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Kirk Douglas fondly remembers in 'Before I Forget'

Kirk DouglasBefore I Forget (movie)Minority GroupsMichael Ritchie

Kirk Douglas thought it was time to do something crazy. So about a year ago, he began writing.

"I said I am 92 years old. I am an actor. I can't talk much with an impediment in my speech," he says. "What do I do? I do a one-man show!"

The spryly chipper Douglas bursts into gales of laughter.

The result of his efforts, "Before I Forget," will have its world premiere Friday at, appropriately enough, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Seven years ago, Douglas and his wife, Anne, donated $2.5 million to Center Theatre Group, which also includes the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum, to help transform the landmark Culver Theater movie house into a mid-sized stage on the Westside. The theater opened in fall 2004.

The superstar of such film classics as "Champion," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Lust for Life" and "Spartacus" suffered a major stroke in 1996 that left him with a pronounced speech impediment.

"When I had my stroke I saw things in a different way," he says. "So my show is how I see things now and, of course, what has happened to me and how it's affected me, both good and bad. Everybody has to sometime in life take inventory. I have an interesting life, and I have put it all together to make sense of it."

CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie describes Douglas as a force of nature.

"Being at his age and looking back on his life adds another color to it, and that fact that he had the stroke. . . the stroke is ever-present. He uses it as reference point. You glean a philosophy toward life," Ritchie says. "Literally, it will inform the audiences about how they look at their lives."

The play was Douglas' idea. "At one point, he said, 'I've been working on this show about my life,' " Ritchie recalls. "I said to him, 'We'll do it.' He said, 'You haven't even read it yet.' I said, 'I know your life, and I know you.' He said, 'Read it first, just make certain.' I took it back to the office and read it. I told him we'll do it. It snowballed from there."

Douglas is giving four performances of his play, Friday and Sunday afternoon and the following Friday and Sunday.

"I was shocked when the tickets went on sale the first day and they sold out the four performances," says Douglas, relaxing in the living room of his Beverly Hills home. Occasionally, his 9-year-old Lab, Danny, interrupts the conversation for some affection.

The show has been cathartic and something of a wake-up call for Douglas, who wrote in his book "My Stroke of Luck" that at one point after his stroke he had considered suicide.

"I think the final thing I had to discover about my life is you have to pay back," he says. "I came from abject poverty. I didn't dream of being a millionaire. So you have to pay back. Fortunately, my wife shares that view."

With pride, he ticks offs their charitable contributions, including the Kirk Douglas High School in Northridge, the theater in Culver Cityand more than 400 playgrounds.

"At my alma mater," Douglas says, "I have established a scholarship for African American students because when I first went to St. Lawrence University, there were no black students."

Reams Freedman, managing director of the Stroke Assn. of Southern California, praises Douglas for being so public about his stroke and recovery.

"He talked about his recovery in his book," Freedman says. "He is encouraging of others, and his attitude is very positive. He certainly has been an exemplar of what recovery is."

The actor is matter-of-fact about it. "You know you have cards you are dealt," he says. "I think it's important to me and to other people to show you can still function. I don't want to be an invalid."

Recently, Ritchie was watching a run-through of "Before I Forget," directed by Jeff Kanew.

He was not only amazed at Douglas' performance but also by his stamina.

"It's almost an hour and a half long," Ritchie says. "It's great. And hear the tone in my voice when I say that it's great -- I'm not a producer who is trying to sell the show."

Douglas is welcoming critics to review the show. "Why not?" he says with a shrug. "This is my life to be criticized favorably or unfavorably."

So would he like to take the show to New York?

"Frankly, I don't think I can do it," Douglas says with a sigh. "I could never do a 90-minute show eight times a week."

For now, he's just planning to have a great time bringing it to the audience.

"Let's face it," Douglas says, smiling. "I realized as I got older my emphasis shifted less on me and more on other people. [With the play], I am doing something for myself, but at the same time I am doing something for others."

susan.king@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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