He leans forward, elbows braced on his knees, two fingers of his right hand clasped in the left. There is the sound of a sidewalk being shoveled, which is the sound Kirk Douglas makes when he whispers.
"You know," he confides through that familiar clench of dimpled chin and dental utopia, "the bravest thing I ever did . . ."
Whoa boy. Here they come -- acres of Indians, drooling Vikings, mobsters, a hellbent posse or two, Nazis even, a herd of Romans in chariots, high-tailing it after Spartacus, closing in on the last cowboy of "Lonely Are the Brave."
"I had six sisters -- I was the only boy, Jesus Christ, we could write a story about that -- and we were once sitting all around the table. My father was never around the house much. But he was there, then, sitting at the head of the table, and we were all drinking tea -- about all we had. It was Russian-style, in a glass.
"And my father was at the end of the table. I was about, jeez, I don't know, 11 years old, 12," he says. He looks up, fatherward, in that awed manner indigenous to the children of all physically imposing men, and his voice grows even softer, grittier. "He seemed so big . . . so strong.
"Suddenly I took this spoon." He picks up a teaspoon from the coffee table to demonstrate. "my sisters started to watch me. And I took a spoonful of tea, my sisters watching me, and I flicked it" -- He flicks the empty teaspoon -- "and I hit him right in the face.
"Jeez," he says, eyes suddenly wide, rearing back on the sofa to mimic his enraged, howling bear of a father. "Gaaahhhhrrrrr! He was like a bull." Douglas starts to laugh. "He grabbed me, he threw me -- right into a room, I landed on a bed. I thought Christ, he was gonna kill me. But I didn't care. I felt, I did it."
Fact: Kirk Douglas, now 63, went and had four sons of his own.
Number Three Son, Peter, 25, was mostly responsible for Dad's visit to Washington the other day -- for the promotion and premiere of Peter's debut as a movie producer, a modest marriage of science fiction and patriotic gung-ho called "The Final Countdown." Dad happens to play the film's lead -- captain of the U.S.S. Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier transported through a freak time warp to Pearl Harbor on the eve of the 1941 Japanese attack.
"For a young fella, Peter made a tremendous contribution," says Douglas, who looks a little ragged after 25-odd TV interviews in the next room of his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. He shakes his head. "I don't know if that's good, though. I have mixed feelings because he's too . . . young," he says. "I like to see somebody pay more . . . dues .
"And Peter, Jesus at 21 he's talking to me about the idea and I'm saying -- because I think I know, I've done 65 movies or something -- I say to him you can't make the movie, because there's no way you can get an aircraft carrier and you can't make it without an aircraft carrier. And at 22 he's in Washington talking to the Pentagon and convincing them to cooperate, that this would be good for them.
"And the next thing all the studios turn it down, which to me is always a healthy thing, because Jesus, I've been through that before -- every one of 'em turned it down when I tried to make 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'"
And the next thing you know Peter gets the Navy's full cooperation, use of the Nimitz and assorted World War II fighter planes, plus $12 million in financing.
Not too many minutes later, talking about his turn two years ago as host of one of NBC's better "Saturday Night Live" programs, Douglas again finds himself lamenting the dangers of inexperience:
"You know," he says, after making a rather unconvincing claim of having enjoyed the experience, "everybody gets so ---ing spoiled so soon."
He gets up, walks over to the bed and paces in front of it. "What was it that Pope said, 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. . .I almost feel like, a little success is a dangerous thing. It's not enough. If you have a little success, you haven't made it.
"I mean, if I make a lousy picture," he says, pausing for an impatient grimace, "-- so what? I know I'm a star. Jesus Christ, what, I know I did 'Detective Story,' I know I did 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,' 'Lonely Are the Brave' -- I mean, you know that you've got a few things. . .you didn't do just one or two things."
Somewhere between Rome and dodge City Douglas has returned to the sofa.
"This is what I try to tell my kids, that's waht I mean when I say to Peter, what worries me is. . .character. 'Cause that's how you become a survivor."
