Kirk Douglas On ‘Trumbo’: “I Was Threatened That Using A Blacklisted Writer Would End My Career”

EXCLUSIVE: Kirk Douglas has released a statement to Deadline regarding Trumbo,  a new movie he plays a key part in (even if he isn’t actually in the film itself). The movie, directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara, tells the story of famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted in Hollywood after the House Un-American Activities Committee nearly destroyed his career in the Communist witchhunt of the 40’s and 50’s. Trumbo even went to prison for a spell and was forced to write under a pseudonym for many years; two of his scripts won Oscars (Roman Holiday  and The Brave One) in the process, though it wasn’t until decades later that his real name was put on them. It was Kirk Douglas, producer and star of the Oscar-winning 1960 epic Spartacuswho is acknowledged to have finally broken the blacklist Trumbo posterwhen he insisted that Trumbo’s name appear on the opening credits as the sole writer of the film. Director Otto Preminger did the same thing that year with Exodus, another Trumbo script. All of this is recounted in the film, which is being released by Bleecker Street and is among the hot prospects for awards attention this season. New Zealand-born actor Dean O’Gorman gives an uncanny performance as Douglas in the movie.

Several weeks before the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival,  Bryan Cranston (who plays Trumbo)  and producer Michael London sent the film to the 98-year-old Douglas’ Beverly Hills home so he could be among the first to see it. Until now, Douglas hasn’t had an “official” response but here it is:

“As actors it is easy for us  to play the hero. We get to fight the bad guys and stand up for justice. In real life, the choices are not always so clear. The Hollywood Blacklist, recreated powerfully on screen in Trumbo, was a time I remember well. The choices were hard. The consequences were painful and very real. During the blacklist, I had friends who went into exile when no one would hire them; actors who committed suicide in despair. My young co-star in Detective Story (1951), Lee Grant, was unable to work for twelve years after she refused to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I was threatened that using a Blacklisted writer for Spartacus –– my friend Dalton Trumbo — would mark me as a “Commie-lover” and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle. I am so proud of my fellow actors who use their public influence to speak out against injustice. At 98 years old, I have learned one lesson from history: It very often repeats itself. I hope that Trumbo, a fine film, will remind all of us that the Blacklist was a terrible time in our country, but that we must learn from it so that it will never happen again.”

I spoke to Cranston about showing the film to Douglas. He wanted to watch it with him but was tied up shooting HBO’s LBJ biopic All The Way, so instead he and London arranged to see him afterward. He was understandably nervous about what the legendary actor’s response might be. “We had a really good conversation,” Cranston told me. “He was very complimentary about the film and the actors in it. He said it reminded him of the times and Cranston and Douglas and Londoncaptured the essence of not only Dalton Trumbo, Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne and all those guys, but also the period as well and the sense of fear that permeated not only Hollywood but America at the time.” He did have one major complaint however. “That’s when Michael London and I sat up and sort of braced ourselves for what the problem is — and that’s when he said, ‘I don’t understand why  wasn’t cast as Kirk Douglas.’ ” Cranston added that Douglas said he liked O’Gorman’s portrayal of him a lot and thought he did an excellent job.

“Last week I saw Michael Douglas at a luncheon, and Michael said the same thing,” Cranston continued. “He said, ‘When I was watching the film I looked up at the screen and saw Kirk. It blew my mind. Like wow. He loved it too, The Last of the 70mm Film Festival, Spartacusand lived through it himself by way of his dad of course,” Cranston said, adding that “it moved me to be able to get a stamp of approval of authenticity from a legend, not only in our business, but for someone who stuck his neck out and risked a lot, not just financially, but could have ruined his own career for what he did. I think the subject matter of Spartacus made it unavoidable. I think he thought this is something I must do, and I will do.”

Kirk Douglas’ fascinating 2012 book I Am Spartacus recounts  the whole period and goes into detail about how the blacklist affected the movie and ultimately resulted in his decision to use Trumbo’s name on the credits. I interviewed Douglas a couple of times upon the book’s publication at both the The Last of the 70mm Film Festival, SpartacusTelevision Academy and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and was impressed by the amount of total recall he had then for the whole story.

It has been intriguing to see the response to Trumbo so far. In Toronto, critical reaction was mixed, but since the movie has opened many in the industry and Academy that I have talked to have embraced it much more strongly. Certainly it hits home, and it also doesn’t pull any punches recounting the fact that all the studios and even the Academy itself were complicit in this very dark period in Hollywood history. It will be most interesting to see the reaction the film gets when it has its official Academy screening this Sunday night.

Bleecker Street plans to have the film, now in limited release, out nationwide by Thanksgiving.

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