Kirk Douglas Died Yesterday — I Had The Pleasure of Working With Him; It Went Something Like This…

Back in the early 1990’s (1990 – 1996), I had this amazing gig: I ran a show for HBO called “Tales From The Crypt“. My creative partner at the time and I took over the show in its third season after the second season had run a million dollars over budget. Gil Adler (my partner then) is a superb producer. An accountant by training, Gil understood that if you had a dollar to spend on the project, it was no good thinking you could spend $1.01. You didn’t have that extra penny — and should rewrite accordingly.

That’s where I came in.

At the time Gil and I took over running Tales, season three was supposed to be “it” for the series. HBO wasn’t going to order any more. But Gil and I had another idea. Gil believed we could use the cachet of our executive producers (some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time — Joel Silver, Dick Donner, Bob Zemeckis & Walter Hill) to get the biggest names in Hollywood to do our little half hour horror-black comedy show. I believed we needed to take the writing back to the EC Comics in its embrace of irony, juicy (but hilarious) gore and righteous indignation at scumbags getting away with shit.

I also advocated for reinventing the Crypt Keeper. Through the first two seasons, the Crypt Keeper pretty much wore the same outfit (his sackcloth-looking hoodie) and spoke the same puns while sitting in the same set. The Crypt Keeper was the franchise as much as the comics (was my thinking). We needed to know more about him. What did the Crypt Keeper do — I wanted us to explore — when he’s off the clock and not being the Crypt Keeper? What were his interests and hobbies? What were his likes & dislikes? Who were his friends? What did he do for entertainment or recreation?

The Crypt partners liked what Gil and I did to their show. HBO liked it, too (they ultimately ran us for four more seasons). The Crypt Keeper became a recognizable enough character that products like Budweiser co-branded with him. We’re still talking about the Crypt Keeper today because of that reinvention. Gil and I also got that great Hollywood talent to join us for an episode — Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks, Kirk Douglass…

HBO — having made its decision to extend Crypt’s life beyond that third season — allowed us to splash out on the final episode of that third season — an episode that our executive producer Bob Zemeckis was going to direct. Bob — for those who don’t know who he is — is one of most innovative guys to work in the film/TV business. He’s also one of the most exquisitely collaborative. It is an unadulterated creative pleasure to work with Mr. Z.

As all the episodes had to (by contract with EC Comics’ founder Bill Gaines) be connected — at least via title — with an actual Tales From The Crypt (or Vault of Horror or any of the other EC horror title) comic. Bob had chosen “Yellow” — a story that took place during World War I. Bob wanted to recreate scenes from one of his own favorite movies — Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths Of Glory” — which, it just so happened — starred KIRK DOUGLAS.

Ya see where this is going?

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, 1957

For Bob’s vision of the episode, we HAD to get Kirk Douglas. The script we had was good but not yet good enough. The story (thumbnailed) — WWI general (Kirk) learns that his men all believe the general’s son (an officer) is a coward — that he’s “yellow”; the son’s cowardice in battled directly caused the death of another (much more highly valued) officer. The General puts his son on trial — and allows him to be convicted — and sentenced to be shot the next morning by firing squad. The son pleads with his father to save him. The General tells the son he has a plan. The son will go along bravely — facing the punishment he deserves like a man. But the firing squad will be rigged so that no one will fire any fatal shots at the son. His death will be faked.

The son is grateful — and goes along with it. He owns up to his cowardice and admits the punishment he’s about to receive is just and deserved. Of course, his father hasn’t rigged anything. He’s gotten his son to do the right thing — before being executed.

See? Morality tale. Not exactly a happy ending but it’s Tales From The Crypt. Find happy endings elsewhere.

The father-son relationship in the script we had was under-developed and one-dimensional. Bob believed that if we invested more in those two characters — and made them more realistic — we could score Kirk for the General. And that’s exactly what happened. The work I did on the script gave Bob the confidence he needed to submit the script to Kirk’s agents for them to consider.

When Kirk said “yes” and agreed to take the part, Bob was thrilled. He wrote me a very kind note. Sent a very cool gift basket even. It was very gratifying as you can imagine. Kirk had one caveat though — if he was going to take the role. The part of the son had to be played by his son Eric Douglas.

Cast of “Tales From The Crypt” episode “Yellow” — Kirk Douglas, Eric Douglas & Dan Ackroyd

Kirk had been trying for a few years at that point to help Eric get an acting career launched. In 1971, Eric had appeared in “A Gunfight” starring his dad and Johnny Cash. In 1982, he appeared in the NBC television film Remembrance of Love, also starring his father. In fact, Eric played a younger version of his father’s character in flashback scenes.

He also had played small parts in other projects not involving his father. To be fair — but honest — he couldn’t get past his own baggage so as to be the best actor he could be. It’s no secret that Eric’s baggage ultimately killed him. On July 6, 2004 — after almost two dozen attempts at rehab, arrests on both coasts for drug possession and disorderly conduct — Eric was found dead in his Manhattan apartment. The toxicology report pointed to “acute intoxication” caused by the combined effects of alcohol, tranquilizers and painkillers.

Eric’s death was ruled accidental but there was nothing really “accidental” about it. Of all the lost souls I’ve ever met, Eric was the most lost.

Being a father myself, I understand completely how you can only do so much for your kids. Past a certain point, whatever parenting mistakes you made — they’re hard-wired now. What you see is what you got. Though he had countless rehab centers and broken promises and who knows what other psychodrama still ahead of him, Kirk knew when he and Eric did Crypt together that Eric was a ticking time bomb.

Interestingly, Eric had a groupie. There was a young woman (I’ve long since forgotten her name) who was a total Eric Douglas fan. There was nothing sexual between them (that I know of) but she was devoted to Eric. She believed in him. Believed Eric was an incredible actor who the world just hadn’t discovered yet.

Kirk did a wonderful job with his role. He worked as well with Eric as an actor could. He tried damned hard not to outshine his son in their scenes together.

We also cast Dan Ackroyd and Lance Henriksen in the episode. We turned a couple of acres of Simi Valley into the Sommes.

Check out the episode. Kirk got an Emmy nomination for his work.

Me & A Friend

I was going through photos for the book I’m agent shopping — “How To Live Bullshit Free: A Practical Guide To Not Killing Yourself” — and found this one of a much, much, MUCH younger version of me and a… “friend”, let’s call him, The Crypt Keeper.

From season three till the bitter end, I wrote every word the Crypt Keeper, um, “said”. It was a strange gig — pulling my hair out to come up with words for a puppet to speak (in addition to writing and producing the Tales From The Crypt episodes).

The Crypt Keeper was designed by special effects wizard Kevin Yagher (who directed all the Crypt Keeper segments) and was actually the product of 6 separate puppeteers. One was the CK’s right hand, one his left, one controlled his head movements and the others worked the animatronic controls that gave remarkable life to the Crypt Keeper’s face.

Everything was synched to the vocal track I’d recorded with Jon Kasirer, the actor who provided Crypt Keeper’s voice. Working with Jon was always great fun. With the vocal track playing, Kevin would call “Action”, the puppeteers would go to work and The Crypt Keeper would seem to fill with life.

I don’t believe in magic but… our minds play tricks. While he was moving and talking and acting like the Crypt Keeper, there was no puppet. There was only the Crypt Keeper.

Then Kevin would call “Cut!” The take would end. The puppeteers would sit back — and the Crypt Keeper, now lifeless, would sag to the surface of his table like, well, a lifeless puppet.

It was like watching him die each and every time. It’s still disconcerting how disconcerting it was.