Michael Douglas: One Hell of a Year
It’s a cold, wintry day, on Nov. 16, as this reporter approaches the looming edifice overlooking New York’s Central Park where Michael Douglas has lived on and off for the past 20 years.
It’s hard not to be nervous. For months, the tabloids have been filled with sordid tales proclaiming his imminent demise, following his surprise announcement in August that he had cancer of the tongue. The actor, 66, hasn’t yet been seen in public — except through the lenses of paparazzi who wait outside his building — since the premiere of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps on Sept. 20.
Last time I saw him, when he received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2009, he was glowing. But recently he’s been recuperating from three chemotherapy sessions and seven weeks of radiation, so it’s inevitable that dark thoughts cross my mind as I enter his rather nondescript lobby and approach a slightly bemused doorman.
“Is this where Michael Douglas lives?” I ask.
He nods suspiciously before letting me into a lofty elevator, swishing shut a metal gate and whisking me to Douglas’ floor — and suddenly, there he is. The man himself. Standing behind him is his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
All my fears vanish.
Douglas smiles, looking surprisingly well, with his trademark thick hair all there on his head. “I’m happy to be feeling the way I do today,” he says, ushering me in, zipping up a casual sweater. Then he adds wryly, alluding to his treatments, “as opposed to how I felt a week ago.”
Forget everything you’ve read about Douglas. Forget the horror stories that he has “three months to live,” “might die before New Year’s Eve” and that his chances of surviving are now “a grim 20 percent,” headlines that have led Hollywood to speculate about his health and future.
The man is fully alive, alert, deeply intelligent and in person nothing whatsoever like the haggard figure that graces the National Enquirer and its kin. He has to sip frequently from a drink to ease the dryness in his mouth, but that distinctive voice is seductive as ever.
True, he has lost weight; and true, he seems a bit frail, as if recuperating from a bad cold — quite a contrast to the dominant figure of Gordon Gekko he resurrected in Wall Street 2 and even to the embattled figure he plays in his other Oscar contender, Solitary Man.
But for someone who has just come through chemotherapy and radiation — “five days a week,” he notes — he’s in remarkably good shape and spirits.
His intensely loyal publicist has warned me in advance of this, his first major interview since announcing the cancer, that Douglas might have trouble speaking. Just the opposite: For an hour and a half, he talks about almost everything — his family; his wife; Life, the Keith Richards autobiography he’s been reading; the anger that once possessed him; and his refusal to succumb to any easy faith, despite others’ pleas that he should be “getting down on my knees.”
As he eases into a plush green armchair in the corner of his living room — comfortable, but extremely non-Martha Stewart — he admits going through chemotherapy has been a “hellhole,” made all the worse by the photographers who stalk his building so intensely that he can’t even go out for a walk — a real blow to someone who, in his youth, “used to burn at all ends.”
On the other hand, it also has brought him closer to many people, including his famous father Kirk, with whom he once had a contentious relationship.
More than telling his wife and children about the cancer, he says, “I was worried about my father — and he couldn’t have been sweeter. He really made an effort. He was back here almost 10 days. He came over every day. He was great. He and my stepmother, they’re a tough, strong bunch.”
So is Michael Douglas.
That was reflected in the way he and his publicist, Allen Burry, handled the news of his illness, going public early, giving an interview to People and making a TV appearance on David Letterman. But since then, the treatment has made it difficult for Douglas to talk, even with two performances in Oscar contention and movies he’s so proud of.
“[All the interviews were] planned for much later, before anyone knew what was going on,” Burry says. “So we had to move things up. Letterman just happened to have a cancellation; it was difficult enough to get through that. Normally, they do a pre-interview with one of the producers — he couldn’t because it was a really difficult day. So they just winged it.”
Even setting up this interview has been delayed because Douglas wasn’t feeling well enough. Following the initial spate of publicity for Wall Street 2, there has been no word from him — at least publicly. And yet he’s been hiding nothing, characteristically.
“Michael is one of the most authentic people I know,” his Fatal Attraction producer Sherry Lansing says. “Our friendship is something I can count on in good times and bad. When this happened, my respect and admiration, if possible, only grew. I’ve never seen anyone handle the disease with such openness and transparency — though one shouldn’t be surprised; that’s how he’s handled his whole life.”
Amazingly, Douglas expresses a certain gratitude about his current situation. “After all the adversity I’ve had this year,” he says, “with my health and my son’s incarceration, my ex-wife and the lawsuit — to be able to sit here and talk to you, I’m so happy.”
It has indeed been an annus horribilis. First, his eldest son Cameron, from his marriage to Diandra Douglas, was imprisoned in April on drug-related charges; then there was his discovery that he had Stage 4 cancer; and finally came his ex-wife’s suit demanding 50 percent of his earnings from the Wall Street sequel, dismissed in court the day before we meet.
