The set on HBO's "Tales From the Crypt" sound stage, a converted pasta factory in Culver City, had been transformed into the interior of a World War I bunker, dark and stuffy and shrouded in artificial fog. The young actor, portraying a lieutenant whose cowardice had just cost the lives of his fellow soldiers, had to do an emotional close-up, a scene where he desperately tries to save his own skin by lying to his father, the cold-hearted general who had sent him on the doomed patrol,
"I tried to save the men, sir," the young actor said, looking appropriately frightened, nearly hysterical. "We ran into a German patrol . . . I shot as many as I could . . ."
The scene would have been difficult under any circumstances, but what it made even tougher was the young actor had to play it straight into the face of a Hollywood legend. Kirk Douglas, in the role of the general, was right beside the camera, his monument of a face intense and unavoidable.
The young actor had spent a lifetime looking up to that face, living up to the legacy of being Kirk Douglas' son. Eric Douglas, 33, was acting with his father for the first time and it couldn't have been a more fitting role, the part of a son trying to earn his father's respect.
"I shot as many as I could," Eric Douglas repeated, trying the scene once more. He had already gone through a half a dozen takes, including one where he snapped at an "Entertainment Tonight" film crew: "I'm sorry but I can't have an extra camera while I'm shooting a movie."
Director Robert Zemeckis, the man who invited Eric and Kirk to do this "Tales From the Crypt" episode entitled "Yellow," with Dan Aykroyd, started giving Eric facial cues, wetting his lips, showing fear in his eyes, breathing heavily whenever he wanted Eric to do the same. But the younger Douglas was struggling with the scene, trying a little too hard.
"I just kept firing," the young actor said, looking past Zemeckis and, once again, catching his father's eye. "Sorry, sir. I can't remember my last line."
"The line," Kirk Douglas said in his trademark clenched-jaw whisper, "is, I barely made it back alive. " And then he broke character, just long enough to give his youngest son a reassuring nod.
Kirk Douglas never wanted his children to be actors. He worried that, sheltered by their Beverly Hills upbringing, they might be too fragile for the rejection and failure that is so much a part of an actor's life.
"He always kind of pushed us away from the business," Eric Douglas was saying, sitting in a hotel suite with his father a few weeks after the "Tales From the Crypt" filming and a few weeks before being charged with kicking a Beverly Hills police officer who had served as his father's bodyguard in a February helicopter crash.
"But I've often wondered, Dad, if that wasn't some kind of reverse psychology on your part. It's like if you leave a little boy alone in a room and say, 'Whatever you do, don't play with those brown beads over there.' What's the first thing the kid does when you leave?"
"My theory," Kirk Douglas said, sitting on the sofa across from his son, looking trim and limber, "is that if you want to go into this profession it has to be like an incurable disease. If you really want to be in it, nothing can stop you. But if you can be stopped, for whatever reason, then you shouldn't be in it."
Kirk Douglas is 75 and "Yellow" marks the first time he's shared a scene with either of his acting sons. "I'm more interested in writing books than making movies," he said. "There are really only two movies I wanted to make--one with Michael and one with Eric. I just didn't think I'd be working with Eric first."
He might not have gotten the chance if Robert Zemeckis, best known for directing the "Back to the Future" films, hadn't come across "Yellow" in the 1950s E.C. Comics from which all "Tales From the Crypt" stories are drawn. Zemeckis immediately saw the story--with its World War I setting and a plot line involving cowardice, betrayal and firing squads--as a chance to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," the 1957 anti-war film that featured one of Kirk Douglas' most compelling performances.
"I want us to keep redefining what 'Tales From the Crypt' can be," Zemeckis said, acknowledging that "Yellow" is something of a departure from the series' usual goop-and-giggles brand of macabre humor.
"I thought Eric did a fantastic job," the elder Douglas said, asked to critique his son's performance. "It was a very difficult role to play. He's drunk, he's frightened, he's hysterical. Me, I'm just a son of a bitch all the way through. I just hope no one says, 'That's easy for Kirk. He's been that way with his kids his whole life.' "
"Tales From the Crypt" airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on HBO (cable).