Men think they are a world unto themselves. The past is the past. We are not doomed to repeat it. And then it kicks in. You realize you are just your father's son. You have the same handwriting, the same smile, and the same ghosts. Michael Douglas is no different; it's just more public.
Douglas has spent his entire life seeing his achievements refracted through the exploits of his father, Kirk Douglas, the world's most virile nonagenarian. The son is now 65 and a two-time Oscar winner, but "How's your dad?" is the first question asked by most interviewers, myself included. Their paths are eerily the same, down to the late-in-life proclamation of downshifting and reflection. (Kirk started writing the first of three memoirs in his 60s.)
Now Michael Douglas's life is refracted through the crimes of his own son. It's not how he wanted it to go. Then again, Douglas's childhood didn't go as planned either. His paternal grandfather was Herschel Danielovitch, a Russian immigrant prone to rages and silences, excruciatingly detailed in Kirk Douglas's memoir, 'The Ragman's Son.' Kirk swore he would raise his sons differently. But by the time Michael was six, Kirk, who had made a name for himself in theater, had separated from actress Diana Dill, Michael's mom, and headed to Hollywood while his kids stayed in New York. Kirk is now 93, so folks have forgotten his sharp edges, but he was notoriously hot-tempered and difficult to work with. Kirk writes in his memoir of his swordsman skills, including tales of wooing young Italian actresses and bedding his high school teacher. (Like father, like son: Michael recently admitted he seduced more than one of his mother's friends when he was 16.) What Kirk doesn't write about is spending a lot of time with his four sons – Peter, Eric, Joel, and Michael, his eldest.
His mother and stepfather, Bill Darrid, primarily raised Michael in the city and Connecticut. He would see his dad only on school breaks. They weren't always happy occasions. "He was guilt-ridden because his father had abandoned and ignored him," says Douglas. "That was the one thing that he wasn't going to do, and now he was separated from us."
Michael muddled his way through boarding school at Choate. He visited his father on set, experiences that didn't make him want to go into the family trade. "He was a rager early on," says Douglas. "He was overworked. He was doing five-plus pictures a year. I just sort of stayed out of his way, but he did the best he could."
Most of Douglas's classmates were Ivy-bound, but Douglas chose the University of California–Santa Barbara, a move he now admits was a subconscious attempt to get closer to his father. He drifted through his first two years, taking a semester off to live the hippie life. Come junior year, it was time to declare a major. "I thought acting would be easier since I knew something about it from my mother and father," says Douglas. His first bit part was a UCSB production of 'Much Ado About Nothing.' He invited his father to his first performance. Afterward, he asked his dad how he'd done. Kirk had a one-word review: "Awful."
But Kirk kept coming to his son's performances. After his second one, a two-character play, Michael asked for his feedback again. "I said, 'Michael, you were terrific,' " recalled Kirk recently. "And from that day on, Michael was terrific in every role he played." After a few years working onstage and in forgettable films, Michael scored a co-starring role on the successful 1970s television series 'The Streets of San Francisco,' opposite Karl Malden. But he grew restless, and the stigma of being a television actor limited his movie possibilities. His career stagnated until his father asked him if he wanted to produce a film version of Ken Kesey's novel 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' Kirk owned the rights and had starred in a stage production but could never raise the money for a movie. Somehow, Michael made it happen, landing funding and hiring Czech director Milos Forman. Casting, though, was problematic; Kirk wanted to play the lead of R.P. McMurphy, but was 60 at the time. Forman cast Jack Nicholson instead, and the film won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Nicholson.
Three decades later, Kirk still talks tartly about the role that got away. It's cattiness not worthy of Spartacus but long tolerated because Kirk is Kirk. His son mostly laughs it off. "He always makes a big thing out of 'Cuckoo's Nest' and being pissed off about that," says Michael. "He's concerned about his legacy." Douglas shrugs and smiles. "But I did give him a producer credit. He made more money off of 'Cuckoo' than any of his films."