Michael Douglas's Second Chance
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Credit: Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images

Michael Douglas says things have changed. He says that he's now just another stay-at-home dad minding his two kids while the wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones – you may have heard of her – does eight shows a week on Broadway. He says the Jets matter more than the Academy. He says his hurricane-eye days are over. He says he has slowed down.

And then you spend some time with him.

Yoko says hello. Spider-Man thanks him for making him less of a prick. The secretary-general of the United Nations develops a man crush. Tabloid reporters are dodged. Dad arrives on a private plane. Wife gooses him at Lincoln Center.

It's not all smiles. It never has been. A son goes to jail. A lump is found in a throat.

Things have not changed. But time is more precious.

Douglas emerges from an elevator in his Central Park West apartment building trailed by the royal mane that has launched a half-dozen $100 million–grossing pictures. It's gone gray but is gloriously intact. ("I do a lot of hair acting," he'll joke later.)

He's dressed in a smart gray suit, white shirt, and blue tie. At 65, Michael Douglas is all economy of movement; he glides. Followed by his assistant, Allen, and driver, Thomas, he climbs into the back of a black SUV. He clutches a folder containing his talking points on nuclear disarmament for his speech tonight at the UN. "Hope you don't mind if I take a look at this," he says apologetically. "I get nervous before I speak to these guys."

He then makes a call back to the homestead.

"Hey. How's he doing? Better? Okay, I'll check in later."

The speech is forgotten for a minute. "My son is having problems with his math homework," Douglas explains. "He's 10. He doesn't like school. You ask him his favorite subject and he says, 'Dismissal.' Sometimes he works himself into a stomachache over it. I used to be that way about acting."

This family moment is fraught with unwanted significance. His parenting skills have become public sport since his oldest son, Cameron, 31, was arrested in 2009 and then convicted in April on drug-trafficking charges. Douglas was mocked in the tabloids for being simultaneously absentee and meddling, coordinating a letter-writing campaign to Cameron's judge, asking for leniency. (It worked: Cameron's sentencing guideline was for 10 years; he'll do five.)

But now Douglas has to go public. He is starting to promote Wall Street 2, a reprise of his signature role – a blitz that will be sharply curtailed in August when he begins throat-cancer treatment. This time around, Gordon Gekko pays for being an absentee father. This means entertainment TV will have a ready excuse to work the conversation around to Cameron, whether Douglas likes it or not. As a preemptive move, he went on 'Today' 48 hours ago, saying, "I've taken blame about being a bad father. I'm willing to take the hit."

Douglas shoots a glance at his watch and furrows his brow. "Hey, we're going to be too early," he says. "That's not allowed. Tommy, pull over here and we'll have a drink."

Douglas is now AARP-eligible, but he can still silence an Irish bar when he walks through the door. Heads turn. A barmaid drops a glass. Someone whispers, "Gekko." I order a vodka tonic. "I'll have one of those as soon as this speech is over," jokes Douglas, nursing a soft drink. "It hasn't been an easy month."

A television blares sports highlights. "The older I get, I watch more sports than movies," says Douglas, who counts Jets owner Woody Johnson as a close friend. "You don't know how they're going to turn out. Movies, you know." He flashes a sad star smile.

Douglas was once a Hollywood insider but he says those days are long gone. "I don't really follow the movie business that closely anymore." He proves it as the conversation wanders to 'No Reservations,' a film his wife made with Aaron Eckhart. "I don't think that film was ever released," says Douglas. (It was, in 2007, and grossed $93 million.)

We head back to the car. A few minutes later, we arrive at the United Nations, where Douglas is greeted not as a dilettante do-gooder but as the esteemed Ambassador from the United States of Hollywood. He gracefully maneuvers past apparatchiks with camera phones. A short man with eyebrows at sixes and sevens intercepts Douglas.

"Michael, so good to see you again," shouts UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon above a cocktail crowd in the UN lobby. "Thank you for coming."

Douglas and Ki-moon embrace. Douglas is ushered to the side of a podium in a room hung with artwork depicting nuclear devastation. He listens as emissaries from Hungary and Indonesia speak in bureaucratese about the need to stop a new wave of nation-states from obtaining nuclear weapons. The boozed-up crowd isn't paying much attention – even the altruistic get bored – but goes quiet when Douglas is introduced.

"My father had a bomb shelter in the back of his yard in California," says Douglas in a controlled voice. "The nightmarish quality of nuclear weapons has haunted me ever since. I see no reason why our children should bear the same burden."

The crowd listens intently as Douglas speaks for five minutes. He ticks off statistics – a policy wonk with better cheekbones. When he's done, everyone claps. Douglas says thank you and exits stage left. We jog back to the car. There's one more stop to make. The SUV winds its way across town toward Fifth Avenue.

"It's Mayors for Peace," says Allen. "They're here in New York for the non-proliferation meetings. This shouldn't take long."

Not exactly. Douglas steps out of the car and right into the microphone of a Fox News reporter.

"Michael, can I get just one minute?"