BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — How odd to watch history replayed on the big screen when it's your own.
That's where Kirk Douglas, 98, found himself when recently viewing Trumbo (in select theaters; opens nationwide Nov. 25), a new biopic of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), who was forced to work under a pen name for more than a decade during the McCarthy years when he, along with hundreds of others, was blacklisted as a communist sympathizer.
Douglas' Spartacus plays a key role in the film: It was the first major movie to break the blacklist by putting Trumbo's real name back on the big screen in the credits in 1960. (Exodus, also written by Trumbo, followed suit shortly after.)
Douglas sits in a cardigan and slacks in his sun-drenched living room. "You know, I did a lot of movies with Dalton," he says in good spirits though he speaks slowly (his speech has been impaired since a stroke at age 80). "They were all good." (His favorite is 1962's Lonely Are the Brave.)
An original copy of Trumbo's National Book Award-winning Johnny Got His Gun has been pulled from Douglas' shelf. The author sent it to Douglas as a token of gratitude after the actor pledged to use Trumbo's real name on Spartacus.
The June 1959 inscription reads:
Here, for what it is and for what I hope I still am, is the only existing copy of this book that's signed with the name to which I was born — and that other name you've enabled me to acquire under circumstances that blessedly permit me to respect and cherish both the new name and the new friend who made it possible.
Affectionately, Sam Jackson/Dalton Trumbo."
In Trumbo, Dean O'Gorman (a startling Douglas lookalike) plays the screen legend. O'Gorman wrote Douglas a letter last September seeking advice.
Douglas' shares his response to the 38-year-old actor seen in The Hobbit franchise (as the dwarf Fili).
It's amusingly spare. "Playing Kirk Douglas, forget him ... just play the part and you will be fine," he wrote.
In his book I Am Spartacus! Making A Film, Breaking the Blacklist, Douglas details how he waited for a majority of the film to be shot as leverage to push Universal to allow Dalton's real name on screen.
"What I never understood, you know, a guy should be able to write something and be paid," Douglas says, pointing out that even President Kennedy supportedSpartacus by crossing picket lines to see it.
In the book, Douglas wrote, "When I hired Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus under the pseudonym Sam Jackson, we all had been employing the blacklisted writers. It was an open secret and an act of hypocrisy, as well as a way to get the best talent at bargain prices. I hated being part of such a system."
Douglas describes Trumbo as an egoless writer who wasn't precious about his work. And Trumbo was fast. "Dalton Trumbo, if you told him, 'I don't like that scene' — 'You don't like it?' " (Douglas mimics the screenwriter crumpling up a paper and tossing it.)
Trumbo's many eccentricities are displayed in the film, aided by Cranston's portrayal, which Douglas praises. "Trumbo was a strange guy," says Douglas, happy that a parrot (nicknamed Sammy) he gifted the writer made the film.
The bird, Douglas recalls, used to sit on Trumbo's shoulder while he worked in the tub, where the prolific writer often held meetings. "He was a nut," Douglas says.
Douglas' overall impression of Trumbo? "It's a very good film," he says, "and its spirit is true to the man I admired."
A centennial year of celebration is in store for the three-time best actor nominee. "I'm going to be 99 years old (on Dec. 9). I don't like it," says Douglas who is working on a new book of letters from his life.
How does he feel? Douglas smiles and squints. "I think I'll make another picture."