Throughout his 40-plus-year career, actor Michael Douglas personified the modern male in film, as a sensitive youth rebelling against authority, as a middle-aged man grappling with problems of marriage, career and changing times, and as an older adult, still seeking a late-in-life kick or two.
But now Douglas is playing another role, one filled with pride and nostalgia, as he looks back to his beginnings and to a place that shaped him as an actor and a producer.
At a gala fundraiser in New York on Monday, April 16, Douglas will receive the Monte Cristo Award from the Eugene O'NeillTheater Center in Waterford. It's an institution where Douglas, as a college student without purpose, spent three summers, beginning in 1966, at the placid-looking yet artistically exciting campus overlooking Long Island Sound.
"It was the most valuable experience in my professional life," says Douglas in his spacious, elegant, yet family-friendly home on Central Park West. "It taught me more about play structure and the role of an actor. I also had a lot of fun."
At 67, and following his 2010 bout with throat cancer, Douglas is happy to talk about old times.
Growing Up In Connecticut
Michael Douglas grew up the eldest son of legendary film actor Kirk Douglas and actress Diana Dill Douglas. His parents divorced when he was 5. When his mother married Bill Darrid, the family moved to Westport. He was 12. He attended Choate Preparatory School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford.
Douglas went to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara where he says, "I was a hippie and I was doing very well at it, thank you. California in the '60s were exciting times. Politics were raging and the music scene was fantastic. And I was at a school where there were three girls to every boy. I was in Nirvana."
When the college's chancellor demanded that he choose a major or get the heave-ho, Douglas chose "theater" though the subject didn't interest him despite having spent time on his father's film sets. "I would visit him on locations but it was usually a tense situation because he was making pictures.
"The only other time I was on stage was in kindergarten when I played a fairie in a Gilbert & Sullivan show." He still remembers his song, too, singing: "We are dainty little fairies ever dancing....."
Once he became a theater major his stepfather, who was on the board of the then two-year old O'Neill Center founded by his friend George White, suggested to Douglas that he spend the summer there. The young Douglas could help build the much-needed new facilities on campus and perhaps get some acting experience.
"It was a magical place," says Douglas. "First of all, I loved the physicality of construction work. I helped build the amphitheater off the main barn. Secondly, I learned that theater girls were loose."
But the most important thing he learned was that an actor is there to serve the work. "If not me, there are probably 10 other actors who could play a role. But a play is written by a sole figure. Learning that responsibility has served me throughout my career."
He was surrounded by eading figures of the American stage: Lanford Wilson, Israel Horovitz, John Guare and Sam Shepard among them. Douglas got to perform in some of the readings, too, originating the leading role in "Summertree" by Roy Cowen.
It was at the O'Neill where he became friends with actors Raul Julia and Danny DeVito. Douglas would form a life-long friendship with DeVito and the two would cruise New London on Douglas' motorcycle, Devito behind him.
Douglas returned to college where he had leading roles in Shaw's "Candida," Pinter's "The Caretaker" and Pirandello's "Henry IV," among others.
"However absentee my father was when I was younger, he was always there in the audience for all of my college productions — and he saw some real bombs, god bless him."
After college, Douglas headed to New York where studied with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theatre and performed in off and off-off Broadway productions. A TV gig for a CBS Playhouse show called "The Experiment" brought him to Los Angeles.
His first film, "Hail, Hero" was "a difficult experience. I played a college kid with long hair and I had to wear a wig that made me look like Veronica Lake. I thought, 'Man, this is going to be the shortest career ever.' "
But other films followed including "Adam at Six A.M." and the film version of "Summertree." He also started doing episodic television in shows such as "The F.B.I." and "Medical Center."
His first high-profile role was co-starring in the hit cop series "The Streets of San Francisco" with Karl Malden (who was also a recipient of the Monte Cristo Award and who became a mentor for Douglas). "That's when all my O'Neill training came back as we did 26 episodes a year."
