On- and offscreen, Kirk Douglas has always been known as a tough guy.
The athletic former high school wrestler cemented that reputation playing roles like Scrappy Michael “Midge” Kelly in 1949’s Champion and the titular role in 1960’s Spartacus.
But the 98-year-old legend has also lived through his fair share of real-life scrapes over the years.
In 1991, he narrowly survived a helicopter crash, which killed two people and left him and three others in the hospital. Then several years later, he managed to recover from a severe stroke that threatened to permanently damage his voice in 1996.
After those brushes with death, it’s easy to see why Douglas found religion later in life. But in realm of divine intervention, one of his lesser-known escapes from catastrophe trumps all the rest.
Back in 1958, Douglas and his wife Anne were living next door to Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Academy Award-winning producer Mike Todd, in Palm Springs.
“Mike asked me to go on his private plane with him, and we were going to stop and see Harry Truman and then go on to New York,” the actor tells PEOPLE, adding, “I was very excited.”
Anne Buydens, to whom Douglas has been married for 61 years, had a bad feeling about trip. “When I told my wife [about the plane ride], she said, ‘I don’t want you to go,’ ” Douglas remembers. “We had a big argument,” he says, and sure enough, his wife won out.
Mad at his wife and disappointed about missing the flight, Douglas says he remembers, “We were driving and not talking to each other, so we turned the radio on.”
When the radio clicked on, the announcer relayed the shocking news that Todd’s private plane, the Lucky Liz (named after Taylor), had crashed, killing everyone on board.
VIDEO: Tough, Talented & Timeless: Kirk Douglass Star-Making Roles
The twin-engine plane was overloaded and suffered an engine failure while flying in icy conditions at too high of an altitude, the Civil Aeronautics Board later concluded in its accident report.
Douglas wasn’t the only celebrity who narrowly escaped the crash. Taylor was also set to fly with her husband that day, but Todd refused to take her along because she was suffering from a high fever.
In a phone call made just hours before his death, the famed producer told a friend, “I just told [Taylor]: ‘Dammit, you’re staying home with that virus and that’s final,’ ” The Milwaukee Sentinel reported at the time.
Possibly in the same phone call, Todd pleaded with Douglas and another friend to join the flight for a game of gin rummy, insisting that the plane was safe.
“Ah c’mon,” he reportedly said, joking, “It’s a good, safe plane. I wouldn’t let it crash. I’m taking along a picture of Elizabeth, and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her.”
After hearing of her husband’s death, still heavily sedated and in a feverish haze, Taylor repeated over and over again, “I can’t believe it’s Mike,” according to the Sentinel.
When Douglas heard the news, he and Anne immediately pulled their car over to the side of the road.
“Why was I spared? I was so grateful,” Douglas tells PEOPLE. “My wife has saved my life many times.”
The Spartacus actor also credits his wife with forcing him into intensive speech therapy when there seemed to be little hope of his regaining his voice after his stroke.
After two months of hard work, Douglas was able to thank the audience for his honorary Academy Award that March. He later recounted his experience recovering from the ordeal in his memoir, My Stroke of Luck.
Douglas has continued his writing, focusing now on his passion for poetry. For his 98th birthday in December 2014, he released Life Could Be Verse, a collection of poetry, prose and photographs he accumulated throughout his extraordinary life.
For more on Kirk Douglas, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now