Ah yes: The Survivor Type. At 17 Douglas left his poor Russian Jewish immigrant family in upstate New York to work his way through college. jThe young man with the dimpled chin who was then named Danielovitch eventually reached New York.
"That's right," he says, suddenly intense and quiet. "That's right, I'm a survivor type. In any country, in any period, I think that somehow, I would survive." Pause. "I got out of Amesterdam, N.Y., to begin with." Laughter.
"And sometimes," he says, "you go back and you're jolted to see people that haven't [gotten out], and you think maybe, well, they're happier.
"But I wanted to be a part of the world . Chirst, it was a big world, and I was a little kid, dreaming. The first big trip I took was from Amsterdam to Schenectady -- 15 miles. Jesus, it took me a long time before I got to New York, which was 180 miles."
New York, alas, has also been a source of mixed feelings for Douglas.
He started his professional acting career on the stage there -- attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on a special scholarship, and worked his way through the ranks (and through the Navy, for two years of anti-submarine duty in the Pacific until 1944) to a substantial role in a 1946 Broadway production of "The Wind Is Ninety" with Windell Corey and Blanche Yurka. Producer Hal Wallis invited him to come to Hollywood after his "Wind" performance -- at the suggestion of Lauren Bacall, with whom he'd studied at the Academy.
But 15 years later, was New York grateful when Kirk Douglas, movie star, returned to Broadway with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?"
"I don't think the critics in New York knew their a-- from their elbow," he says. "It was too far ahead of 'em. I told my wife, 'I brought 'em a classic, God damn it, and they don't even know it. Someday, I said, 'they're gonna know it.'"
(Number One Son Michael, 35, took the property from Dad a decade later and produced the movie version staring Jack Nicholson. It swept the 1975 Academy Awards.) "When I went back to do 'Cuckoo's Nest' I came back like: I'm from the theater. And I suddenly sensed an attitude of " -- he sits up straight and folds his arms disapprovingly -- "well movie star, huh?
"Jesus, that was a disappointment to me," he says. "I was hurt -- I wouldn't let anybody know, but Jesus, I wanted to come back home. I figured I'm going to bring Broadway something special. And what did I find? The big hit across the street was 'Never Too Late,' Walter Kerr's wife had a big play called 'Mary Mary' and that was a big smash play. And The New York Times was writing articles about those things, and everybody was ----ing on a thing called 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' And have you heard about 'Mary Mary?' You heard about 'Never Too Late?' Little frothy plays. Nothing wrong with 'em, but just nothing plays, you know what I mean?"
Two of Douglas's sons are by a former marriage to actress Diana Dill (actor-producer Michael, and independent New York-based filmmaker Joel) and two are by Anne Buydens, his wife since they met in France in 1954 (Peter, the newest producer; and Eric, 21, now roaming the South of France on his way to take acting lessons in London.)
"I'd like to be able to someday write to Peter and the note that I not too long ago wrote to Michael," Doulas says, draping a knee over the armrest of the sofa. "I was in London, and I said, 'Michael, I'm more proud of how you handle your success than I am of your success.' Because if you can handle success you can handle failure.
"I mean Peter may think, suppose this picture's a big hit, what the hell's the big deal, Jesus you go to the Pentagon, you get the Nimitz, you do this, you do that. Well the next time it may not be that way. Then how does he act?"
Douglas has often said he admires his sons when they do well because they "didn't have my advantage: Nowhere to go but up."
"i'm beginning to have a much better relationship with Peter. He's on his own, but still going through a developmental stage. You gotta be patient. Joel, he's kept away. Eric, whoa -- in the midst of tremendous rebellion. It'll take time for him to come around, you know, and sometimes some kids don't . . . they never make peace with their parents."
It took about 20 years, but Douglas says he has grown quite close to Michael in particular. It shows.
"I liked him in the "The Runner,'" Douglas says. I thought he was wonderful in it, gentle, delicate. But Michael's a good actor, jeez, Michael's gonna do parts that he hasn't done yet, Michael's gonna do . . . Michael has a toughness in him that he's never shown on the screen."
