En español | Michael Douglas is curious. Even though he is a commanding presence in virtually any room, what with the enviable hair and that unmistakable gravel rake of a voice, Douglas, 76, makes a point of asking questions, remembering names, noticing the little things — art hung in back corners, the personal style of a guest (or, in this case, Zoom interviewer). It is a natural wonderment and humility that have served him well over his 50-plus years in show business, where his slippery, urbane charm as an actor and his spot-on instincts as a producer have kept him firmly lodged in the Hollywood pantheon to which he was born, as the elder son of Kirk and Diana Douglas.
When Michael was a child, though, Kirk's movie success was not assured. “People have this idea that I'm part of show business royalty,” Douglas says before clarifying: “I cherish the relationship I had with my father, and I'd love to fulfill the fantasy. But when I was young, he was a working actor and hadn't quite made it yet."
Intimately acquainted with the fickleness and frailty of the actor's life, Douglas made an early choice not to rely on performance alone, bolstering his career behind the camera by investing in and producing films that have uncannily reflected the societal preoccupations of their era, notably 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and 1979's The China Syndrome. He also acted in such cultural harbingers as 1987's Fatal Attraction and Wall Street and 1995's The American President, and he hosted 2019's Unbreaking America: Divided We Fall.
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"I'm a news junkie,” the Oscar and Emmy winner enthuses, explaining how he has stayed attuned to the zeitgeist. “And I've got the common touch. I know what most people feel about stuff.” Douglas is currently tapping into this moment's devastating malaise via his poignant Netflix comedy, The Kominsky Method, in which he plays an acting coach who is past his prime, grappling with the question of what actually matters in the long run of life — interrogations the cancer survivor has fully dissected as he has welcomed a second grandchild, prepares to be an empty nester and, his COVID-19 vaccinations pending, at long last leaves the couch. ("I've never watched more television than in the last year!")
It has been a solemn, sedentary season, and Douglas is eager to travel again, to work, to embrace his friends, to debate and learn and feed his appetites, which remain as keen and varied as ever. “With maturation, you don't necessarily feel a whole lot different from what you felt when you were younger,” he says. “I'm just looking for the joy of a good moment.”
What words would you use to describe yourself as a child?
Shy, introverted, cautious. I didn't have a lot of confidence. My paternal grandfather was a junkman, an immigrant; he didn't speak English or write or read. My father was one of seven children. He met my mother after college; Dad went into the Navy, and we lived in New York in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village. My father was a very intense guy. When he started working in California — those were the days when actors were making five movies a year — the marriage fell apart. I know he loved me, but he felt guilty because his father had abandoned his family, and the one thing Kirk never wanted to do was abandon his children. And he felt like he was doing that. So, it was sort of awkward and tense.
When did you come into your own?
It wasn't until my mother remarried, when I was 13 — to a lovely guy named Bill. He was the first man who listened to me and the first I gained some confidence with. And Kirk was always very grateful to Bill.
Did you have aspirations to act?
I was at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1963, and it was a spectacular time to be out in California. I ended up getting a motorcycle and riding in my velour Renaissance shirts up to San Francisco for rock concerts. Then I got called into the vice chancellor's office: “You've got to declare a major, man.” So I thought, OK ... theater. I must say that my father, Kirk, came to just about every show I did, as busy as he was. And he told me right in the beginning, “Son, you were awful. You just were awful.” [Laughs.]
It seems to have worked out OK.
I had terrible stage fright. I don't know why I did not give it up, but I just ground away for about a year and started to get better.
What was the worst rule to break in your family?
Lying didn't go over too good, even white lies. If you lie, people lose faith in you and it just makes everything more difficult.
So, were you a bit of a straight edge as a young man?
Not really. I was into hot rods, tinkering with cars. I worked at a Mobil station at one point, and my first real award was Mobil Man of the Month. I was also a member of a group called the Down Shifters. A little bit like the Jets in West Side Story: [sings] “When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.” I had a D.A. — when you'd comb your hair to look like a duck's ass — the D.A., we called it. We were known to spend a little time locating automobiles that had parts that we wanted. Not proud about it, but it kept me out of a lot of other trouble.
What is the most important lesson your father taught you?
Whatever you do, make sure you give your best effort and try as hard as you can. And after that, f--k it.
