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Kirk Douglas turns 96: Last of the screen idols

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 5:11 PM EST, Fri December 14, 2012
Kirk Douglas was born in Amsterdam, New York, on December 9, 1916. He made his Broadway debut in 1941, served in the U.S. Navy and embarked on a screen career in 1946. Popular films include "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Spartacus" and "The Bad and the Beautiful." Douglas also worked as director. Douglas is shown in a studio portrait, circa 1955. Kirk Douglas was born in Amsterdam, New York, on December 9, 1916. He made his Broadway debut in 1941, served in the U.S. Navy and embarked on a screen career in 1946. Popular films include "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Spartacus" and "The Bad and the Beautiful." Douglas also worked as director. Douglas is shown in a studio portrait, circa 1955.
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Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
Kirk Douglas through the years
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says Kirk Douglas is Hollywood's last remaining Golden Age idol
  • In "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," he played a seafarer and sang a memorable song
  • Greene watched a TV version in which song was cut; he called Douglas, who was appalled
  • Greene: Douglas turns 96 today, has come far from his early N.Y. days as Issur Danielovitch

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- At dinnertime the other evening I walked into a seafood restaurant in a small strip mall off U.S. 41 in southwestern Florida.

The décor was faithful to an under-the-ocean theme, right down to bubbling water behind portholes built into one wall.

Along a corridor, on the door to the men's room, was a framed photograph of a young, smiling Kirk Douglas. You couldn't look at it without grinning.

Even if you had never set eyes on him in your life, you would know in a glance that this guy was some sort of star. The business he was in -- the movie-star business -- has always been built on instant visceral reaction. You've got star quality, or you don't.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

With Kirk Douglas, there was never a question. He was golden.

I bring this up because Sunday is Douglas' birthday. He is turning -- believe it or not -- 96.

He is the last man standing of all the great name-above-the-title stars of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable -- all of them, except him, gone.

I knew exactly why that photograph of Douglas was on the door to the men's room in the submarine-themed restaurant. One of Douglas' most unforgettable movies was 1954's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," adapted from the Jules Verne saga. Douglas played the swashbuckling seafarer Ned Land.

From the archives: Kirk Douglas, 92, takes stock of his life

It was the first favorite movie of my life. I must have seen it at least six times in the big palace of a downtown theater in our Midwestern hometown. I kept making my parents take me.

The whole movie was thrilling, but one scene topped them all:

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Douglas, in a red-and-white-striped T-shirt, a guitar in his hands, sang a song called "Whale of a Tale" to his shipmates:

"Got a whale of a tale to tell you, lads. . . ."

No textbooks are needed to define what constitutes star quality. That one bit of film contains all the information necessary.

About 25 years ago, I saw in the paper that "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" was scheduled to be broadcast in prime time on ABC. This was in the pre-YouTube, pre-Netflix era; if a wonderful old movie was going to be aired, your one shot at seeing it was at the whim and convenience of a network.

I eagerly awaited -- especially for the chance to see and hear Kirk Douglas sing "Whale of a Tale" one more time.

I watched the movie -- every minute of it.

No "Whale of a Tale."

They had cut it out, for time reasons. "Edited for television."

I couldn't believe they'd done it. The next morning, I remembered that I knew someone who knew someone who claimed to know Kirk Douglas. I made a few phone calls, and was given a California number that I was told was Douglas' business office.

I called, expecting to leave a message.

And Kirk Douglas picked up the phone.

I asked him if he'd heard about how the movie had been edited.

He hadn't. "I rarely watch my own films," he said. "They're for other people, not for me."

I told him that "Whale of a Tale" had been taken out of the TV version.

He became livid. Furious.

"That's a sacrilege," he said. "I had no idea they'd done that. If they can't use 'Whale of a Tale,' then they shouldn't run the picture at all."

I could barely concentrate on what he was saying, because it was hard enough processing the fact that I was talking with Kirk Douglas.

"It was really a rollicking song that everyone liked," he said. "'20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' holds a very special place in my heart, because it was the movie that made me a star to young kids. In my earlier movies I had played rather rough characters -- characters that kids probably shouldn't have seen. But when I played Ned Land in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' all of a sudden I had a whole new audience."

From the archives: Douglas deals frankly with stroke, depression

And then, in the middle of our conversation, without prompting, he did something that will stay with me forever.

He started to sing "Whale of a Tale" over the telephone:

"Got a whale of a tale to tell you lads, a whale of a tale or two. . ."

The sound of that voice, across all the years. The magic of a movie star:

". . .'bout the flapping fish and the girls I've loved, on nights like this with the moon above, a whale of a tale and it's all true, I swear by my tattoo."

Being 96 is often not much fun for those who make it to that age, and Douglas has battled health problems in recent years. The last of those legends with the special something that turns out to be eternal. All those indelible roles, in "A Letter to Three Wives" and "Ace in the Hole" and "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Strangers When We Meet" and "Spartacus" and "Seven Days in May". . . .

When Douglas started making pictures, Charlie Chaplin was still acting in movies. Douglas' son Michael has already had a long and full movie career. Ninety-six. I stood in that restaurant and looked at him grinning off the painted door, the wattage of the smile above his cleft chin undimmed.

Happy birthday, sir. What a life for Issur Danielovitch, as he was named by his parents on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York -- what a life for the self-described ragman's son who decided he would be Kirk Douglas, and see where that might take him.

A whale of a tale, and it's all true.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene

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