Douglas suddenly slides up close, grits those teeth and arches his eybrows into a genuinely frightening glare. "Michael can be fanatical ," he says, causing his interviewer to finch reflexively backward. "He's got qualities that I know are inside of him."
Does Kirk Douglas still believe, as he told Esquire back in 1970, that one should always try to make a good, honest picture with guts?
"Well," he says. "Yeah. But more important I believe in not being pretentious. I can't stand it -- it gives me a real pain in the a--, this hauteur system where everybody's a genius. There are no geniuses in filmmaking -- from Coppola all the way down -- because you need too much help .
"And I go right to my friend Kubrick, that I started with, and I suddenly look at 'The Shining' and I think, 'Where has he been? What is he doing? He must've cut himself off from reality or something.'
"See, in the credits it says, 'John Smith's Film.'" He looks exasperated. "Jeez, in rare cases does a guy do everything -- sometimes a guy really does do most of it, but Jesus you still need editors, you need to have it mixed, you need the music. A movie is such a mixture of art and machine, it's so complicated, and the excitement of it is that it is a callaborative thing."
And what about a quote attributed to Douglas about two years ago, about how movies are getting better -- primarily because of TV's competition?
"No," he says, shaking the head. "I think for a while they were going in that direction. But now they're . . . sort of the success syndrome, the blockbuster syndrome, takes over.
"The fun, if I were starting movies over again, would be just to do what you want to do -- not try to be too smart.
"Steven Spielberg is a talented director," Douglas says, "but after he did 'Jaws' and 'Close Encounters,' why the hell did he do '1941?' Why didn't he just do a little picture about people? He had to make a bigger, bigger blockbuster." He wags his head at the floor in digust."Spoiled," he growls. "Spoiled kid."
And, uh, what about "Final Countdown?"
"I hope it does well. I think it will," he says, and you can tell he's already said this nine hundred thousand times this morining. "It's got kind of a patriotic surge in it that I think people suddenly are responding to -- this surprised me." He begins scratching the back of his head with both hands. "I thought the intriguing thing is just the juxtaposition of a nuclear aircraft carrier of 1980 with 1941, but there's more to it.
"It's not like a John Wayne movie about the military or the Green Berets or something -- but there still is a positive feeling about the military that I think is good, because since the Vietnam War there's such a negative feeling about the military, about the presidency, about our country . . . "
Douglas says he attended a veterans' dinner in Washington the other night. "I looked around, and it was so pathetic, especially the veterans of the Vietnam War, you know, they were the ones everybody was dumping on -- cause it was a big mistake, a lousy war, so nobody wanted anything to do with them. I mean any other war, when I came back, World War II, you were a goddamn hero . . ."
Seeing the veterans, Douglas says, just "brought to focus that the veterans of the Vietnam War were like . . . suckers. So, we made a mistake. As a country, we should be able to do what I like to think we can do as individuals -- and this is what I'm talking about with my kids, too. Being able to say 'Jesus. I made a mistake.'"
There certainly seems to be more to Kirk Douglas than chariot and chin.
Didn't this man seem to be totally at ease poking fun at himself and his tough-guy image on "Saturday Night Live?"
Didn't this man appear recently in a little-known but deliciously kooky Brian DePalma film called "Home Movies," in which he played a bigger-than-life, constantly klieg-lit preacher of "star therapy" (as in "Be a star in your own life!")?
Didn't this man just say, more or less, being at peace means getting the apologies over with, and life on with?
Didn't he and his wife spend a night with the Carters at the White House last week?
"Who could anticipate that a country would support a group of militant students overtaking an embassy ?" says Kirk Douglas, who is sitting quite still now that a photographer has arrived. "I mean, that's as crazy as anything could be. And being an actor I project myself, I say if I were the president, what Would I do? What could you do? Bomb the hell out the country? You know? You really can't do anything.
"What I think is that the world is crazy," says Kirk Douglas. "We're living in a crazy world right now. The only thing I'm afraid of is somebody that loses his cool.
"That could be disastrous."