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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."
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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.
"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.