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‘Spartacus’ and the Spartans: One more torch for Kirk Douglas’ Viking funeral

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THURSDAY, Feb. 6 — It shouldn’t come as a shock when someone dies at age 103, but fans of screen legend Kirk Douglas got used to thinking he would go on forever.

On screen, he survived dozens of deaths, from crucifixion (“Spartacus”) and suicide (as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life”) to venomous rattlesnake bites (“There Was a Crooked Man”) and a fatal scissors stab in the gut (in “Ace in the Hole”). Sometimes his amoral characters deserved what they got, but not always. His most heart-rending screen death came when a truckload of toilets mowed him down, along with his beloved horse, Whiskey, at the end of “Lonely Are the Brave.”

A cowboy hat on the asphalt, pelted by rain and illuminated by police car flashers, is the film’s final image — the relentless modern age overtaking the wanderlust and big skies of the past.

Douglas died and came back so many times nobody was surprised when he nearly did the same thing in real life. He rebounded from a crippling stroke to thrive for 20 more years, reinventing himself as a writer and philanthropist and even returning to the screen.

Across the internet, Douglas is getting a respectful and loving send-off reminiscent of his demise in “The Vikings.” Tributes from around the world are flying like torches into his burning funeral ship as it sails into the void. There may have been actors with more class and poise, but no other movie star this side of James Cagney could touch his energy, versatility and what-the-hell willingness to risk going over the top, just to see what’s on the other side of an otherwise unremarkable role.

There’s not much I can add to this Viking funeral, but it’s a safe bet no other tributes will mention that Douglas had a fun connection with East Lansing and MSU, and, later on, with City Pulse. In fall of 1959, a sound crew from Universal Studios visited the MSU versus Notre Dame football game and recorded crowd noises that were used in “Spartacus.” The actor who played Julius Caesar in that film, John Gavin, coached the crowd of 76,000 in mass chants such as “Hail Crassus” and the classic line, “I’m Spartacus.”

In September 2010, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1960 release of “Spartacus,” the MSU Archives put on a display of documents and photos from that day in 1959. City Pulse took note of the exhibit and told the story of the football game in a Sept. 15 story.

Douglas himself graciously contributed to the story, with a letter that read, “My best wishes to Michigan State University and to the readers of City Pulse.” The letter can be viewed in the slideshow above. 

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