The world mourns Hollywood’s last legend. Kirk Douglas has died Wednesday night, aged 103 – actor, film maker, humanitarian and activist. Former Yugoslavia is a region where he is remembered particularly fondly – even though he never shot a film there.
If, of all his roles, he were only remembered for this one he would still be larger than life: Spartacus.
Not only because it was one of the greatest and most expensive productions at its time. Not only because Kirk Douglas so credibly embodied a man fighting for freedom and dignity not just for himself but for all his fellow men and women.
There was also the political dimension.
Spartacus was the strongest statement yet against the McCarthy era and its red scare that led to the persecution of hundreds of artists and thousands of government employees.
Douglas, who was also the movie’s producer, insisted that Dalton Trumbo’s name appear on the credits.
Trumbo, blacklisted as a suspected Communist, had written the script based on the novel by writer Howard Fast – yet another blacklisted artist.
„I Am Spartacus“
And then there is this scene, shared by many people in and from former Yugoslavia on Facebook and other social media after Douglas’s death was made public.
Even today, it is an open appeal to the oppressed to practise solidarity, no matter what the odds.
In 1960, this scene was also open rejection of the denounciations during the bleak years of the America’s second red scare.
Needless to say that Spartacus was a highly popular movie in former Yugoslavia.
„It’s probably the first movie I remember starring Kirk Douglas“, Nedad Memić recounts.
The journalist and author was born in Sarajevo and now lives in Vienna.
It aired rather often on Yugoslav TV stations.
This, of course, had to do with the plot.
The slaves‘ rebellion under Spartacus was an often cited theme in all socialist countries at the time.
Plus, Yugoslavia soon opened itself to Western culture after the break with Stalin in 1948.
Kirk Douglas‘ 85 movies were shown there probably as often as in most Western countries.
At Least Two Trips to Yugoslavia
The actor also visited the country on at least two occasions, in 1964 and during the Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo in 1984.
This clip on Youtube celebrates his first visit and a subsequent meeting he had with Tito, apparently later, possibly during a state visit by Tito to the United States.
That he remained one of the most popular international stars even after the end of his career and Yugoslavia’s violent demise is testified to by the title photograph of this piece, taken by Henry Kellner.
It is a mural in Opatija, a coastal town in the Croatian region in Istria.
The photo was taken a little over half a year ago.
Many Bosnians also recall his visit to the Sarajevo’s Olympic Winter Games.
It is accompanied by an aprocyphal anecdote that is perhaps not flattering to Kirk Douglas but still endears him to many Bosnians.
Overcharged in Sarajevo?
He is said to have eaten the most expensive ćevapčići in the city’s history.
Raka Marić, then manager of the already legendary band Bijelo Dugme says, a restaurant called Dallas charged him 100 Dollars.
Even though he had also treated his friends to dinner, this was way overcharged.
According to him, this caused quite a scandal and no one is said to have set foot in the restaurant for the next couple of years.
It is probably wise to be a bit skeptical about this anecdote.
It is corroborated by Goran Bregović.
That trip also inspired a proverb occasionally still heard in Sarajevo:
„Kirk Douglas prn’o naglas.“
Literally: Kirk Douglas farts loudly.
This isn’t based on another aprocryphal anecdote but was simply created for two reasons, Nedad Memić says: „Jokes and proverbs are often based on celebreties and he was certainly that. Plus, it rhymes.“
Spartacus Will Never Die
Aside his cinematographic achievements it is another detail of his biography that made quite a few people in former Yugoslavia take a liking to him: He was a very close, some say even the best, friend of a certain Mladen Sekulović, as Mladen Kalpić reminds his readers in an obituary on Kirk Douglas for Kaleidskop Media.
Sekulović is known to an international audience as Karl Malden.
And it is not just an older generation still rooted in the country that was Yugoslavia who is saddened by the death of Hollywood’s last legend.
„No matter what, I am sad“, Belgrade based artist Katarina Brkić comments on Balkan Stories‘ Facebook page.
And among many Balkan news sites, obituaries on the actor such as this one on tportal.hr are among the most read stories of the day.
Even though the actor has died, his memory will live on. And so will the role of his life.
Spartacus will never die.
Contributions: Jelena Pavlović, Milica Popović
Title photograph by Henry Kellner, found on Wikimedia Commons, obtained under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0