HOLLYWOOD - Kirk Douglas, who will receive a rare honorary award at Monday night's Oscars for "50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community," looked fit and feisty one afternoon this week, despite having suffered a stroke two weeks earlier. It has left him sounding temporarily like a man with a jawful of Novocain after a dental appointment. But the impairment the only damage the stroke caused is responding to therapy.
"What's been frustrating," says Mr. Douglas, 79, "is that my thoughts have been running so far ahead of my ability to express them. But I'm getting back there in a hurry.
"I've had a double whammy. Two months ago I had back surgery and then two weeks ago what they called this minor stroke. To an actor, my friend, I have to say it seems major. But you play the hand that's dealt you."
Mr. Douglas was in a helicopter crash five years ago, and it has changed his life, he says. "Two young people were killed in that crash. I survived. I've been thinking about that ever since. Why didn't I die? Why did those two young people die? I've been working on another autobiography, to follow 'The Ragman's Son' , and I'm trying to answer those questions in the book."
The crash affected him spiritually, Mr. Douglas says. "I've been studying the Torah, the five books of Moses. Just now I'm studying Deuteronomy, the last of the five." He grinned and says, "Why, it's the greatest screenplay ever written. Incest, murder, adultery, passion. Everything."
The recognition of Mr. Douglas as a moral force in the industry refers in considerable part to his hiring of Dalton Trumbo to write "Spartacus." The blacklist was still in force in 1960, and Trumbo, one of the Hollywood 10 who went to prison for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee, was distinctly on it. Trumbo gave Douglas credit for breaking the blacklist in the industry.
"I took a lot of heat for hiring Trumbo," Mr. Douglas says. "But when you're young and foolish, you have the guts to do something like that. I ask myself whether I'd have done the same thing last year, or this year. Later on you get too conservative, too cautious. What you have to do is retain a certain naivete, especially if you're a writer." (Mr. Douglas has published three well-received novels as well as his autobiography.)
Looking back on his career, Mr. Douglas says: "I've made, what is it, 82 movies. Twenty-two of them I like. 'Lust for Life,' of course."
Playing Vincent van Gogh in 1956 earned the third of his Academy Award nominations. The first was for his ruthlessly ambitious prizefighter in "Champion" in 1949, which confirmed his stardom, followed by "The Bad and the Beautiful" in 1953, in which he was a hard-driving movie mogul.
" 'Spartacus,' certainly," Mr. Douglas continues. "But I think the one I'm proudest of is 'Lonely Are the Brave' . Dalton wrote that one, too. It wasn't a big picture, and it was a downer, but I liked it."
In the film, directed by David Miller, Mr. Douglas plays a rebellious modern cowboy in a West that has tethered the free spirits like himself. On the lam on horseback from the law, and pursued by Jeeps and helicopters, the cowboy is undone on a rain-slick highway by nemesis in the form of a hurtling semi-trailer full of toilet seats (Trumbo was never long on subtlety).
"I've had a lot of awards in my life," Mr. Douglas says. (These include the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, the United States Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor.) "But I'm really particularly pleased by this one. It's always great to be recognized by your own industry, which makes it especially meaningful."
What: 68th annual Academy Awards
Where: WMAR-Channel 2
When: Tonight at 9
Who: Whoopi Goldberg is host
Pub Date: 3/25/96