“I try not to dwell too much on a bad marriage,” Douglas says dryly. “I learned a saying, ‘I wish I got out a little earlier.’ “
His current marriage couldn’t be stronger, according to friends. The day after this interview, the couple will go to a nearby spa for a few days to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.
Right now, they seem utterly at ease. Zeta-Jones, looking just as beautiful in person as onscreen, dressed in an elegant black outfit, fixes me some very British Tetley’s tea, casually laying her hand on Douglas’ shoulder before leaving us alone.
“He’s an extremely strong person, and I love that strength of character, coupled with the reality that he’s sensitive, he’s humble, he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” she says. “But predominantly, he’s a very strong man. This has really helped through these last months. He has never lost that strength.”
Douglas regrets that, because of his physical weakness at the moment, he’s not quite the “Energizer bunny” his wife calls him, especially insofar as it impacts his two young kids.
“The level of chemo, the amount they’re giving you, combined with radiation, was the max they could do in that period of time,” he says. “It’s amazing that they almost have to try and kill you to bring you back.”
Normally, he reads newspapers or scripts and works out most mornings, before devoting his afternoons to being a father; but he says during his illness he encouraged Catherine to take the children (Carys, 7, and Dylan, 10) on a trip to China.
Even while recuperating, he’s kept up with the world outside. “I’m just curious,” he says. “I try to read up on stuff and stay current. I know a little bit about a lot of stuff, but not in any depth.” He remains “fascinated by everything — except the movie business.”
But the movie business remains fascinated by him.
Wall Street 2 came about, he says, when “[Producer] Ed Pressman came to me and said he had been talking with Fox, and ‘Would you ever think about doing a reprise of Wall Street?’ It was a great part. I wasn’t haunted by, ‘You won an Academy Award.’ “
The first time around, his relationship with director Oliver Stone was somewhat “adversarial,” he acknowledges, as Stone prodded him relentlessly to go darker. At one point, he even told Douglas he was acting like someone who’d never performed before. “He was not afraid for me to be pissed at him,” Douglas notes.
This time, working with Stone was easier; indeed, it was the star who persuaded him to direct a script that others had developed, and then got the studio to go with Stone. “I went to bat for him big-time,” he says. “Things have changed in the last few years; it was not a slam-dunk.”
While he maintains that Stone has mellowed, there were some difficult moments, especially when they came to shoot a long speech Gekko delivers at Fordham University.
“He dreaded it,” Stone says. “We were trying to sum up 15 years of malfeasance on Wall Street; I kept changing the dialogue and rewriting. He was upset because he wanted to get it down, and he likes time to prepare. That was rough. He asked me not to change it; I said, ‘I’d love to, but you can either go the old way or the new way, and the new is more accurate.’ And he did.”
Doing so has earned Douglas some of his best reviews. But it’s another film he shot before Wall Street that he cherishes just as much. If the latter was a vast affair with all the studio trappings, Solitary Man — in which Douglas plays a once-successful car mogul whose life has hit the rocks and becomes even more complicated when he sleeps with his wife’s daughter — was far more low-key, made for less than $10 million.
It began with his Traffic director Steven Soderbergh, “who called me one day and said, ‘These writers that I worked with on Ocean’s Thirteen, one of them, Brian Koppelman, has written this piece, and I thought of you.’ It was such good writing and such a great character, flying without a net, in terms of a guy not very attractive. But somehow I felt there was enough of a heart there; that was the rationalization how I could play him.”
It wasn’t easy: A 34-day shoot was cut down to 26 because of the budget; he had to play one six-page scene of dialogue within 24 hours. With only three days of rehearsal, “You jump in. The cast didn’t really have time; the scheduling was too complicated,” Douglas says.
He enlisted his former roommate Danny DeVito to play Jimmy Merino, a restaurant owner and old friend. “It was two days — it was packed. But you know, sometimes just that silence between two people who really know each other, you believe.”
Douglas’ biggest challenge in playing a guy who seems to put himself first at all times was “not softening up; trusting that, as nasty and cold and brutal as he was, that was the only way it was going to work.”
Looking back, he says he’s proud of the picture and pleased with the way Anchor Bay handled its release. “I busted my ass,” he says. “I like the movie a lot.”
It has taken Douglas time to find the sense of accomplishment he has now. “There was certainly anger from the friction of [his parents’ 1951] divorce,” he says. “That gets forgiven sooner than parents would like to think; you move on. But you’ve always got some anger.”
He accepts that his father, now beloved, wasn’t always so. “Kirk didn’t have a lot of friends. A lot of that rage you saw onscreen came from the heart. For many years, I also used anger as a false sense of energy. Eventually you find out this is exhausting.”
The young Douglas’ parents were almost a definition of how opposites attract. “He was the Russian-Jew peasant; she [Diana Dill] was well-bred, private-school and this and that. A lovely lady, super-bright — still pisses me off and does the Sunday Times crossword in ink!”
