The skin on Kirk Douglas' face is unnaturally taut and pink, and a few stray silver hairs make the whole thing look like an underripe California nectarine. With his opaque, slicked-back hair and pale turquoise eyes, that inimitable pothole smack in the center of that jutting chin, you can't help but wonder if the virile, vain 71-year-old actor has been entirely sculpted out of Play-doh.
"I'm an attractive guy," he says with a small grin. Wide grins do not seem possible. Nor does his libido, still raging after all these years. Douglas -- a man who never met a woman he didn't want to bed -- makes Joan Collins look like the Little Flower of Avila.
"I guess I was always looked at as a guy who liked the company of women," he deadpans. "Sex is a very important part in life." He crosses the hotel room to perch beside the interviewer on a straight-back love seat too small for two people. Legs bang. "I cannot ignore it," he says. "I feel in my book, the parts of sex that someone may not be interested in" -- he smiles -- "they can always flip the pages and go on."
The book he is referring to, "The Ragman's Son," is Douglas' recently published autobiography, now No. 3 on the bestseller list. "Before you pound into me," he says good-naturedly, referring to the sex talk, "the major theme of my book evolved after I wrote it. My discovery of how much anger there was in me and still is and the relationship between my father and me versus the relationship between me and my sons."
His father was a poor, illiterate Jewish immigrant who settled his family -- one son and six daughters -- in Amsterdam, N.Y. Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch (later Americanized to Izzy Demsky) was a streetwise, ambitious kid who denied his Jewish heritage, anxious for all-important approval from the WASP community. Later, he buried his unhappy childhood in obsessive work and Hollywood celebrityhood.
Along the way, he found comfort in women -- strangers in restaurants, fans who wrote him mash notes, stars, starlets, brief encounters of every sort.
As I look back, I realize that somehow I was attracted to women who were neurotic.
There was his English teacher, Mrs. Livingston, who tried to seduce him at the age of 14; "buxom" Liz, a comely college girl; enigmatic Isabel ("I hope she's happily married now"); Peggy, "with a bosom almost too large for her body"; another Peggy, a former Miss New York, who gave him $50 before dumping him ("I took the money. Like a little pimp, like a nothing"). He had a fetish for women with a slight overbite: actress Diana Dill (who became his first wife), actress Gene Tierney, wealthy socialite Irene Wrightsman. He bedded costars: Ann Sothern, Marilyn Maxwell, screen goddess Rita Hayworth, Evelyn Keyes, Joan Crawford, Patricia Neal, Marlene Dietrich ("affectionate sex"). There was the virginal Pier Angeli (to whom he was engaged briefly), former publicist Anne Buydens (his current wife, whom he married in 1954), as well as a sprinkling of kinky encounters: Leah the gun-toting Israeli soldier, the Aztec girl who worshiped at his dimple, and the Cherokee girl who wanted him to beat her with his belt. He did.
It was the seduction that was powerful. Afterward, all the attraction I'd felt before the sex was gone. I thought, My God, I've got to be with her the whole weekend. I can't. All I could think of was that saying: "After sex, a woman should turn into a pinochle table with three other guys."
He says he really does like women, but they baffle him. Having grown up with six sisters might have something to do with it. "I was suffocated. I had to fight for identity." Sex was an escape, he says now. "It's loneliness. A desire to fill a void."
An erection is a mysterious thing.
Love was to be avoided at all costs. Casual encounters replaced commitment. Spartacus Interruptus.
"Love for me is frightening," he says, rubbing his gnarled fingers. "It makes you helpless."
He does look good for a man of 71. "Why thank you," he says, grabbing your arm and looking out into the empty hotel suite, as if some phantom studio audience was in attendance. "My wife couldn't stand me if I were fat. A lot of it is ego."
Sitting there so close, you get the distinct feeling Douglas thinks he's on the Carson show and you're sharing the couch and any minute Shelley Winters is going to come on and squish him over even further into your lap.
"I like a beautiful body of a woman. I like a beautiful body of a man."
By the way, Kirk -- may we call you Kirk? -- the studio audience would like to know one thing: How do you shave that dimple? He rubs the famous D spot. "I call it a hole in my chin. Did you know that a dimple is a weakness in the muscles? It's not a very romantic discovery."
And it's not hard to shave. Any upkeep on the chin? Dimplectomy? "Jeeez," he says, looking to the studio audience. "I work on it every day. Exercise."
Then he laughs, a great big one.
Was he always secure about his looks?
"I never thought of myself as ugly, but I wasn't one of the good-looking guys. Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor. I always thought of myself as being a star on the stage -- I wanted to be a stage actor."
He does look rather natty, wearing a nectarine-and-white striped shirt (he is partial to custom-made Turnbull & Asser), deep rose tie, dark suit and thin wedding band. His ears are large and his fingers are short and thick and liver spotted. He rubs them for effect.
He says he was shocked that "The Ragman's Son," 510 pages, was so long. (He talked into a tape recorder rather than typed.) Much of the book features Douglas rambling on about events in and out of his life, and his less-than-startling observations. For example: Sometimes I think my life is a B-movie script. I'd never make the movie. And this: Beverly Hills is a beautiful place. Every time I come back I'm amazed by the greenery.
There are no enlightening anecdotes about Hollywood personalities or insights into his craft. He's no Gielgud or Olivier. A veteran of 75 films, he seems to have treated his work as a succession of jobs. He made some good films ("Champion," "Lonely Are the Brave," "Lust for Life") and many bad. He also made millions. Mostly, the book is the painful journey of a poor kid from the ghetto who makes good and confuses promiscuity with masculinity and never wins the approval of the most important person in his life: his father, the stern Herschel Danielovitch.
