Michael Douglas: Running on Basic Instincts

UPDATED: May 21, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 2, 2014
Michael Douglas: Running on Basic Instincts

To remind yourself of what makes Michael Douglas a great actor, search YouTube for some highlights from his 50 or so movies. Start with the “greed is good” speech from Wall Street, the 1987 film that earned Douglas a best-actor Oscar. Follow that with the Fatal Attraction scene in which he threatens to kill Glenn Close if she tells his wife about their affair—and somehow still seems sympathetic. Watch Douglas interrogate Sharon Stone in the notorious leg-crossing scene in Basic Instinct for proof he brings out the best performance in everyone around him. His seductive charm is on full display when he dances with Annette Bening in The American President, while he abandons likability in Falling Down and turns ordering a restaurant breakfast into a stunning depiction of impending madness. And in his recent triumph in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Douglas dons sequins, rhinestones and ermine—then sheds them all to expose the fragility behind Liberace’s flamboyance when he gazes at himself in the mirror without his toupee.

To understand how Douglas has sustained A-list longevity for decades in an extraordinarily fickle industry, you’ll want to look at a couple of YouTube moments from real life. Receiving the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 2009, he sits beside his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, throwing kisses at the Hollywood luminaries—Bening, Stone, Kathleen Turner, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito—who are paying homage to him. Then his father, Kirk Douglas, takes the stage, his speech impaired from a 1996 stroke but still a commanding presence at 92. “I’m so proud of my son Michael,” he says. “I don’t really tell him that very often.”

The camera turns to Douglas to catch his reaction. His eyes water; his jaw trembles; he swallows hard a few times. He’s like every son who has struggled to win the approval of an adored but difficult father.

Two years later, Michael Douglas walks onstage at the Golden Globes. He’s gaunt, the toll of his recent battle with cancer apparent. The celebrity audience rises and cheers, standing for minute after minute. Douglas takes it in, then hushes the crowd and lightens the moment with a deadpan delivery of the perfect line: “There’s got to be an easier way to get a standing ovation.”

The drive to step outside the shadow of his legendary father and the ability to confront hard times with grace are two themes that have characterized every stage of Douglas’s life, from his early days as a TV star and upstart producer to now, one of the most prolific periods in his career. He is currently hitting theaters in And So It Goes, a romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner where he discovers late-in-life love with Diane Keaton. He is producer and star of the upcoming thriller The Reach. And next summer, in his first foray into the world of comic-book superheroes, he plays scientist Hank Pym, who invented the size-shrinking serum in Marvel’s Ant-Man.

But as Paul McCartney sadly noted after losing his wife, Linda Eastman, to breast cancer: Nobody gets to live a perfect life. It’s a belief that Douglas shares. “In movies or in life, you can’t control everything,” says the actor, chatting from the home he shares with Zeta-Jones and their two children in Bedford, N.Y., an affluent hamlet about an hour north of Manhattan. “Things happen. When there’s a good wind behind you, sailing is a breeze. But how you conduct yourself during the difficult times is what’s really important. That’s what separates people.”

A lot has happened to Douglas in the past few years. While he was going through his grueling treatment for stage 4 cancer (although first reported as throat cancer, Douglas later revealed it was tongue cancer), his older son Cameron was sent to prison for dealing drugs. Ex-wife Diandra Douglas sued him, demanding half of his earnings from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the 2010 sequel to Wall Street (the case was eventually dismissed). He and Zeta-Jones separated, with daily tabloid reports that divorce was inevitable.

“I use the surfer analogy,” Douglas says. “You watch those surfers out there paddling on their boards, and then all of sudden the waves come. They usually come in sets of five and seven. You ride the waves, and then there’s a lull. I’m pretty sensitive to rhythms, and I felt very, very fortunate in my life for an extremely long period of time. When I hit the adversity of my son being incarcerated and my stage 4 cancer, I kind of took the philosophical point of view that I was cruising for a bruising. Life has been good, and as McCartney said, there will be those times.”

“A strategically lucky break” is how Douglas describes his good fortune at being cast in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco at age 27. But like many turning points in his career, there was canny decision-making at play. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Douglas worked in summer stock, off-Broadway and on television in CBS Playhouse Productions. “Movies, however, were not going so well,” Douglas says. (Anyone remember him in 1970’s Adam at Six A.M. or 1971’s Summertree? Didn’t think so.)

