My First Cigarette, and My Last

By Kirk Douglas

Saturday, May 31 is World No Tobacco Day. In recognition of this day dedicated to reducing the leading cause of preventable death in the world, the American Lung Association offers this guest column, written by Academy Award winning actor Kirk Douglas, titled “My First Cigarette, and My Last."

(May 30, 2014)

Kirk Douglas
Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas has always been a passionate champion of the causes he believes in, from civil rights to our own Christmas Seals Campaign. His involvement in many humanitarian causes earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981.

My father, a Russian peasant, came to this country in 1910. Like all of his pals, he smoked. It's hard for me to picture my father without a cigarette in his mouth.

After many years of smoking, my father was told by his doctor that he would die of cancer if he did not stop smoking. So he quit cold turkey. Here's how he did it: he always carried one cigarette in the breast pocket of his shirt. When he felt the urge to smoke, he'd take the cigarette out and look at it fiercely. With a growl, he would say, in his Russian accent, ''Who's stronger? You—me?''

He would glare at the cigarette: ''I stronger.'' And he'd put the cigarette back in his pocket. He did that for a few years, but it was too late. He died of cancer at age 72.

During my college years, my Navy service during World War II, and my years as an actor on Broadway, I never smoked. Then Hollywood beckoned, and I answered. My first picture was ''The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers,'' with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin, in 1946. I was intimidated, but proud to be playing the role of Miss Stanwyck's husband. I arrived at the set, very excited, to do my first scene with her. But I had spoken only a few lines when the director, Lewis Milestone, stopped the action and said, ''Kirk, you should be smoking a cigarette in this scene.''

''I don't smoke,'' I replied timidly.

''It's easy to learn,'' he said, and had the prop man hand me a cigarette.

I continued with the scene, lighting and smoking my first cigarette. Suddenly, I began to feel sick to my stomach and dizzy.

''Cut,'' yelled the director. ''What's the matter with you, Kirk? You're swaying.''

I rushed to my trailer to throw up.

But Mr. Milestone was right. It's easy to learn to smoke. Soon I was smoking two to three packs a day.

At that time everyone smoked, and the cigarette was the favorite movie prop. Many actors have trouble with their hands. Should they put them in their pockets? Should they put them behind their back? Do they have them at their sides? The cigarette answered the question. You take one out of the pack, you tap it, light it and inhale deeply. Then you exhale. If you are clever, you can learn to blow smoke rings. You can point with a cigarette. You can tap the ashes into an ashtray, and put it out gently in the ashtray or fiercely—whatever the scene requires. Paul Henreid had a worldwide hit in 1942 lighting two cigarettes at once in ''Now, Voyager.''

When I became famous, tobacco companies supplied me with cartons of cigarettes every month. One day in 1950 I was in my den, smoking as usual. I exhaled and through the smoke I saw a picture of my father on my desk. I thought of him on his deathbed. I stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray. I took one cigarette from the pack and threw the rest in the wastebasket.I held up the cigarette and studied it. My father's words came to me: ''Who's stronger? You—me?''

''I stronger.'' I put the cigarette in my shirt pocket and never smoked again.

Hollywood started me smoking, literally putting a cigarette in my hand. Who knows how many moviegoers have started smoking because of what they have seen on the screen? Too many movies glorify young people smoking. It doesn't have to be this way. I have done at least 50 pictures where I avoided smoking. In one film, ''The Brotherhood,'' I played a Mafia character and chewed on a cigar. In a scene from a film I just did, ''The Illusion,'' when offered a cigarette, I say: ''I don't smoke. I have cancer.''

That's not true for me, thank goodness. But it is true that, like my father, I know I'm stronger than a cigarette.