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Michael Douglas on Playing Benjamin Franklin: ‘I Wanted to See How I’d Look in Tights’

Oscar-winning actor portrays the witty Founding Father in new Apple TV+ miniseries “Franklin”

spinner image Michael Douglas on a ship in a scene from Apple TV+ miniseries ‘Franklin’
Apple TV+

Benjamin Franklin helped write the Declaration of Independence, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, became first postmaster general, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals and the lightning rod, was a notable Founding Father, and for more than 25 years under the pseudonym Richard Saunders published the witty Poor Richard’s Almanac. He also spent his mornings in the nude for his “air baths” and wrote the eyebrow-raising essay “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress,” in which he praised the benefits of getting intimate with older women. 

The man was brilliant and complex — and had a special brand of mischievousness that Americans still find charming. Which is exactly why Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas, 79, was so interested in playing him in the Apple TV+ miniseries Franklin, streaming April 12.

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“He was really a Renaissance man. Very bright, but a little bit of a rascal, too. He was a philanderer, liked to imbibe, big flirt. His idea of negotiating was sort of a seduction,” he told reporters at the Television Critics Association Press Tour earlier this year in Pasadena, California. 

The show follows Franklin during his late-in-life ambassadorship in France. In his 70s, with rudimentary French and no diplomatic training, he helped engineer the Franco-American alliance of 1778, securing France’s aid in the American Revolution.

“The Continental Congress decided, we need Ben, well known around the world, to do sort of an undercover diplomatic trip to France at 70 in 1776,” Douglas says. “We desperately needed weapons and cash. Otherwise the British would have beaten us and that would have been that. It was just a reminder, how precious democracy is, and how easy it is to lose it — how fragile it is.”

spinner image Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin and Noah Jupe leading a group of people in a scene from Apple TV+ miniseries ‘Franklin.’
Douglas, seen here with co-star Noah Jupe, tackles the role of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin in the new Apple TV+ miniseries ‘Franklin.’
Apple TV+

Franklin was written by Kirk Ellis, screenwriter of John Adams, the 2008 HBO miniseries, and based on bestselling author Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America. Douglas researched the Founding Father and became fascinated by him.

“Male or female, he could identify very quickly the foibles of somebody, whether it was flattery or something else,” Douglas says, “and make them all feel like they were Ben’s best friend — even though he had other ulterior motives. I’ve always sort of been attracted to those characters that are in the gray area. I always like people to have a little dark side to them.”

In that, Franklin was like a lot of Douglas’ characters in the 1980s and ’90s — his devilish Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, the haunted Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction and dirty cop Nick Curran in Basic Instinct. And he recently took to Instagram to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Romancing the Stone, in which he played a brash bird hunter opposite Kathleen Turner. The choice to portray the multifaceted Franklin was a natural one. 

“I’m sort of at a point in my career where I’m trying different things," he says. After dipping his toe in Marvel movies like the 2015 Ant-Man and comedy in the award-winning The Kominsky Method, he realized he hadn’t done a period drama in his close-to-60-year career: “I wanted to see how I’d look in tights. Thank God I didn’t have to wear a wig!”

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