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Kirk Douglas Rewrites Movie History in ‘I Am Spartacus!’

In Kirk Douglas' new memoir "I Am Spartacus!", the actor recasts his role in the blacklist-busting production

This is a little story about the blacklist. Not the list that recognizes some of the best scripts of the year — the other blacklist. The one that pushed some of the best writers in Hollywood out of the business for nearly a decade — because of their politics or what was alleged about them. We have to do many things to get a script sold these days, but fortunately, signing a loyalty oath is not one of them.

My novel, “Peloponnesia,” is about a producer with dementia who believes he is the main character in a script he has owned for a long time. Cleon, the protagonist from the script, is a prominent Greek general from the Peloponnesian Wars. My fictional producer, Harley Grace, walks around Los Angeles thinking he is Cleon most of the time.

Now, right in my neighborhood, I just heard about a real-life actor who has declared himself to be the character he once played in a movie long ago. Neighbor Joan Lewis is the daughter of Hollywood producers Mildred and Edward Lewis. Among their credits: “Spartacus,” “Lonely Are the Brave,” “Missing,” “Harold and Maude,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Gypsy Moths,” “The River,” many more. 

Kirk Douglas, at 95 years old, just wrote a memoir about the ending of the 1950s blacklist. The title: “I Am Spartacus!” There is no dispute about one thing: Onscreen, Kirk Douglas did play Spartacus. However, Douglas has chosen to rewrite history quite a bit. In the book, and in interviews, Douglas claims sole credit for breaking the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write the “Spartacus” screenplay.

Edward Lewis was, in fact, the producer of “Spartacus” and has been acknowledged by Dalton Trumbo as the individual who gave him back his name. Unfortunately, in Douglas' new book and in press interviews, he equates himself with the actual Spartacus, and simultaneously rewrites history by erasing Edward Lewis from this story. Edward Lewis, in fact, was instrumental in helping to end the blacklist.

Kirk Douglas did not produce “Spartacus.” Edward Lewis received sole producing credit on the film. Douglas was an executive producer. Edward Lewis brought the project to Dalton Trumbo. Howard Fast had been engaged to write the script, but when that did not work out, Lewis offered the project to Dalton Trumbo.

Said Lewis: “I gave Trumbo the book with a disclaimer: He might not want to work on it because the author, Howard Fast, had cooperated with the House Un-American Affairs Committee, and named names. Dalton's response was, 'If I turned the assignment down because I didn't like his politics, I'd be guilty of the same blacklisting I'm fighting. It's a short novel. I'm a fast reader.' When the screenplay was finished, Dalton asked me to 'front' for him. My name was on the script as sole author when it was submitted to Universal. I went to London as writer/producer, met with Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov, and secured their commitment to star. When financing and distribution were locked, I insisted that my name be removed from the screenplay, an action that set in motion a sequence of events that led to Dalton Trumbo getting screen credit. Trumbo himself orchestrated much of what occurred. There were many people who helped break the blacklist. I was one of them.”

Dalton gave Eddie Lewis a copy of his novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” with this inscription:

To Edward Lewis

Who risked his name to help a man who'd lost his name.

Words simply cannot say it, and I shan't try to force them.

But you understand.

As does Your friend

Dalton Trumbo

Los Angeles

June 2, 1959

“I Am Spartacus!” does not tell the whole story. Robert Cortes, Lewis’ former producing partner, observed that Kirk Douglas apparently forgot the message of the movie that Dalton Trumbo so beautifully illustrated in the scene where all the surviving slaves are rounded up and the Romans demand the identity of Spartacus. All the slaves proclaim themselves Spartacus. It was the collective action of the slaves that was needed in the effort to right a wrong. Collectively they demanded freedom, as during the McCarthy period many demanded and worked to end the tyranny of the blacklist.

Kirk Douglas is a bit old to play Cleon if “Peloponnesia” ever gets made into a movie. He does understand the part, though. 

 Tom  Benedek wrote the screenplays for Cocoon and other films. His first novel, "Peloponnesia," has just been published. He has written and rewritten screenplays for Robert Zemeckis, Lawrence Kasdan, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Harold Ramis and many others. Tom teaches screenwriting at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, UMass Amherst and Screenwritingmasterclass.com. His photography has been exhibited widely and can be viewed at tombenedek.com