He boxed his way to the top in Champion, survived trench warfare in Paths of Glory and outdueled a trident-wielding warrior in Spartacus. But it was offscreen, last year, that Kirk Douglas faced one of his toughest challenges ever—pronouncing the word “transcontinental” more clearly than his 3-year-old granddaughter. The cleft-chinned star of 72 films had been recuperating from back surgery when, on Jan. 28, 1996, he suffered a stroke. Douglas, now 80, was left unable to speak intelligibly. He bravely went public with his condition two months later at the Academy Awards when, given an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, he made a halting, poignant acceptance speech few will forget. Now, as he works with a speech therapist, his fluency is returning. “They tell me that I can be 95 to 100 percent back to where I was before the stroke, “says Douglas, slowly articulating his words. “But I’ll be happy with 85 percent.”
Each year some 550,000 Americans suffer strokes; 150,000 die, and most of the rest must deal with debilitating aftereffects. Douglas has tackled his recovery with the same fire and ferocity he brought to his film roles. “Dad is a strong, motivated person, someone we all think of as larger than life,” says his son, actor Michael Douglas. “But this has exposed his vulnerability and put a lot of things in perspective.”
Douglas’s battle to recover from the stroke and his reexamination of his Jewish faith are the subject of his sixth book, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning, out this month. The still-vigorous actor, who lives in an art-filled, two-bedroom house in Beverly Hills with his second wife, Anne, 78, mother of their sons Peter, 41, and Eric, 39 (his older sons Michael, who turns 53 on Sept. 25, and Joel, 50, are by his first wife, Diana Dill), sat down in his living room one recent morning to describe his ordeal to L.A. deputy bureau chief Todd Gold.
IN JANUARY 1996 I HAD AN OPERATION ON MY BACK TO relieve tremendous crippling pain, which was caused by being in a helicopter accent five years earlier. I had put off the operation until the pain was unbearable. I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself. Two young people were killed in the crash, and all I had was back pain. But I finally decided to go ahead with it.
A couple of weeks after the operation, the stroke happened. I was at home, and after I walked down to the corner by myself for the first time, my wife said, “You’re doing so well, I want you to celebrate.” So the next day she had her manicurist Rose come over and give me the full treatment. As Rose worked on me, I thought, “Boy, if the guys in Amsterdam, N.Y., where I grew up, could see me now. I’m a movie star having a manicure!”
Then I had the strangest sensation. Not painful. Not paralyzing. Just strange. It was like a buzzing along my face and down my right cheek. I started to tell Rose about it, and apparently nothing came out. But I saw Rose’s startled, concerned reaction. She’s a trained nurse, and she sensed exactly what was happening. Rose called Concha, one of our housekeepers, who ran into the living room and started to slap me. She thought it would help. I tried to say, “Please, Concha, that doesn’t help.” But what came out was blabber.
They managed to reach my wife, who was visiting Barbara Sinatra because Barbara had fallen down some stairs and hurt her back. Anne hurried back and called my doctor Richard Gold, who told her to put me in the car, rather than wait for an ambulance, and drive me to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as fast as possible since immediate medical treatment is crucial following a stroke. Dr. Gold was there when we arrived, and he said, “Kirk, I’m so happy to see you walking down the hallway on your own and without a limp.” Then he asked me to show him my teeth. I tried. Only one part of my mouth went up. The right side didn’t move. I couldn’t feel that. I didn’t know what was happening or what wasn’t. But he said that I’d suffered what he described as a mild stroke. Hah! Mild to everyone but me.
In the hospital my wife took over, asking all the questions I couldn’t. I heard the doctor tell her that the stroke might have been caused by a burst blood vessel or perhaps a tiny blood clot from the back operation that traveled to my brain. Who knows?
I don’t remember everything the doctors did to me right away, but I know I was a terrible patient. I hate hospitals. I think people get sick in hospitals. I become like a temperamental child. So after four days they let me go home. In all honesty, I think they wanted to get rid of me.
At home, where I seemed to be overrun by doctors and therapists, I started working every day with a speech therapist, and it was extremely hard. I started by learning how to pronounce letters, and then I graduated to words. I still have a problem with 5 ‘s. Save. Sit. Start. Stop. Normally our tongues dance when we talk. Mine only waltzes. I was once in an Italian restaurant, and I couldn’t say, “Spaghetti.” About six months later I went back and kept saying, “Spaghetti! Spaghetti!” I was so delighted.
I’m a cocky guy, and after the stroke I thought I’d bounce back quickly. “In three months,” I told myself, “I’ll be back to normal.” I just assumed I’d work hard, and I’d see the results. But it didn’t happen that way. I must admit I’m not as brave as I am in the movies. I’m human, and like many people after a stroke, I faced severe depression. That was the worst. I cried, and I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to get in bed and divorce myself from everything. I wanted to give up and say, “The hell with it.” For 50 years I was an actor who expressed himself with speech, and suddenly I was cut off. So who was I now?
The stroke is not painful physically, but what it does to the psyche is terrible. Prior to the stroke I had been preparing a speech for the special Academy Award I was being given, but afterward I didn’t want to do it. I told Michael to accept for me. But he said, “The hell with you, Dad. You’re going to get that award if you have to crawl.” So I tried to practice a speech, but it was awful. My thoughts were fine, but my tongue wasn’t up to the task. I said, “I’ll go and just say thank you.”