He Wants To Be A Producer
In the mid-'70s Douglas' father gave him the film rights to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (Kirk Douglas performed the role on Broadway in 1963.) Five leading actresses turned down the role of the coldly terrifying Nurse Ratched. (Douglas politely declined to say who they were.)
"It was the height of the women's liberation movement and women did not want to be perceived as villains," says Douglas, by way of explaining why the role was so rejected. Louise Fletcher, who eventually landed the part, went on to win the Oscar. So did Douglas as producer, when the film was named best picture of the year and swept the five top award categories, the only other time it did so since"It Happened One Night."
Another film he starred in and produced, "The China Syndrome," would change his life. The 1979 film, with co-stars Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, was about a melt-down at a nuclear power plant.
Twelve days after its opening, there was a partial melt-down at Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa.
"I had no formal religious training — my mother is from the Church of England and my father was a non-observing Jew — but when I heard the news it was like a religious experience. It was like an epiphany. If you remember then, we were being criticized as irresponsible Hollywood types for scaring people with the movie."
The similarities of the film with what was happening in Pennsylvania were eerie. About 90 percent of the film's scenario, says Douglas, reflected what was happening at Three Mile Island.
"The P.R.. guy from Three Mile Island was using the same kind of dialogue the P.R.. guy used in our film." The experience made Douglas embrace the cause of nuclear disarmament.
In the '80s and '90s, Douglas had some of his most iconic film roles, including "Fatal Attraction," "Basic Instinct," "The American President," "Falling Down," "War of the Roses" and "Romancing the Stone."
But his role as financier Gordon Gekko ("Greed...is good") in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" in 1987, would make an indelible impression and earn him his acting Oscar.
But it was frustrating for him to have "drunken Wall Street execs come up to me saying, "You're the Man" or "You're the reason I went to business school" and "You're the man I want to be" — referring to the amoral and ruthless Gekko,
"I would say to them, 'You know I was the villian in that film and the character went to jail.' But they would go, 'Aww, don't worry about that."
So when the F.B.I. asked Douglas to make a public service announcement for aimed at Wall Street execs this year against insider trading — the same crime that brought down Gekko — he was happy to do it.
In recent years Douglas made his mark in films such as the Oscar-winning "Traffic," directed by Steven Soderbergh, "Wonder Boys" and "Solitary Man." He also returned to the Gekko character for 2010's"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."
In 2010, Douglas was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation therapy, he said in an interview last year the tumor is gone. Douglas spent 2011 in a relatively low-key way, but 2012 is shaping up to be active.
This summer he will film a new bio-pic for HBO, "Behind the Candelabra," where he will play the bedazzled entertainer Liberace. Matt Damon will play the entertainer's much-younger, live-in lover, Scott Thorson, in a film directed by Soderbergh and written by Richard LaGravanese ("The Fisher King," "Water for Elephants"). Liberace died in 1987 of AIDS.
"Some friends of mine asked me if I was going to kiss Matt Damon," says Douglas. "Well, that's not all I'm going to do."
After that will be another movie, "Last Vegas," directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Dustin Hoffman and Christopher Walken.
New York, not Los Angeles, is his family's residence — either in Manhattan or in their country home — where he lives with his wife of 11 years, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta Jones, 42, (who looked splendid dressed in a hip black outfit as she was leaving the apartment before the interview with Douglas). They have two children, Dylan, 11, and Carys, who turns 9 this week. "Catherine is currently filming "The Bitter Pill," with Jude Law and Rooney Mara [and also directed by Soderbergh] says Douglas
After decades as a film star and producer he is also looking at the possibility of returning to the stage, something his wife, recently did in a revival of the Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music," for which she won a Tony Award.
And will he turn in his senior years to writing much as his father who is 95, has done in novels and memoirs?
"I have to wait until a few more people die," he jokes. "But I don't think so. Maybe I'll change my mind. But I admire my father, who is finishing his 10th book, 'I Am Spartacus.' He asked me to write an introduction. "Sure, Dad, I'll do it.' But then he called me up two days later, saying "It's all right. You don't have to do it. I got George Clooney.' I said, "Good, Dad, good.' "Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times