Kirk Douglas may be one of the biggest actors of his era, with starring roles in 1960's "Spartacus," 1949's "Champion" and 1951's "Ace in the Hole." But on a recent crisp morning, he was having a grand time simply reciting his poetry by heart for an audience of one. With a twinkle of his blue eyes, he proclaimed:
Romance begins at 80
And I ought to know.
I live with a girl
Who will tell you so.
Douglas, who survived a near-fatal stroke in 1996 that affected his speech, has been a part of the Hollywood landscape since he made his film debut in the 1946 noir "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers." He earned three Oscar nominations for lead actor for "Champion," which made him a star, 1952's "The Bad and the Beautiful" and 1956's "Lust for Life," in which he played Vincent Van Gogh, and he received an honorary Oscar shortly after his stroke.
A savvy producer, he also helped to break the Communist blacklist in Hollywood when he insisted that blacklisted "Spartacus" screenwriter Dalton Trumbo receive screen credit.
These days, though Douglas walks with a cane and is on the frail side, he's sweet and full of good humor. He now wears his white hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"I let it grow, and it grew so long someone said, 'Let's make a ponytail,'" Douglas said. "Do you think I'm good-looking?"
Douglas has written several books since the publication in 1988 of his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son," and his latest is "Life Could Be Verse," which chronicles his "reflections on love, loss and what really matters." It was released Dec. 2, a week before his 98th birthday Tuesday.
The slim book includes poems he's written over the last seven decades, autobiographical stories and professional and family photographs.
"This is my last book," said Douglas, sitting in his favorite chair in the family room of the Beverly Hills home he shares with wife, Anne. The two met in Paris in 1953 when she was the publicist on his film "Act of Love."
"I think it is the best book I have ever written because I have done something I have never done before," Douglas said.
For years Douglas "hid" his poetic side. "But when you get to be 98, you begin to be brave," he said. "You get to be strong enough to be weak."
"Life Can Be Verse" is also a love letter to his wife.
"We've been married over 60 years and that's something," he said, breaking into a warm smile.
As a college student at St. Lawrence University, Douglas used poetry to get the attention of the girl with the flaming red hair who sat in front of him in class.
How oft have I sat behind thee
In awe and watched thy titian hair
Resplendent in the rays
Of morning's golden light
The poem worked. "We had two years," he said.
Douglas not only recited poetry during the interview but also broke out into song, remembering when he was cast in the landmark 1944 musical "On the Town." He was dismissed from the show when he couldn't reach the high notes in "Lonely Town."
"A town's a lonely town," Douglas started to croon. "When you pass through and there is no one waiting there for you."
Though his Broadway musical career never came to fruition ("such a disappointment because I loved that musical," he said), Douglas and frequent costar Burt Lancaster did three song-and-dance routines for the Oscars, he said. He also performed "A Whale of a Tale" in the 1954 Disney classic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
"They made a commercial record of it," he noted with pride.
Some of his poems in the book are darker and brutally honest, especially "For Michael," which deals with his eldest son, Oscar-winning actor-producer Michael Douglas, with whom he has a close relationship.
"Am I a good father?" I asked my son
He took a pause, too long for me
I waited and waited for him to answer
And finally he said, "Ultimately"
"He never asked me for anything," said Douglas of his son when he was just starting out. "Once I said, 'Michael, I am your father, you can ask me.'"