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

Michael Douglas's past and present converge two weeks after the Ono experience. He is back on the town. We're not far from the UN, but the setting is less posh. Tonight is the premiere of 'Solitary Man,' an indie film starring Douglas, his friend Danny DeVito, and Jenna Fischer. In a week, Douglas will be in Cannes for the 'Wall Street 2' premiere, and scalped tickets will go for $300, but tonight's screening is in a dumpy cookie-cutter theater that has maybe a hundred seats, not all of them taken.

Still, Douglas is in good spirits. He's now past the point of giving a shit about premiere locales and how things appear; otherwise he wouldn't have taken the role of Ben Kalmen, a former used-car salesman who, with his pathological womanizing, makes Gordon Gekko look like an Oxfam volunteer. Actually, change the profession and Ben Kalmen is Kirk Douglas, a man making half-hearted passes at starlets well into his golden years.

'Solitary Man' would be a disaster in the wrong hands, but no one plays narcissistic predators better than Douglas. He arrives at the theater with a big smile and deftly works the few cameras on the abbreviated rope line. Then an Access Hollywood reporter shouts a question about Cameron, who has just been transferred to a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. The visage drops for a frame before Douglas catches himself and the smile returns. He tells the reporter Cameron will be fine.

Douglas didn't want to do unto his son what was done to him by his father. Still, it happened. Cameron, the only child from Douglas's first marriage, was born in 1978; his father made 12 films before Cameron turned 10. These were not two-week, walk-on roles. After 'Cuckoo's Nest,' Douglas produced 'The China Syndrome' and then, in 1984, 'Romancing the Stone,' an adventure rom-com in which Douglas reluctantly cast himself as the lead. The film was shot in rural Mexico under less-than-ideal conditions. "There weren't roads where we needed roads," says Kathleen Turner, Douglas's co-star. "Michael was literally building roads overnight. We just started calling the set 'Douglasville' because he was in charge and doing everything. I've never met anyone so driven and focused. His dad came down and we all went to dinner. Kirk was 70, but he still had moves. He started referring to me as his 'Mexican date.' "

Douglas's career slipped into overdrive after the success of 'Romancing the Stone.' Turner saw the dark side of Douglas's ambition when she initially balked at filming 'Jewel of the Nile,' a Stone sequel. She claims that Douglas either recorded their private phone conversations or took notes on them, and then used the information in a deposition that legally compelled Turner to do the sequel. "I was really hurt by that," says Turner. "But we got past it." (Douglas's response: "I don't recall anything like that.")

Douglas made 'Wall Street' in 1987. It's easy to forget that it was an anticapitalism popcorn flick directed by lefty Oliver Stone. Douglas was woefully miscast as raider-trader Gordon Gekko – at least if Stone wanted Americans to hate the sucker. Douglas hijacked the movie, portraying Gekko as the modern American charm machine, basing his look and style on his friend Pat Riley, who was in the middle of a championship run as head coach of the Showtime-era L.A. Lakers.

"We went to Nice after the season, just before he started 'Wall Street,' " recalls Riley, now president of the Miami Heat, with a laugh. "He started paying more attention to my hair and the way I talked."

Douglas turned 'Wall Street' into an Oscar-winning homage to win-at-any-cost America. A movie made to skewer traders became their sacred text; 25 years later, CNBC plays 'Wall Street' on Friday nights. "Michael lets us see men at their worst, doing their worst," says 'Wall Street 2' co-star Frank Langella. "He never asks us to like him. Consequently, we love him."

Then came 'Basic Instinct,' a sexually explicit film that only fed the rumors that Michael was following Kirk's path in another way. His marriage to Diandra Luker wasn't a happy one, and there were tabloid rumors of his infidelity. In 1987, the couple temporarily separated. Douglas filmed 'Black Rain' and 'War of the Roses' back-to-back and didn't see his wife or son for nearly a year. When Cameron was 13, Michael went into rehab for alcohol abuse. He had to deny he was also being treated for sex addiction. "My dad didn't know what the big deal was," says Michael. "He thought that was a good thing."

He admits that fatherhood wasn't his top priority. "My career was really just getting started and that was my focus, maybe more than it should have been," says Douglas. "I was gone more than I should have been."

In 1999, Diandra filed for divorce and eventually won a $45 million divorce settlement but reportedly remained bitter, saying she had sacrificed her adult life to maintaining the Douglas household while her husband jetted around the world. The split is still rancorous a decade later. In his letter to Cameron's judge, Michael took responsibility for his own shortcomings, but also threw his ex-wife under the bus, writing, "She was a young mother without any parenting skills handed down from her parents." (Coincidentally or not, Diandra filed a lawsuit against Douglas a few weeks later, claiming she is entitled to half of his fee from 'Wall Street 2' since the character was created during their marriage.) The whole experience left Douglas vowing never to get hitched again.

"I was quite happy being single," he says, remembering his louche days. "Everybody sort of understood you were coming out of a marriage. You didn't have to make a commitment other than to not embarrass somebody in the same town. I was certainly not thinking of having kids."

But then a decade ago, two events changed his life. He filmed 'Wonder Boys,' co-starring Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr. Critics thought it was his best work, but the film was a box office disappointment. " 'Wonder Boys' made me think maybe I'd lost my touch, and maybe I didn't care that I'd lost my touch," says Douglas. That was the first thing. The second was that around the same time, he met Zeta-Jones at a French film festival. He found out they had the same birthday, 25 years apart. Within hours, he told her he wanted to have kids with her immediately. Romantic impetuosity is a Douglas family trait: Michael married his first wife after only two months of dating, and Kirk spent three years pursuing a teenage Italian starlet he never slept with. In this case, though, Zeta-Jones slowed down the courtship. Douglas cagily responded by strategically deploying his assets, including longtime friend Riley.

"My wife and I are sitting in our backyard doing nothing, and we get a call from Michael," recalls Riley. "Michael says, 'Why don't you come over to Majorca?' We fly over and we're coming into the harbor, and we see two people sitting on the dock with a bottle of champagne. It's Michael and Catherine. I said to him, 'Why the hell did you want us to come over? You're here alone with a beautiful woman.' He smiled and said, 'I wanted her to see me with a normal couple.' "

Douglas and Zeta-Jones married two years later. Like his dad, Douglas is a workaholic who battled with his ex-wife about his perpetual-motion lifestyle; Diandra's stay-at-home tendencies rankled him. With Zeta-Jones, Douglas has tried to modify his behavior.

"We've talked a lot about stepping back and trying to figure out what's next in life, but that's hard," says Riley. "We both like to be in the game. I know even in the best of times, when Michael is at his home in Bermuda, part of him is itching to get back into something."

When I ask Douglas what drew him to Catherine, he doesn't mention her looks or her sense of humor. "What it really comes down to is she has a great work ethic. I think you've got to get a partner, and nothing's wrong with being a homemaker, but you've got to have a partner that's worked some time in their life."

Douglas sees the irony in that statement. Zeta-Jones is currently doing eight shows a week on Broadway with 'A Little Night Music.' Now he's the homemaker. This pleases him.

"I'm fine with that. I love it."