AS F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said, there are no second acts in American life. But Kirk Douglas, at age 91, has not only found a second act but now is writing a third in, of all places, cyberspace.
Douglas, once a matinee idol to millions, has found an entirely new public as one of the older members of MySpace, where he blogs and chats online with people young enough to be his great-grandchildren. They are drawn by encounters with his many classic films and the chance to put questions to a cinematic legend, but they stay to read and discuss his opinions on a range of social and political issues.
Douglas is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel, and these days he has found an important cause in the movement to draft a formal apology to African Americans for slavery. In fact, he has asked each of the presidential candidates to take on the issue. Their responses have largely been noncommittal, but Douglas is taking the long view. He thinks there is something greater at work in his efforts.
“Someone once told me, ‘Be ashamed to die before doing something for humanity,’ ” said Douglas, relaxing on one of the plush couches in his Beverly Hills home, with its gardens and courtyards, colorful paintings by Marc Chagall -- a personal friend -- and two beloved large dogs wandering in and out. “As you get older, you must think more of other people. You must strive to help other people. Who needs the most help but the young?
“What kind of world are we leaving them?”
It’s a question to which Douglas returns over and over on his website and in his new book, “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning,” which was recently released as an audio book read by “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander.
Douglas’ observations often spark vigorous discussions among the young fans who write. He tells them repeatedly that they must vote in this year’s presidential election: It’s about their future. Douglas, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up in poverty in upstate New York and retains a newcomer’s awe of American democracy’s majesty. This presidential election dazzles him, especially the Democratic race between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
“I don’t know yet who I’m supporting,” he said. “I’m very excited and I never thought I would live to see the day that both a woman and an African American would be vying and very close for the White House.
“I think we have three good people. I like [Sen. John] McCain. I know him. I like Hillary, for different reasons. And Obama is coming across like a thunderbolt. We’ll see what happens.”
Douglas is one of Hollywood’s most honored actors and a living witness to the transition from the carefully managed paternalism of the studio system to today’s freewheeling Digital Age. He famously risked his career when he helped break the blacklist. (He writes in his book: “I’m most proud of putting an end to the blacklist by placing Dalton Trumbo’s name as the writer of ‘Spartacus’ instead of the pseudonym Sam Jackson.” Trumbo had been a blacklisted writer until that point.)
Douglas has won every award Hollywood has to give. Now he has awards named after him. (He’s giving Kevin Costner a Kirk Douglas Achievement Award this year.)
But no award, Douglas says, has meant more to him than the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he earned as a 1960s-era goodwill ambassador. He has been deeply interested in politics ever since. He’s dined many times at the White House and has been a friend to every president since John F. Kennedy, whose brother Robert once tracked down a tuxedo and sent it to Douglas’ Washington hotel so he could attend a black-tie dinner with the first family.
The experience has left Douglas with strong feelings about the role Hollywood stars can play in politics, and especially in international affairs.
“I know the power of an American star in another country,” said Douglas, who has traveled to 40 countries as a U.S. goodwill ambassador. “I’ve seen celebrities do their part of the years. Bob Hope spent every Christmas with the military.”
But these days he “resents the attitude of the media” that, he feels, don’t give activist celebrities a fair hearing.
“There are an unfortunate few celebrities with really serious problems with dope and so on, but a lot of young actors have done a good job in other parts of the world,” he said. “George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt. They have made an impact, and sometimes they are made fun of. . . . I don’t think they are treated with the proper respect.”
The third act that Douglas has written in his new book and now on the Internet is, he acknowledges, his final one. He jokes: “These days I don’t buy any green bananas.”
He takes on the topic more seriously in his book and on his blog. After suffering a stroke several years ago, Douglas has had to grapple with his own mortality.
“It’s difficult to accept that it will be my last book. It’s even more difficult to accept that I’m an old man.”
His new fans on MySpace don’t seem to notice -- let alone mind.