"I decided the facts are the least important. If you want to know about a person, how does he feel, how does he think? That's what tells you about a person."
Will people be surprised by the book?
"Listen, I was surprised. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I'm not as tough as people think I am or as I think I am. I had to be tough enough to get out of Amsterdam, New York, to get somewhere. I was surprised to discover my vulnerability."
Douglas, always known as a heavy, started out as a wimp in his first film, "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," released in 1946.
"An actor becomes an actor to escape. It's a form of overcoming shyness, overcoming insecurity. You hide behind characters you play. So you become Spartacus, big and strong, or you can become weak, like my very first picture.
"There's nobody who can play weakness as well as I can. And everybody thinks of me as a tough guy." His voice drops to a whisper. "I understand weakness. I'm not afraid to play it. I know you have to be strong in order to be weak."
Little Issur has never left me. He is always somewhere within me, often out of sight but never too far away ... His face is dirty and smudged by tears. Often, I try to kill him, but he never dies. I hate him -- and yet sometimes I love him because he has never deserted me.
Douglas entered Freudian analysis midcareer. "I learned a lot. I learned that everybody's a little screwed up. Everybody has problems. But a problem is a point of view: How do you handle it? And then I found out my doctor was sicker than I was."
He crosses his legs. The therapy did help, he concedes. "That little Issur's always with me. It's what gives me whatever talent I have, whatever compassion. It's the best part of me. I associated it for so long with poverty and those other things," he says now.
He stopped telling people he was only "half Jewish" and even named his production company after his mother, Bryna. He grew closer to his sons from his first marriage but never made peace with his father. As Jung says, we all become what we hate. Did Douglas?
"In many ways, when I play a role, sure I see my father ...
"If I wrote a sequel to this book, I would mellow a lot. Because I've gotten a lot of anger out of me." He gets vehement. "There wouldn't have been a tragedy if I thought he hated me. He loved me, but he could never say it. I get letters now from people, saying, 'When you weren't there your father talked about you.' That made me angry. It's too late. I needed it then. I was dying for it then."
As a result, says the ragman's son, "I tried to make sure I gave my kids a pat on the back." Douglas has four sons, two from his marriage to Dill (Michael and Joel) and two with Buydens (Peter and Eric).
He warned them not to go into show business. They ignored him. "The most touching thing that Michael said when he got the Oscar, he just made me cry. I wasn't there. I was home watching. It was his night. He said, 'You know, my father never missed any performance I gave at college.' I didn't realize that I had gone to everything he had ever done. More importantly, I never realized that he was aware of it."
Is Michael a better actor than he is?
"I think in some ways he is. If he will permit himself, I think he has a tremendous range." He rubs his hands. "I hope he's better. Because that's continuation. That's immortality."
He leans over. "Michael's much more charming and laid back than I am, but Michael's tough. A killer."
Another lesson he hopes to pass on to his sons: Enjoy success. "I never enjoyed it. Michael's much better at that than I am. Success is very difficult to handle, and in our profession it comes in overwhelming waves. It was difficult at times. People need idols."
Kirk Douglas seems to have been more idol than actor.
"Whattya mean I was? I am!" he snaps. "First you tell me how good I look, then you treat me in the past tense."
If he had another chance, what would he do differently?
"The most important thing that I would have liked to have done was to enjoy things more. Not to be so obsessed, so driven."
What are his vices? He does a long, slow side glance. Okay, okay, besides sex.
"I tried cocaine. I tried pot. I would never try those suicide drugs. I live very simply. I don't have a Rolls-Royce. I don't have a big house with guards all around."
Still, it seems to be women that have shaped his life.
"I like women. I like them because I know women are not as romantic as men. I know that women are stronger than men. A lot of wonderful things about them. You can judge a man by the women in his life, or especially by the woman he marries. I've been married twice. My first wife, Diana, is a very good friend of ours. My wife and I have dinner at least once a month with my ex-wife and her husband. I think if somebody's been a part of your life, you can't just cut that off."
Douglas recently told the London Daily Mail, "I've often said to my wife: Like the song, I've always been true to you darling in my fashion. During 34 years of married life I don't think she was too shocked to find that I had relationships with people on far-off locations."
Fidelity has never been important to him. "I don't know that I would say it's not important. I think it's overrated. I think it's overemphasized. Let's say a couple is married and under certain circumstances the wife hears that the husband had an affair one night with a woman." He slams his fist into his hand. "Divorce. Lawyer. All that." He shrugs. "I don't know if that's the right thing. I'm not condoning that men should do everything they want or women should do everything they want, but as you get older it's a question of emphasis. What is more important in life? Just as you get older you know that you wake up some morning and my God, you go out to get the paper and it's a beautiful morning. The sun is shining. The air feels good. That is important."
He leans over. "You know, it would be a very interesting book for a woman to write: What did women do during the war when their husbands were away for three or four years? So suppose one night a woman is lonely for her husband and some man is giving her affection and it develops into sex. Does that mean she's unfaithful to him?"
I went to see my analyst, managed to tell him that the night before I had been impotent. He smiled. "You tell me that you had sex twenty-nine nights in a row with different girls. On the thirtieth, you say you're impotent. You know, even God rested after six days."
That was the end of my impotence.
Yes, an erection is a mysterious thing and a dimple is a weakness in the muscle and Kirk Douglas is not Spartacus. "There is always fear ... My wife to this day laughs at me. She doesn't understand it. I get nervous before I have to do anything, give a talk before a group. Once I get up there, I look around, then it's wonderful. You start to talk."
Waves of affection spill over the podium and the ragman's son holds them spellbound. "And when it's over and 200 people are lined up to get your autograph on a book that they bought, it's incredible."
Better, even, than sex.
"Not quite. Let's not get carried away."