On the night of the Oscars I arrived backstage about half an hour before I was scheduled to appear. My wife and four sons were already sitting in the audience. I sat in a chair off to the side in front of a monitor, where I could watch the show. I was startled by what I saw—me as a young man in Champion, in Spartacus, and kissing Lana Turner. When had I gotten so old? I never felt old. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek, and when I looked up, I saw it was Sharon Stone. I said to myself, “The old Kirk Douglas isn’t doing too badly.”
Steven Spielberg introduced me. For the first time since the stroke I was going to speak in front of people, and I was a wreck. But you know, when you’re a ham….Still, I was overwhelmed when everyone stood up
and applauded. I said to myself, “Now you have to say something more than thank you.” I saw my family sitting together, and I said to the audience, “They are proud of the old man. I am proud too—proud to be a part of Hollywood for 50 years. But this is for my wife, Anne—I love you.” Afterward, at home, my wife started to cry and said, “You made me ruin a $25 makeup job.” Now I’m glad I did that.
The stroke changed my perspective. I realized things can always be worse. I think of Christopher Reeve and my dear friend Burt Lancaster, who had a stroke and spent four years like a vegetable, unable to speak or move. After the helicopter crash, I had started studying the Torah, and I know that helped me a lot. Not that I became a religious nut, but through the Bible I realized that God always gives you a second chance. So many people in the Bible were sinners, but they overcame their sins to do something worthwhile, and that was encouraging to me.
One thing that has changed since the stroke is that people don’t know how to act around me. They yell, “How are you, Kirk?” But there’s nothing wrong with my hearing. Sometimes I’d want a glass of water, and my wife would jump to get it. But I’d get it myself. It’s too easy to let people serve you, but it’s more important to be selfsufficient. Otherwise you begin to act like you’re sick. And as my wife points out, I am not sick. I am just a man who has trouble pronouncing his s’s.
I remember the day last year when I asked my granddaughter Kelsey, who was then 3, if she could say “transcontinental.” She couldn’t. I’d left her in the dust. That was a big moment for me. Now I speak like 6-year-olds. The key ingredient for survival is a sense of humor. It took a while for mine to return, but you must be able to laugh at yourself. My sons were a great help because they didn’t treat me like I was going to die. In the hospital they gave me affection, and once I got out they told jokes. Laughter helps you relax.
When I spoke to Michael at first, he always made me repeat myself. “Dad, what did you say?” he asked. “Michael, don’t you speak English?” I said. Before the stroke we had been working on a movie, which would have been the first time we acted together, something I wanted to do badly. “Dad, you just keep working with your speech therapist,” he said. “And when you get better, we’ll do the movie.” But I said, “No, Michael, you work with my speech therapist, and when you talk like me, then we will do the movie.”
One of the most important by-products of the stroke is that it reasserted my faith in God. Since the stroke I’ve realized that I just took the miracle of speech for granted. What are the other advantages to having a stroke? You must speak slowly in order to be understood. That means you have to choose your words more carefully. You don’t go off the handle or get angry. Patience is another thing. I’ve always been an impatient guy, and this forced me to change. Today when I get frustrated, my wife says, “Calm down, Kirk, you’re all right. You’re just temporarily out of order.”
The stroke also brought my family closer together. I think they’ve always thought of me as this big, strong guy who could handle anything. A stroke? That was something that only happened to old guys. But now they had to face my mortality. As have I. People ask me, “Kirk, do you ever think of dying?” My God, of course I do. But I should have thought about that long ago. When you’re aware of death, life becomes sweeter.
Right now I am speaking better. But it takes a lot more energy and effort for me to speak. By 7 o’clock I might be having more trouble. Like any muscles that get used a lot, mine will be tired. I work with a speech therapist two or three times a week. I can say almost any word when it’s isolated. But when I try using it in a sentence, my tongue sometimes lags. For instance, I can say “perspicacity,” but if I wanted to use it in a sentence, I’d have to slow down while my thoughts continued at their normal pace. Then I would have to catch up to them.
But I am doing pretty good. Every morning I exercise for 20 minutes. For the past six months I have been playing golf again. The other day Michael said, “Gosh, Dad, you are hitting the ball farther than before.” Michael and I are still working on a movie we can do together, but I recently turned down another script. I think my role in life is to do more than just act. Since the helicopter crash I have been more active in helping other people. My wife and I have sold millions of dollars worth of paintings by Picasso, Braque and Dubuffet and used the money to build playgrounds and help schools. It’s very clear to me that you must help other people. According to the Torah, you have to love your neighbors as yourself, and in order to love yourself, you have to be a worthwhile person. My stroke was God’s way of saying, “Hey, Kirk, you’re not moving fast enough. You have things to do in this world.”
I heard that message very clearly. I am 80 years old, and I do not know how that happened. We race through life so rapidly that we don’t give ourselves the chance to take inventory. I tried to start with my autobiography, but most of that was retrospective. In my new book I look at who I am right now and what I will become. We take so much for granted. If I have learned anything from my stroke, it is this: We must be more grateful for all the little things in life—walking, talking, moving, loving. Don’t give up, and you have a chance.