As the 1960s dawned, Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas became a screen legend with a single role, in the historical epic Spartacus. At around the same time, Johnny Cash, a larger-than-life country-music star, would make an inauspicious big-screen debut in Five Minutes to Live, with results that would suggest he was a much more effective singer than actor. By the time their paths crossed onscreen in the 1971 western A Gunfight a decade later, Douglas was a respected film icon and Cash was the star of his own network TV series, as well as one of the most popular musicians on the planet.
Kirk Douglas, who died Wednesday at 103, would not only earn a reputation as a fine actor, but also as a savvy film producer. Shooting A Gunfight in Spain, the project was funded by the Jicarilla Apache, the first instance of a Native American tribe financing a major Hollywood production. The film featured the two portraying aging gunslingers in what amounted to a two-character study focused on their inevitable duel, which was staged in a bullfight arena.
A year before the film’s release, Douglas was spotlighted in an episode of ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, which aired February 4th, 1970, exactly 50 years ago this week. As the two chat about Douglas’ first-ever visit to Nashville, the actor lauds Cash for his songs and their appeal to not only the people who live in the South, but also to those in the flyover states of Middle America. “I’m glad to be here and find out Nashville, Tennessee, is real and Johnny Cash is for real,” Douglas says. He also hopes that, during the time the two are making A Gunfight, which would be shot in the summer of 1970, he’ll be able to learn some of Cash’s songs, several of which he references in a funny, rapid-fire monologue. Cash then plays and sings the chorus of “I Walk the Line,” with Douglas repeating the lines back, before finishing with a spirited train whistle imitation.
One year later, the two reunited to promote the release of A Gunfight with an entire episode of the music series devoted to the Old West and featuring a plethora of stars from Western films and TV series. In addition to footage of Cash ambling across a film set, performing “The Streets of Laredo,” there’s a barroom scene with Douglas and Cash (with the bartender played by one of the show’s regulars, Harold Reid of the Statler Brothers). Played mainly for laughs, the Old West saloon scene features Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Petticoat Junction star Edgar Buchanan, and Bonanza’s Lorne Greene.