund tickets which were excellent seats, fifth row on the left center aisle. Much to my surprise, just before the curtain went up, Kirk Douglas was ushered into the seat across the aisle. It was after his stroke and he had help getting into place and had a small retinue but because of his frailty sat on the aisle directly across from me.
At intermission he was surrounded by protectors who let just a few come up to speak with him. Apparently many of his friends and associates were also in the audience and came to pay their respect. I chatted with one of his guards and after assuring him that as a New Yorker I had no intention of trying to chat him up asked what brought him there that evening.
I learned that he had originated the role of McMurphy in the original Broadway mounting of the play in 1963 and had purchased the film rights to the work. After more than a decade of unsuccessfully fighting studios to get the film done he gave up and gave his rights to his son Michael Douglas. When it was finally filmed Kirk was too old to play the role and it went to Jack Nicholson instead. Kirk had a strong affinity for the story and the character and would be going backstage after the show to greet Mr. Sinise. It was a great performance and a great moment I will never forget. Rest in Peace, Mr. Douglas. You will be missed.