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Kirk Douglas turns 96: Last of the screen idols

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Bob Greene says Kirk Douglas is Hollywood's last remaining Golden Age idol

In "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," he played a seafarer and sang a memorable song

Greene watched a TV version in which song was cut; he called Douglas, who was appalled

Greene: Douglas turns 96 today, has come far from his early N.Y. days as Issur Danielovitch

Editor’s Note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story”; “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen”; and “When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams.”

CNN —  

At dinnertime the other evening I walked into a seafood restaurant in a small strip mall off U.S. 41 in southwestern Florida.

The décor was faithful to an under-the-ocean theme, right down to bubbling water behind portholes built into one wall.

Along a corridor, on the door to the men’s room, was a framed photograph of a young, smiling Kirk Douglas. You couldn’t look at it without grinning.

Even if you had never set eyes on him in your life, you would know in a glance that this guy was some sort of star. The business he was in – the movie-star business – has always been built on instant visceral reaction. You’ve got star quality, or you don’t.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

With Kirk Douglas, there was never a question. He was golden.

I bring this up because Sunday is Douglas’ birthday. He is turning – believe it or not – 96.

He is the last man standing of all the great name-above-the-title stars of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable – all of them, except him, gone.

I knew exactly why that photograph of Douglas was on the door to the men’s room in the submarine-themed restaurant. One of Douglas’ most unforgettable movies was 1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” adapted from the Jules Verne saga. Douglas played the swashbuckling seafarer Ned Land.

From the archives: Kirk Douglas, 92, takes stock of his life

It was the first favorite movie of my life. I must have seen it at least six times in the big palace of a downtown theater in our Midwestern hometown. I kept making my parents take me.

The whole movie was thrilling, but one scene topped them all:

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  • Douglas, in a red-and-white-striped T-shirt, a guitar in his hands, sang a song called “Whale of a Tale” to his shipmates:

    “Got a whale of a tale to tell you, lads… .”

    No textbooks are needed to define what constitutes star quality. That one bit of film contains all the information necessary.

    About 25 years ago, I saw in the paper that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was scheduled to be broadcast in prime time on ABC. This was in the pre-YouTube, pre-Netflix era; if a wonderful old movie was going to be aired, your one shot at seeing it was at the whim and convenience of a network.

    I eagerly awaited – especially for the chance to see and hear Kirk Douglas sing “Whale of a Tale” one more time.

    I watched the movie – every minute of it.

    No “Whale of a Tale.”

    They had cut it out, for time reasons. “Edited for television.”

    I couldn’t believe they’d done it. The next morning, I remembered that I knew someone who knew someone who claimed to know Kirk Douglas. I made a few phone calls, and was given a California number that I was told was Douglas’ business office.

    I called, expecting to leave a message.

    And Kirk Douglas picked up the phone.

    I asked him if he’d heard about how the movie had been edited.

    He hadn’t. “I rarely watch my own films,” he said. “They’re for other people, not for me.”

    I told him that “Whale of a Tale” had been taken out of the TV version.

    He became livid. Furious.

    “That’s a sacrilege,” he said. “I had no idea they’d done that. If th