After appearing in an episode of The FBI, Douglas was offered the chance to co-star as a rookie detective to Karl Malden’s veteran cop in a new police drama with a guarantee of 26 episodes the first year, rather than the customary eight or 12. Douglas said yes. “Early in my career I’d always thought, Oh, I’m going to be in movies like my father,” Douglas says. “But even though this was reverting back to television, I knew it was a phenomenal opportunity. I think, whatever business you’re in, we all get chances. The key is knowing when to take advantage of them.”

The Streets of San Francisco, debuting in 1972, was a huge hit, making Douglas an international star. Just as important, Malden became an invaluable mentor. “Usually on those TV police detective shows, the second lead was always two steps behind the star and shot in soft focus,” Douglas says. “But Karl said, ‘Hey, buddy boy, stand up in front with me.’ I learned from Karl that it does no good for you to shine alone. The project is the only thing that counts.”

Still, after four years, Douglas asked Malden and the producers if they’d release him from the series. He hoped to bring the Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the screen. His father had bought the rights to the book in the early ’60s when it was still in galleys, with the idea of starring as McMurphy. But more than a decade had passed, and he hadn’t found a film studio willing to finance the project. (A failed Broadway version of the novel didn’t help.)

“I’d never thought of being a producer, but I loved the book so much I asked my father if I could run with it,” Douglas says. “I was a major TV star, and I was being compensated very well. Everyone thought I  was pretty much out of my mind to take the gamble.” But Douglas says he is by nature a risk-taker. “Most of my career has been flying without a net. I think to have any degree of success you’ve got to have pretty good instincts, and you’ve got to be able to trust your first instinct. That’s not to say you don’t question it or think it over, but as far as a batting average, my first instincts have usually been right.”

Three years later, Douglas had a Cuckoo’s Nest deal in place with United Artists. By then his father, nearing 60, was considered too old to play McMurphy. The director, Milos Forman, had someone else in mind—Jack Nicholson. “There was a lot of tension over the years with my father because of that,” Douglas says. “But there would have been a lot more tension if the movie was not successful. I shared a part of my producing deal with my father. Financially, he did very well.”

The 1975 movie swept the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, and at 31, Douglas was in hot demand. But only as a producer. “Here I was an Academy Award-winning producer, but I still was not perceived as a film actor.” Back then, Douglas says, the prevailing wisdom was, If people can see you for free on television, why would they pay to see you in the movies? His strategy was to produce movies that had roles for him, like The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. Yet when he produced the 1984 science-fiction movie Starman, investors balked at Douglas in the title role. Instead, Jeff Bridges got the part and an Oscar nomination.

As a producer, Douglas was a rarity, turning out movies that were both box-office hits and critically acclaimed. He was still in his 30s when he was asked to run Universal Studios. He said no. “I was certainly flattered,” Douglas says, “but I  couldn’t imagine myself in that kind of corporate structure. I  had an independent spirit, and I didn’t see myself being an inside man.”

His instincts and persistence would soon pay off again. In 1987 Douglas starred in two movies that established him, without doubt, as a bankable star. Fatal Attraction, the highest-grossing movie of the year worldwide, opened in September; three months later came Douglas’s Oscar-winning turn as Wall Streets Gordon Gekko. Other huge hits followed through the next few years, including Basic Instinct, Disclosure and The War of the Roses.

He had his flops, too—like Wonder Boys. Released in 2000, the movie about an English professor mired in a midlife crisis earned tepid reviews and fizzled at the box office. “It was a huge disappointment,” Douglas says, and one that he acknowledged crushed his confidence.

But that year was a joyful one on the personal front. Douglas married Catherine Zeta-Jones and at age 55 became a father for the second time, to their son Dylan; their daughter Carys came along three years later. (His son Cameron, with ex-wife Diandra, was born in 1978.)

Then, a decade later, director Steven Soderbergh offered Douglas the role of Liberace. “When I’m reading a piece of material, I want it to move me emotionally in some way,” he says. “Does it make me laugh, scare me, make me cry?” The script for Behind the Candelabra passed his gut-check. What’s more, in Matt Damon he had a co-star he admired, and Douglas was eager to work with Soderbergh again—Douglas had gotten rave reviews for their Traffic collaboration. “It was a great part,” Douglas says, “and those don’t come along too often.”

Douglas was happily married, with two young children at home and one of the best roles he’d been offered in years. He was riding the waves.

And then the seas grew stormy.

In April 2010, Cameron Douglas, then 31, was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of heroin and dealing crystal meth. A chronic substance abuser, Cameron had been kicked out of school for selling pot when he was 13. He moved on to heroin and was shooting up seven times a day when he became a crystal-meth dealer to support his habit.

