Skip to content

Michael Douglas — Second Chances

In love with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, he's making the most of his good fortune.

Michael Douglas: Second Time Around


Academy Award winner Michael Douglas has a fresh start with his life and his career

En español  |  Michael Douglas has been to jail. On this cold, gray afternoon, he's just completed the 14-mile roundtrip from his home on Manhattan's fashionable Upper West Side downtown to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where his son Cameron, 31, is being held on a felony drug charge. "It's been very painful," he sighs, settling into a deep red armchair with a cup of coffee. Outside the windows of his apartment, Central Park is a riot of orange and red with the change of seasons. Inside, Douglas, his bright blue eyes clear though a little sad, is dressed all in black—black pants, black knit shirt, black shoes.

It's hard to imagine that the irony of this moment is lost on him. After all, in his next film, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (out April 23), he re-creates one of his most indelible screen roles, that of ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko. At the end of Gekko's first screen incarnation in 1987's Wall Street, he traded his Manhattan penthouse for a federal prison. In the sequel, Gekko is free. What will Gekko do with his second chance? That's the crux of the plot, and for Douglas, 65, who is getting his own fresh start as a husband, father, and son, life right now is all about second chances.

 "My career was the most important thing in my life, followed by marriage and children," he confesses. "And it's completely reversed now. I never anticipated starting a family and the joy of raising kids at my age."

For Douglas, the shot at a fresh start as husband and father came after his 1995 split with his wife of ultimately 23 years, Diandra. He thought he'd settle into the life of a single guy; a permanent relationship "wasn't on the grid," he says. That all changed one day in 1998 as he sat in a darkened Hollywood screening room, watching a new film, The Mask of Zorro.

"I just sat forward," he recalls, "and said, ' Who is that?' "

 "That" would have been 29-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones, making her starring debut in the swashbuckler film. When they met at a film festival later that year, his ardor had not faded. As he often does, Douglas spoke precisely what was on his mind. "I want to father your children," he said.

That went over like a lead soufflé.

"I've heard a lot about you," she responded calmly. "It's nice to know it's all true. Good night." And she was gone.

"Oh," Douglas told himself, "I blew it."

He didn't give up. The next morning Zeta-Jones flew to Scotland's Isle of Mull to shoot Entrapment with Sean Connery; when she arrived she found a huge bouquet of roses. The note read: "I apologize if I stepped over the line."

Apology accepted.

"I was smitten with her, no doubt," Douglas says. The pair spent the following year seeing each other when they could meet in the same time zone. By the time they married in 2000, they had a three-month-old baby boy, Dylan, now nine (they also have a daughter, six-year-old Carys).

Early on, the couple came to terms with the 25-year age gap between them: "Catherine is an old soul," Douglas says. Still, there were complications. Douglas's future in-laws-David, a retired confectioner, and Patricia, both now 62—were three years younger than the groom. "I wasn't quite the son-in-law they'd envisioned," Douglas wryly notes. "I do like to wind up Catherine's father and call him Pops."

He has since learned much about partnership. Douglas credits two of his wife's strengths with making the marriage work: "Catherine has a great sense of humor and is not a demanding person," he observes. As a result he is more patient than he was in his first marriage: "I try to give everybody a little more breathing room."

Zeta-Jones says she has also learned from her husband. "One thing I love about Michael, and there are many, many things, is that he gets things done," she says. "He has educated me on how to conduct a busy life without being so self-centered that everything else goes by the bye."

For nearly a decade, the Douglases lived in Bermuda, where Michael's mother, Diana Dill Douglas, 87, has roots stretching back three centuries. There, Douglas took a laid-back career approach. He explains: "I made a conscious effort, with Catherine being younger in her career, to say, 'Do what you've got to do and I'll follow you.' "

 The family recently moved to their Central Park apartment, which Douglas has owned since the 1980s, so the kids could attend a New York City school that seemed a good fit. At the same time, Douglas was filming Wall Street 2 (Shia LaBeouf costars in the sequel) and did not have to commute for home visits. Shortly after their arrival, Zeta-Jones landed her latest gig, starring in the Broadway musical A Little Night Music. While she's working until after midnight and sleeping late each morning, Douglas is experiencing something of a Mr. Mom quality to his life, waking before 6:00 to help get the kids off to school. "I love to be the first face they see," he says. "It's a selfish pleasure. It's a very special time, the mornings."

Zeta-Jones says that Douglas thrives on his at-home role: "Michael tells me that [new fatherhood] keeps him agile. He's a terrific, extremely hands-on father."

 The same could not be said of him when he was a young father raising Cameron, his only child from his first marriage—a failing that Douglas freely admits. On reflection, he says, "I'll assume whatever responsibilities I have to. Would it have been better to have been around more? Absolutely. There were absences, and I was no angel."

While reveling in his role as a reborn family man, Douglas is reprising his original portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko, a character who personified the arrogance of late-'80s Wall Street, and one that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1988. That coup not only caused his stock in Holly-wood to spike; it had a profound personal impact. "It allowed me to feel like I had finally stepped out of the shadow of my father," Douglas admits. "It also identified me as a seductive villain. It's fun as an actor to be bad, because you get to do things on-screen that people would think about only in their darkest dreams."

Oliver Stone, who directed both Wall Street movies, is bemused by Douglas's penchant for playing charming villains. "Michael has the ability to simulate the toxic ingredients—a reptilian quality to his smile, his eyes—and bring coldness to a character like Gekko," Stone says. "He can shape his voice to be either villainous or entrancing. Some of his greatest roles have been as heels."

