In the most inspired grownup casting coup since Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie, Michael Douglas, 74 (Fatal Attraction), and fellow Oscar winner Alan Arkin, 84 (Argo, Little Miss Sunshine), costar as actor Sandy Kominsky and his best friend and agent Norman in the new Netflix show The Kominsky Method, Douglas’ first TV series role since The Streets of San Francisco (1972-79) and his first-ever comedy-drama devoted to the subject of aging.
“I knew it was going to be good when Alan and I did a scene at the old Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank Grill — we’d had one meal together, and you watch the scene and you really believe we’ve been friends for 40 years,” says Douglas, who finally got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last week after 50 years in the business. “We play actors who came out to L.A. in the ’70s, and Norman [Arkin] wasn’t as successful, so he became an agent, an owner of a fairly major agency. My career seemed very optimistic at the beginning, but didn’t turn out like I’d hoped, nor did my marriages.”
Now they’re like an old couple who quarrel lovingly and inseparably. When Sandy accuses Norman of sugarcoating his rejection for a job by claiming they want him for walk-on parts later, Norman says, “I’m not sugar-coating it. I’m lying!” When Sandy introduces his new love interest Last Man Standing’s Nancy Travis, 57), Norman tells her, “You can do better than him.”
The show, by The Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre, 66, has lots of prostate jokes: Norman has lines like, “I urinate in Morse code — dots and dashes.” Douglas’ oldest real-life pal, Danny De Vito, 73, plays his chipper urologist. (Other guest stars include Ann-Margret, 77, Patti LaBelle, 74, Jay Leno, 68, and Psych’s Corbin Bernsen, 64.)
“But it’s not just about the physicalities of aging, like a lot of the shows about aging are,” Douglas says. “It’s about a long-standing friendship, a bit like Grumpy Old Men.” Though it’s relationship-based, like his The China Syndrome costar Fonda’s show with Tomlin, it’s quite different. “Mostly, it’s a tonal difference,” he says. “Theirs is a bit broader.” Grace and Frankie is more like a traditional sitcom, while Kominsky Method creator Lorre is trying to grow his talent by branching out from sitcoms (like his flop show about pot culture, Disjointed) into a show that’s more like an eight-hour indie film — kind of like the great films Douglas used to do before trends forced him (and other A-list actors) to switch mostly to superhero epics (Ant-Man, in which he’s the first Marvel actor ever de-aged by CGI technology so that he looks 30 years younger) and prestige TV (Behind the Candelabra won him an Emmy).
“Chuck Lorre is fascinated with the humor of getting old, so I’m very happy to work with him — or with anybody on anything!” Douglas says. “He’s a compassionate man who finds his humor out of the foibles, the reality of what the character is doing, rather than just going for the joke.” The comedy often takes a back seat to heart-touching drama. “We start off a comedy with our costar Norman’s wife dying of cancer and end the episode with us not being able to find our way out of the hospital. I admire Chuck’s ability to juxtapose situations the way it is in real life. They never seem to acknowledge it at Oscar time, but comedy is much more difficult to do than drama.” The Kominsky Method skillfully combines both.
Douglas went back to TV as part of his rejuvenating quest to keep his art fresh. “I’m learning something about comedy. Alan came out of Second City [the Chicago-based improv troupe], so he has an impeccable sense of timing, and Chuck was a professional jazz musician, a guitar player, and his writing has a simplicity about it.” Douglas’ role model — his dad, Kirk Douglas, 101 — had a similar indefatigable ambition as an actor and producer, and also did a buddy comedy in his 70s (Tough Guys with Burt Lancaster). “My dad has one message: Work out,” Douglas says. “He’ll be 102 in December, and he still has a trainer come in. When he was 90, I went to see him, and he was kind of depressed. ‘Aw, Mike Abrams died’ — his trainer for 40 years, who died at 94.” Kirk isn’t depressed nowadays. “I’ve introduced him to FaceTime, he loves to see me and see his grandchildren. But he gets the time zone mixed up, and sometimes calls us on the East Coast at 10 p.m.”
With movie box-office grosses of more than $2 billion, Douglas doesn’t have to work as hard as he does or learn new skills like TV comedy and acting against a blank green screen in Marvel blockbusters. But he cautions others to think twice about retiring and getting stuck, ceasing to grow. “Unless you’re forced out of a job or forced into retirement, you sure as hell better know what you want to do. If you don’t figure out how you want to spend your time, things begin to metastasize very quickly.” As for him: “I’m working on my craft. I’m so excited by the fact that I’ve picked up something new — comedy — and I’m learning something. I mean, I think it’s very important for everybody.”