"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."
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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