Your first serious TV gig was The Streets of San Francisco, in 1972.
We shot 26 episodes a season, filmed six days a week. It made me appreciate how hard my dad worked, his work ethic. It was also the hardest job for me, somebody who was really shy, who used to look at the camera like an X-ray machine in the dentist's office.
You were mentored by your costar, the incredible Karl Malden.
Those days, when you were the second banana on a police show, usually you were a step or two behind the lead because the focus couldn't hold both actors. Karl was the first guy who said to me, “Come on up.” He shared the spotlight, cared about others, said I was the son he never had. A good mentor can save you a lot of pain.
What was your favorite film or role?
I hate to say it, but I've rarely seen any of my pictures more than once. At the premiere, I just go through the red carpet and then out the back door. I love the process of making films, but I don't dwell. When I've had a good part or good scene, it's usually based on the writing and directing.
For your collaborators and costars, you often choose strong women.
My mother was an actress. I spent a lot of time with her backstage at the theater. So, I've never been threatened by formidable women. I'm proud that for nearly every woman I've worked with, it's been one of her best roles: Kathleen Turner; Geneviève Bujold, way back in Coma; Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction; Annette Bening; Sharon Stone. I try to make the environment as comfortable as possible, give them respect and protection. The Kominsky Method is my fourth time working with Kathleen, and there is a wonderful comfort in that.
You have three children: Cameron, 42, from your marriage to Diandra Luker; Dylan, 20, and Carys, 17, with your current wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. What surprised you most about being a father?
How much of an effort it is. You have to learn patience. We actors tend to be a little narcissistic. I'm now the proud grandfather of two grandchildren [3-year-old Lua and 3-month-old Ryder], from my older son, Cameron. He makes me laugh when I watch him with his kids. He and I had our issues when he was growing up, and it's like, “Ohhhh, now you see” — what it's like to be a parent.
You told this magazine not that long ago that you winced when you thought about being in your 70s and unable to chase the boys away from your teenage daughter.
Well, she's got a steady boyfriend now, who I like. Carys has a great moral compass, a good sense of humor. She sticks to her own rhythm. She and her brother Dylan are good students. I have no idea where that comes from. Catherine doesn't either, but we're very grateful. [Laughs.]
What do you most want your kids and grandkids to learn from you?
A work ethic. Courtesy to your fellow human beings. And kindness. Which are traits you have to work at and rehearse. Particularly compassion — I feel a certain responsibility to conduct myself as somebody who has been blessed and fortunate simply because I was born a white male. And also to teach them to be good citizens of the planet. I'm conscious of us all being in this together.
What's the hardest thing you've had to do as a parent?
Set boundaries, big and small. My older son, Cameron, was a drug addict and ended up serving seven and a half years in federal prison. That was hard, having to protect myself and my family and tell my older son that if you feel like I'm pulling away from you, I am, because I'm afraid you're either going to kill yourself or kill somebody else. That experience with Cameron I don't wish on anybody.
So many families go through issues with addiction.
There is a toughness that's required. But when you reach that point, you're doing it for your child.
What are your feelings about growing older?
During this COVID-19 period, doing much more couch potato–ing, I have been shocked by the reduction of my stamina. And my long-term memory is fine, but my short-term memory is not. I used to blame it on pot. But I've got some friends who've been smoking as long as I have and have fabulous memories, so I don't think that's the issue. I'm researching it, Allison.
Let me know what you find out. Have you become the person you expected you would be?
I wasn't expecting much, so I don't know. [Laughs.] I love my work. It's been good to me. I dwell on that versus my failures in relationships or other things I can't control. I've weathered a lot of crises. But you go through life and inside you feel like the kid that you always were. There is a part of me in my 70s that still feels like the teenager I was back then.
"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way"?
What are you most proud of?
A good batting average in what I do. I'm not necessarily a home run hitter, but I've got a good batting average.
Do you think you'll ever slow down? Stop working?
No! Work keeps you going, keeps you sharp. Of course, these days I'm looking around the set, like, I'm the oldest person here, man. Where did the time go? But I love the whole process. We're not doing brain surgery; we're showbiz. A boundary I do set is “No a--holes.” I don't work with a--holes. I've got no time for that.
Allison Glock is a senior writer and producer for ESPN and a contributing editor for Garden & Gun.