The Cecil B. De Mille Award is a signal honor for anyone in the entertainment business, but Michael Douglas is doubly delighted to be this year's honoree during NBC's telecast of the 61st annual Golden Globe Awards on Sunday.
The Oscar-winning actor ("Wall Street") and producer ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") is the first second-generation De Mille honoree. In 1968, his father, Kirk Douglas, received the same award, which honors "outstanding contribution to the entertainment field."
"I get an extra kick because of my father, because I think it does give you kind of a sense of immortality," the younger Douglas says. "For him to be able to sit there and watch his son pick up a lifetime achievement award, there probably is a wonderful feeling for him -- and certainly for me too, because to be compared to someone like him is a lovely honor too -- even if it's coming much, much too early for me," he says, chuckling.
It's true that, at 59, Michael Douglas is still young and active enough to make a "career achievement" award seem premature. Then again, he already stands with Laurence Olivier as one of the only two people in history to win Oscars in the categories of best actor and best picture, as producer of "Cuckoo's Nest." (Olivier scored both awards for his 1948 "Hamlet.")
Although he grew up surrounded by actors and acting, however, Douglas now says that his entry into the entertainment field was anything but a foregone conclusion.
"My mother is an actress as well," he says of Diana Douglas. "She and my father met in acting school, so in a sense maybe you could say I was destined to become an actor. They met out of a love for acting. Growing up with my mother in Manhattan, I was struck by her love for doing theater and soaps, and my stepfather, who played a very big part in my life, was a Broadway producer.
"But having said that, I was undeclared in college into my junior year, so I was definitely a late bloomer. I had to declare something, and, frankly, I think I picked theater mainly because I thought it would be easy. So it was a growth, a process.... It wasn't something I wished for as a kid."
After attending the elite Choate School, Douglas was accepted at Yale University but passed on the Ivy League in favor of UC Santa Barbara. It was among his first conscious attempts to keep his life on the right track, he says.
"To be honest, I just didn't much like the guy I was turning out to be in those prep schools back East," he reflects. "It was probably one of the first big decisions I ever made, this notion that, 'No, I have to change.' "
California also offered the young actor some new perspective via the burgeoning free-speech movement and controversy over the Vietnam War. He returned to New York, consciousness raised, and paid his dues on stage and in a few early TV and film roles.
In 1972, Douglas bowed as Karl Malden's sidekick in "The Streets of San Francisco," an ABC hit that expanded his fan base. He had a year to go on his contract when he got a shot at a long-held dream project, producing a film version of Ken Kesey's biting novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
"Karl Malden, who has always been a mentor to me, and the producer, Quinn Martin, let me leave ['Streets'] ... to go produce 'Cuckoo's Nest,' which was incredible, because I got an Oscar for that on my first time as a producer," Douglas says.
"As an actor, though, I was still having to make the transition from being a 'TV actor,' with movies like 'The China Syndrome' and 'Romancing the Stone.' The big year for me as an actor was in 1985-86, with 'Fatal Attraction' and 'Wall Street,' but before that, some people actually had asked me why I didn't just give up acting in favor of producing full time."
In addition to his busy acting and producing careers, Douglas today also devotes time to volunteer work for the United Nations (he was named a U.N. Messenger of Peace in 1998), and he and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones recently hosted the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo.
Closer to home, Douglas says his father's stroke in 1995, along with other challenges, have had a powerful effect on his life.
"How that has affected me is ... mainly in how lucky I have been to meet my beautiful wife and started a new family," he says. "You know, at this point in my life, I certainly never anticipated having a 3 1/2-year-old and a 7-month-old.
"To be able to share this award with my family during what is a very beautiful time for us just shows how my priorities have changed very dramatically. Now my wife comes first, and my family, and only then my work, and that is something I am pretty sure I couldn't have said 20 years ago."
John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.
The 61st annual Golden Globe Awards will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on NBC.
Cover photograph by Reuters.