As devastating as this five-year prison sentence was, Cameron’s situation got worse. He was about to begin a nine-month rehab program when his urine tested positive for opiates. This time, the judge threw the book at him, extending his sentence by 4½ years and ordering him to solitary  confinement.

A few months after Cameron was sentenced, Douglas learned he had stage 4 cancer. He had been feeling ill for a while with a tooth that constantly ached. After rounds of antibiotics prescribed by a periodontist and an ear-nose-throat specialist failed to relieve the pain, Douglas saw a third doctor, this one in Montreal. Examining Douglas’s mouth, the doctor spotted a walnut-sized tumor at the base of his tongue and immediately ordered a biopsy.

Two days later Douglas got the diagnosis. He dealt with it like a producer—pragmatically. “I’m definitely a positive person. You get a diagnosis; you get a plan for your recovery. Obviously mortality issues cross your mind, but I certainly didn’t dwell on them. Let’s do our chemo and radiation, see where we are, and then I’ll get philosophical.” The treatment was punishing. Douglas dropped 45 pounds, lost his ability to swallow and subsisted for a while on a liquid diet. When it was over, he went back to work.

Behind the Candelabra was a smash, earning Douglas an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. When he accepted his best-actor statues, along with thanking Damon with bawdy double entendres, he spoke out for Cameron. “In my son’s case, he has spent almost two years in solitary confinement, and right now I’m being told I cannot see him for two years,” Douglas said backstage at the Emmys. “I’m questioning the system. Obviously at first I was certainly disappointed by my son, but I’ve reached a point now where I’m very, very disappointed with the system.”

Since that speech, Cameron has been moved out of solitary confinement and Douglas has seen him. “He’s holding up all right. He’s scheduled for release in 2018. That will be almost 10 years in prison, so obviously I’m hoping for an earlier release.”

Douglas has become an advocate for reducing prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. “We’re a country that represents 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world. In our penal system, drug addicts are being thrown into prison alongside violent, hardcore criminals. It’s costing us a tremendous amount of money for incarceration with very little in the way of rehabilitation.”

And So It Goes includes scenes shot in the lakeside city of Bristol, Conn., in July 2013. Douglas was still going for regular scans to make sure his cancer hadn’t returned; so far so good. But there was more. In the spring, Catherine Zeta-Jones had checked herself into a treatment facility to deal with her bipolar disorder. That summer, hitting a rough patch in their marriage, the couple had separated. Still, Rob Reiner says he found Douglas much the same as he’d been in the early 1990s, when he directed the star in The American President. “Michael is the consummate professional,” Reiner says. “He’s able to compartmentalize things in a way that allows him to function and be responsible and still deal with the stuff he’s going through. It’s amazing.”

Douglas says that he inherited a “stiff upper lip” from his British-born mother. “It’s an English quality,” he says, “a ‘never let the troops see you waver’ kind of thing. There are people who fall apart when they face adversity, but that always seems to me like too much of an extreme. I always felt like you want to hold onto the Ferris wheel and not get thrown off. Even if you’re clawing your way back and it’s by your fingertips, you want to hold on.”

Today, almost four years after his cancer diagnosis, Douglas can loosen his grip. “I’m clean as a whistle,” Douglas says. “With this type of cancer, when you’re three years out, the odds are 95 percent that it will never come back. You always have to keep your eyes and ears alert to it popping up somewhere else, but I feel good. I’m in good shape.”

Douglas, 69, does acknowledge that cancer has changed him in some ways. For one thing, touched by the support of his family and friends, he’s working harder on relationships, including his marriage—he and Zeta-Jones have reconciled. “One of the lessons I’ve learned is sometimes you make the most effort with the people that you least know, and the people you know best you take for granted.” He wants to spend time with his younger children, mindful of how he was away on location during much of Cameron’s childhood and how little he saw his own father after his parents divorced when he was 6.

“My son is 13, my daughter is 10, and I  know how quickly these years go by before they are going to be totally absorbed by their peer group. This is a time when as a parent you can still have some influence and create a bond of closeness.”

He is also thinking about a legacy that has nothing to do with film. Ever since 1979, when he made The China Syndrome, with its terrifying scenario of a safety meltdown at a nuclear power plant, Douglas has crusaded on nuclear issues. “I  would love to see in my lifetime the elimination of nuclear weapons. In the meantime, a decrease in these weapons seems a very real possibility.” Named a “messenger of peace” by the United Nations in 1998, he sits on the boards of the Ploughshares Fund and Ted Turner’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, two organizations working toward nuclear  disarmament.

“There’s a Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, which means to repair the world,” Douglas says. “It’s an idea that was handed down from the Old Testament. I want to do my part.”