Growing up in Connecticut and vacationing in Bermuda, where his mother’s roots go back to the 1700s, he was deeply influenced by his stepfather, William Darrid, a much gentler man.
“In those key years, when Kirk was doing five movies a year, if we saw him it was only out of his guilt,” he recalls. “He certainly had the guilt, because his father had abandoned him and didn’t pay any interest. The one thing he wasn’t going to do was exactly what he did.”
Douglas is only too aware that he’s echoed this with Cameron.
“I’m sure it’s not easy, either, being a third generation,” he says. As for his father, “Kirk was all-consumed, was overworked. Probably like myself at a certain time in my life.”
That time began after Douglas’ graduation from UC Santa Barbara, when he was trying to carve a career as an actor, afraid of being “dismissed or rationalized.”
Six years after Kirk gave him the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas got it off the ground as a producer. In his early 30s, he won a best picture Oscar in 1976, launching a career with movies like 1979’s The China Syndrome and 1984’s Romancing the Stone.
His films together have grossed in excess of $3.2 billion; Wall Street 2 alone has made more than $130 million worldwide.
While producing, Douglas was also pursuing a career as an actor, starring on TV’s The Streets of San Francisco and in some minor movies. But he rejects the notion that producing was simply a path to stardom.
“I loved working on drafts, material and having the energy,” he says. “I don’t have that energy to do the first-draft rewrites and work in those partnerships anymore. But I loved the risk.” At the same time, he recognizes, “I didn’t enjoy my acting as much then. When I would do them together, acting would get short-changed.”
Things shifted when Romancing the Stone legitimized him as a major star, but it was the combination of the blockbuster Fatal Attraction and his Oscar-winning role in Wall Street in 1987 that put things “in another gear” professionally.
If any film has defined Douglas, it is the latter. His role as the Machiavellian financier Gekko has become so closely identified with him that, in the flesh, one expects him to project the character’s swagger, when in fact one finds the very opposite.
“When I first met Michael, what was stunning was discovering that he was a very sensitive person,” Zeta-Jones says. “As powerful as he is, his personality didn’t resemble that. He was very simple as a man; he wasn’t overpowering at all.”
If Zeta-Jones didn’t find him overpowering, Douglas clearly was overpowered by Zeta-Jones.
“I fell in love unexpectedly and got married and had a family, which I never anticipated at my age,” he says. “And loved it.”
After almost a decade in Bermuda, the pair returned to New York two years ago, partly because of Wall Street and Zeta-Jones’ stage performance in A Little Night Music and partly to find proper care for their daughter’s dyslexia, a trait Douglas says runs on both sides of the family, though he doesn’t have it.
Very much a family man, he nonetheless acknowledges: “I do think of myself as a bit of a loner, a bit of an independent. I’m one of those people who, when they’re sick, like to curl up and remove myself. I don’t like a lot of people around. There is nothing you can do to help. Catherine has been understanding, fortunately.”
She’ll need to be understanding as he moves beyond the cancer and on to the “third act” of his career.
He already has started preparing for his next role, the title part in Soderbergh’s Liberace, starts shooting in May or June and which will require special prosthetic work as well as musical training. “I’ve got a bunch of tapes of performances,” Douglas says. “I’m thinking; I’m a blank slate. Everything shows me he was a lovely man; I just want to reconfirm that.”
He’s also planning to take his family on a trip around the world. “They’re at a good age where they’d be old enough to understand it but not be torn away from their peer group,” he notes, then quips, “We just have to make sure we have enough stuff to do so we don’t kill each other!”
Both projects, however, are secondary to restoring his health. In January, Douglas will have a PET scan to learn whether his tumor has been eliminated. The prognosis seems good: Doctors at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have told him there’s an 80 percent cure rate — something he and Zeta-Jones focus on, in contrast to the doom-laden tabloids.
“I don’t read any of that stuff, regardless of what it says,” Zeta-Jones says. “Where it does affect me, it’s the fact that Michael is sequestered in the apartment. But he really is on the upward curve now.”
Even so, the illness weighs on him.
He’s received advice from everyone and everywhere. He’s frank about how “religion has certainly been shoved down my throat,” though with a Jewish father and a Church of England mother, he has no formal religion. “I believe there is a spirit within us, which we nurture based upon our efforts and what we bring to the world,” he says. “But it doesn’t come from the outside; it comes from the inside.”
As for the inside and how his illness has affected him, “I haven’t really digested it yet, truth be told,” he says. “As I looked through the stats, I didn’t think of this as life and death; I just saw it as an illness to get over. So I didn’t dig into the bottom of my soul to see what I could see.” He smiles. “It certainly has put a little perspective on mortality, obviously.”
His frankness is disarming. As we wind down our conversation, there’s a directness, an unguardedness, that takes you wholly by surprise.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support,” he says, choking up for the first time. “Cancer has shown me what family is. It showed me a love that I never knew really existed.”