My inspiration for this blog is the iconic actor Kirk Douglas who on December 9, 2016 turned 100 years old! As a teenager, my father took me to a theater production at the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco starring two legendary screen actors, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. The play was a two-character comic drama titled “The Boys in Autumn.” It was meant as a pre-Broadway tryout.
For those unfamiliar with these two legends, Douglas is No. 17 on the American Film Institutes list of the greatest male screen legends of classic Hollywood cinema. He is the highest-ranked living person on the list. Lancaster is No. 19. In the movies, Douglas was Spartacus, and Lancaster was the Birdman of Alcatraz! What an invitation my father had given me, a chance to see both these actors live and in person on a San Francisco stage!
Douglas has received three Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As an author, he has written ten novels and memoirs. He became an international star through his leading role as a boxing hero in Champion (1949) which brought him his first nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He received a second Oscar nomination for his role in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) opposite Lana Turner, and a third nomination for portraying Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life. (1956).
The other actor on stage that night was Burt Lancaster, nominated four times for Academy Awards including an Oscar and Golden Globe win for his work in Elmer Gantry (1960). Lancaster also won a BAFTA Award for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Atlantic City (1980) opposite Susan Sarandon. He played one of his best-remembered roles with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953). The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which Kerr and he make love on a Hawaiian beach amid the crashing waves. The organization named it one of “AFI’s top 100 Most Romantic Films” of all time.
Prior to this San Francisco appearance, neither actor had appeared on stage in over 10 years. Needless to say, it was an exciting evening, a sold-out theatre to see Kirk Douglas playing a senior Tom Sawyer and Burt Lancaster as Huckleberry Finn. The premise of the stage production was to see Mark Twain’s characters meet-up again for a reunion after 50 years apart.
When the two men took the stage, as you can imagine, there was huge applause – the audience was clearly excited to be in the presence of these two movie icons. The production itself, however, was not well-received and the two actors re-retired from the stage after the short San Francisco run ended. Still, I remember the distinct energy and voice of Douglas as he played his part, thinking “wow” the man who played Spartacus is right in front of me! Lancaster was much more low key in the production, even seemed a bit uncomfortable on stage – yet it was a joy to watch both of them act in person. It’s a night I still remember, a night where two screen actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age came to life.