BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — ”I think I might get the Nobel Prize for medicine,” Kirk Douglas says. “I discovered a cure for depression.”
The actor, who turned 85 Dec. 9, was speaking with his customary hyperbole, though the words did not carry the dynamism of his teeth-flashing movie heyday. His diction is deliberate, blurred but intelligible, the remnant of a stroke five years ago.
Mr. Douglas writes about his attack and his recuperation in his eighth book, “My Stroke of Luck.”
In an interview at his art-filled home in the upscale heart of Beverly Hills, he tells of the suicidal depression that afflicted him when the stroke left him unable to speak: “When I first had my stroke, I went through suicidal impulses. An actor who can’t talk. What would he do?”
A cloud of self-pity and helplessness enveloped him. He remembered his pal, Burt Lancaster, who spent his last four years in a speechless state because of a stroke. Mr. Douglas had kept the gun he had used in his 1957 film with Mr. Lancaster, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” He took two bullets out of a box.
“I loaded the gun and looked at it,” he writes in his book. “In my mouth or at the temple? I stuck the long barrel of the pistol in my mouth, and it bumped my teeth. ‘Ow.’ It sent shivers through my teeth and I pulled the gun out. I began to laugh. A toothache delayed my death. I laughed hysterically.”
He comments: “Then I realized [it was] egocentricity. You’re so involved with yourself. ‘Woe is me.’ But you can reach out and try to think of other people. That’s why I admire Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, because they have tried to do something for people with the disabilities the two of them have. I tried to do that, and it helped.”
Mr. Douglas counsels stroke victims and their families and speaks to gatherings of doctors. When his wife, Anne, read about the poor condition of school playgrounds in Los Angeles, the couple formed a group that has rebuilt and re-equipped 170 of them. They also founded two playgrounds in Israel. He and Anne funded an Alzheimer’s wing at the Motion Picture House and Hospital in Woodland Hills.
Dr. Bruce Dobkin, professor of neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the UCLA Neuralgic Rehabilitation and Research Program, says Mr. Douglas’ prescription for fellow stroke victims to get active “is terrific advice. It turns out that 65 [percent] to 70 percent of people who suffer a stroke become more or less socially isolated, even those who are not profoundly affected.
“By being out in front of your family and your community and trying to participate lessens that social isolation and keeps people from becoming depressed,” he says.
Mr. Douglas, with his face craggier but still handsome and his milk-white hair flowing to his shoulders, could pass for a biblical prophet. Except for his speech and his deliberate movement, you would scarcely know he is an 85-year-old stroke victim who has been through a helicopter crash, spinal surgery and a pacemaker implant.
He has just come from the gym where he worked with weights and did aerobics. Later in the day, he plans to play golf nine holes only, 18 would be too tiring, he explains.
“My Stroke of Luck,” published by William Morrow, is a slender, chatty book that deals with the frightening results of Mr. Douglas’ stroke and the struggles of his recovery. His calendar is filled with speeches and appearances. He has flown to Israel and Jordan, and to Germany for a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin Film Festival. He plans a book promotion tour in the East and then in England, France, Germany and perhaps Italy.
The onset of the stroke happened when Mr. Douglas, who had recently recovered from a back operation, was having a manicure at home.
“It was as if a pointed object had drawn a line from my temple, made a half-circle on my cheek, and stopped,” he writes. “I felt no pain, but when I tried to explain it to Rose, my manicurist, I couldn’t talk. What came out was gibberish. Rose, who had been a nurse in Israel, knew immediately that I was having a stroke.”
His wife drove him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with “a minor stroke.” It did not seem minor to Mr. Douglas he could not speak.
During his film career, he became noted for his intense preparation for roles: He became a whiz at the punching bag for “Champion” and learned juggling for “The Juggler.” He applied the same zeal to his speech and physical therapy.
“When you have a stroke, and it affects your speech, you think, ‘My God, all my life, I took speech for granted,’” he says. “You think a thought, and you express it. With a stroke, you think a thought, but the expression isn’t there. You have to learn how to say your ‘S’s.’ It gets tiring.”
He spent long hours with a therapist and practiced at home before a mirror, working to an “oral aerobics” video that taught grimaces to exercise the tongue and lips. He also concentrated on an intensive daily regimen of physical exercise.
Three months after the stroke, Mr. Douglas walked onto the stage at the Academy Awards show to a thundering, standing ovation and accepted his award for lifetime achievement. Later, he was able to make the movie “Diamonds” with his friend, Lauren Bacall. Next year, he hopes to appear in a film with son Michael and grandson Cameron.
“It’s about a dysfunctional family,” Mr. Douglas says. “I want to do it even if I hate it. Michael and I have never done a picture together. This may be my last chance.”