The point can't be argued. In 1998's A Perfect Murder (with Gwyneth Paltrow) he played a silky manipulator who masterminds a plot to kill his cheating wife. And who can forget him as the caddish husband in 1987's Fatal Attraction, the movie that put a terrifying spin on one-night stands?

But Douglas has also displayed remarkable range over the years. He's been a romantic lead—most notably opposite Annette Bening in 1995's American President. He has also played cop roles (1992's Basic Instinct) and comic leads (Wonder Boys in 2000). And his next scheduled starring role will shift him from cunning to kitsch, portraying Liberace, with Matt Damon as his young lover.

Douglas has been producing movies almost as long as he's been acting in them, beginning with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975. By wearing two hats—actor and producer—he's enjoyed tremendous financial success and is reportedly worth $200 million. Still, he resisted cashing in on a Wall Street sequel for years, noting that once you've won the gold in Hollywood, the risk is that "it's all downhill from there." Then came Wall Street's meltdowns in 2008, and Douglas—a producer of Wall Street 2—decided the time was right to revisit Gordon Gekko.

While making the sequel, the actor came to realize that bulletproof bravado may still rule, but the financial sector of 1987 and today's gazillion-dollar global markets are worlds apart. "The monies we were talking about then—tens of millions of dollars—are a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions invested today," Douglas says. He took a major hit himself when the market tanked in late 2008, catching him off guard and leaving him wary of the capriciousness of Wall Street. "Look, capitalism is part of our system," he says, "but it's not for the faint of heart."

Re-creating life in Wall Street's fast lane required that Douglas rekindle a professional adrenaline rush, so it helped to have a wife who knows how the business works: "We have a deep understanding with each other rather than having to worry about fulfilling one another's expectations. She knows what it's like to come back at night wiped out. And it's all right to have silences."

 And does his pulse still quicken the way it did in that darkened screening room watching Zorro? "Oh, yeah," he laughs. "At least in your head, your fire burns as brightly. Let's not kid ourselves. But God bless her that she likes older guys. And some wonderful enhancements have happened in the last few years—Viagra, Cialis—that can make us all feel younger."

Douglas stays fit and energized by hiking, diving, and taking family skiing trips near his Quebec farm. But he admits that age has its limitations, in particular when he goes to the gym. "It used to be you got that 30-minute cardio workout and that great sense of euphoria. Now you finish and go, 'Phew, I'm glad that's over.' " One problem this could pose down the road: "I wince when I think I'll be close to 75 when my daughter is 16. I'm not going to be able to physically chase the boys away!"

Luckily, that's not yet a problem. These days, the Douglases' social life often amounts to hanging out with the kids or catching up with friends at a local restaurant. "Catherine's a bit of a loner," notes Douglas. "I guess historically I have been, too." He adds: "You've got these few years of unequivocal love when Mom and Dad can do no wrong. So we're a tight family unit."

It's a different domestic scene from the one Douglas grew up in. His father, Kirk, according to Michael, didn't handle parenting well. "I was the product of a divorced family," he recalls. "My dad was always torn; he was working really hard and would want to see us. But then, with all his Kirk Douglas passion, he'd try to be a father for a week, a summer, whatever. It was tough.

"I think it's easier for me to be a good father. I'm not so concerned about my career," Douglas continues. "I like to be home a lot more now. I see the confidence my kids have got versus the struggle for confidence that I had or that Cameron might have dealt with."

Visiting Cameron at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on this bleak winter afternoon presented an opportunity for Douglas to work on strengthening his relationship with his elder son. He believes Cameron's incarceration may serve as the wake-up call he has needed. "Cameron has a lot of his life ahead," he says. "He now recognizes his own demons and struggles."

Douglas is all too familiar with these demons. "Alcohol was an issue in my life at one point," he says. "A brother died from an overdose a few years ago. Just about any family has someone for whom substance abuse is an issue."

Although Cameron could face ten years to life if convicted of the federal charge he faces—conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine—Douglas remains hopeful: "He's a tough kid." Then, running a hand through his movie-star mane, he sighs and adds, "Still, he's in a federal prison, and you've got some big, bad boys down there."

Determined to stay positive, Douglas is savoring his much-improved family relations, including those with his father, now 93 and living in Los Angeles. He delights in bringing his younger kids to visit Kirk. "It's like a feeling of immortality," Douglas explains. "Just knowing that it's your daddy's daddy really does excite my kids." He says that Kirk, who suffered a stroke in 1996, has fully recuperated and has rediscovered spirituality in his life. "He's a very different person than when he was actively involved in his career," Douglas says. "I'm in awe to be able to watch how I'm going to hopefully conduct my next act."

Kirk himself says he has seen a remarkable change in how Michael relates to his children—and to him. "Michael is more like a father now than he ever has been," he observes. "And Michael is closer to me as we get older."

 This summer, for the Liberace biopic filming, Michael Douglas plans to temporarily relocate his family from New York City to L.A. so they can be closer to his dad and stay together through this new production. With his father and young children separated by nearly nine decades, Douglas is acutely aware of the precious value of time. "I'll be watching my six- and nine-year-olds just take off on their computers," he says. "I'm looking on in complete awe; they're looking at me like I'm a dinosaur. Time is moving fast—it's moving really fast." He pauses, then adds, "I'm just trying to slow it down."

Jim Jerome has written celebrity profiles for People, Ladies' Home Journal, and InStyle.