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Kirk Douglas: A star undimmed

By
LOU MARANO

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Resembling one of the Biblical patriarchs who now occupy his thoughts, 85-year-old Kirk Douglas described being transformed "in one minute from a pampered movie star to a babbling idiot" but recovering from his resulting depression by learning the value of service to others.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, introduced the Hollywood icon at the National Press Club Wednesday night, saying that the stroke Douglas suffered in 1996 would have felled an ordinary man. "His sense of humor is intact. He's working at high velocity and is not about to retire," Valenti said.

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Douglas was promoting his new book, "Stroke of Luck," in which the legendary actor shares his experiences and inspirations in the battle to return to normal life after the debilitating affliction.

His mind had taken a spiritual turn in 1991, when a light plane collided with the helicopter in which he was a passenger. Douglas was seriously injured, and he asked himself why he had survived while two young men had been killed. The question led to a renewed interest in Judaism and Torah study. Douglas' children's novel "The Broken Mirror" (1997), set in World War II Europe, is the story of a boy who denies and then reclaims his Jewish identity. Since then he has written "Kid Heroes of the Bible."

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Douglas was getting a manicure when he felt "a single line" going across his right cheek. "It wasn't painful. But when I tried to speak, I babbled like a baby."

Concha, his housekeeper, rushed in from the kitchen in a panic. "She started slapping my face and intoning Mexican prayers," the actor said.

After making some jokes, Douglas admitted that the experience really wasn't funny. "I was scared to death. ... What's happening? Am I going to die?"

He said he never had any physical pain from his stroke. "But I did experience something far worse -- a very deep depression. What does an actor do who can't talk? Wait for silent pictures to come back?" he quipped.

From his bed, he looked up to see rows of scripts bound in black leather -- 83 altogether -- each a piece of his life. Lines from movies went through his head. Characters came back like old friends.

He thought he would never make another movie, and he cried.

His two dogs jumped onto his bed to comfort him, but he pushed them aside. "And I thought -- suicide." He took out a gun and loaded it. "I looked at myself in the mirror -- a horrible sight. My mouth drooping, saliva falling out.

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But he changed his mind. "Suicide is a dumb and selfish act," Douglas said.

However, the depression did not end. "One day from my bed, I heard a whining moan -- and it didn't come from me." In fact, it was his favorite dog, Danny, standing at the door waiting for Douglas to let him out. "I opened the door, and he left wagging his tail. He was happy. And I felt happy. And all I did was open the door!"

The simple act affected him profoundly. "As long as you are alive, you can learn -- even from a four-legged friend. I learned that day that everyone needs someone."

Douglas called this no less true for being a simple cliché. "I almost missed it. It makes us feel good to give and help others."

He stopped thinking of himself so much and more about his colleagues struggling with adversity: Christopher Reeve, quadriplegic since 1995 after a fall from a horse; Patricia Neal, whose rehabilitation from a series of massive stroke she suffered in 1966 is the stuff of epic; and Michael J. Fox, who has struggled bravely against Parkinson's disease.

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These actors did not stay in bed all day wallowing in self-pity, Douglas said. "They helped others. They inspired me." And he dedicated the book to them. He devised a manual of how to cope with a stroke that turned out also to be a set of guidelines on how to deal with life.

His principles: never give up, keep a sense of humor, deal with depression by reaching out to help others, and follow the Golden Rule.

Douglas said he was afraid to accept his special Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1996. He planned just to say "thank you" and exit. "But I pulled myself together, and I walked on like Spartacus."

Some 2,000 people stood up and applauded wildly. "Wow, I liked that," Douglas recalled. He thought: "I've got to say more than 'thank you.' And I did. They UNDERSTOOD me! That was worth more than the Oscar."

Douglas was developing a script with his son Michael when he had the stroke. "We will shoot the movie next month, and Cameron, my grandson (Michael's son) will also be in it."

"If I had known Michael was going to be so famous, I would have been much nicer to him when he was young," he joked.

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