Kirk Douglas: the lesson I learnt

I never had the privilege of meeting the movie star, but his actions in Hong Kong remain with me to this day

I never met Kirk Douglas in person. Yet something he did had a profound impact on me when I was in my mid-20s.

I’ll explain… at the time I was working on a daily newspaper in Hong Kong when (1977) Douglas came to the city. Quite why he was there, I don’t recall.

But news that he was in town reached us and it was up to me (as temporary news editor of The Star) to discover if he would be willing to talk to us.

I was not overly optimistic. Would a big Hollywood star want to talk to a not especially significant local daily newspaper? The colony (as it was then) had – and still has – a big local daily, The South China Morning Post. Imagine The Daily Star versus The Times here. There were quite a few parallels.

Kirk Douglas was known for playing tough guys, but in a film of that name – a favourite of mine – he showed he could do comedy. His co-star was Burt Lancaster. This was the seventh (and last) time the two appeared in a movie together.

I had visions of Douglas’s publicist shepherding our representatives to one side and fobbing them off with some excuse why Kirk could not talk to them. Kirk was, after all, a big, big star.

Yes, I was guilty of assuming how Douglas and his entourage would behave. I’m totally delighted to say that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I sent our youngest reporter, a HK-born lad who must have been all of 18 or 19, to see if he could grab a few words with the great man. I told our photographer (who wasn’t much older) to go with him.

This was about 11 in the morning. When they hadn’t come back at 3pm I began to worry. I needn’t have.

As it turned out Kirk Douglas and his wife were a perfectly delightful couple. They greeted our young lads like they were part of the family and said they were going for a drive around the island and asked would our team like to go with them. Just the four of them­ – plus a driver, of course.

The Douglases insisted on buying our two lunch and just could not have been nicer to them. When our lads came back to the office they were on Cloud Nine. Not only had they met a big movie star, he had spent four hours with them, just chatting and being a down-to-earth guy. He had shown them a wonderful time which they certainly couldn’t have afforded on their low wages.

Frankly, I was gobsmacked. My pre-conceived idea of how all film stars were spoilt brats was totally shattered. Kirk Douglas was just a nice man with few airs and graces. The profound impact on me, which stays with me to this day, is not to jump to too many conclusions without proof.

As a young journalist (I was about 25 when this happened) I had had the mantra ‘never assume anything’ drummed into me. Kirk Douglas’s actions confirmed this – big time.

Douglas passed away this week after reaching the ripe old age of 103. There is a common saying that only the good die young. Kirk Douglas certainly gave a lie to that one.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past publications worked for include the South-East London Mercury*, Kent Messenger, Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor for an East Midlands-based publishing group.

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