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

Last night Michael Douglas went to Lincoln Center, where the glitterati honored his career. Brian Williams praised his charity work and toasted him for recording the intro to his NBC News broadcast. Tobey Maguire thanked him for making him less of an asshole. His dad praised him, but also suggested he first sent 'Cuckoo' to Milos Forman years before his son contacted him. His wife got emotional talking about Cameron and their kids. She then goosed him from behind before he gave the keynote.

Maybe the goosing loosened him up. This afternoon, a very different-looking Douglas meets me for lunch at Marea near Central Park. He's in a crumpled linen suit with a Hawaiian shirt and wears Ferragamo suede shoes. He shrugs about last night's shindig. "It's great to have those things and not be dead."

He laughs at his dad's revisionist history. "He gets into this whole thing that I didn't cast him for the part. Well, if you're so fucking close to Milos Forman, since when has the producer ever had control on casting? The whole 'I sent the script to Milos' makes for a good story and it undermines me a little bit as far as the originality in picking Milos, but God bless him."

Douglas is a regular here, and a waiter brings him an envelope with a new battery for his BlackBerry. We order some wine, and Douglas visibly relaxes. In a few days, he'll head to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to see Cameron. "I just want to talk to him about what he's going to accomplish there besides working out and playing on the softball team," says Douglas. "What tools is he going to be able to work on?"

I ask him how he copes with the inevitable guilt about not being there for his son. "I assume some responsibility. But I'm not beating myself up. We've got addiction genes in the family. Good things can happen and bad."

Douglas has a second glass of wine and then receives visitors. There's David Niven's son and then a bouffanty blonde. She has an impressive knowledge of Douglas's real estate holdings, so he plays along. When the woman leaves, he scratches his head. "I know her, but I can't remember from where."

We pay the check and head out into a brutally hot summer afternoon. Douglas doesn't seem to mind. I ask him if he misses the Hollywood spotlight. He lets out a big laugh. "Absolutely not. You waste so much time in L.A. I had my time, and now I'd rather hang out with my kids."

Not everyone buys this.

"I don't believe he has downshifted," says Jets owner and friend Woody Johnson. "He's going just as hard. He can get anyone on the phone; he can get any meeting he wants to talk about nuclear disarmament and the things that matter to him. His priorities may have changed, but he's just as engaged in life."

We pass a teenager with a 40 on a bench. The kid does a double take, and Douglas shoots him a smile and a dude-like finger point. "The older you get, the more you realize what you can't control. You look at what's going on in the Gulf, how the government was in bed with the oil companies, and you just don't think anyone can get a fair shake."

We walk past a slick European SUV. Douglas flips up his shades. "Have you seen this car before?" he asks me. "You can fold the seats down and it seats seven – kids and all their junk. It's great!"

His step is now downright jaunty, the Douglas we all remember. But he's ready to change that image, too. He talks giddily about his next role: Liberace in a Steven Soderbergh film. "Oh, that's going to be a lot of fun. It's definitely happening, and it's just what I need."

We get closer to his home. "When I got together with Catherine, I thought maybe she wouldn't want to move into a house I had with my ex," he says. "But she looked around and said, 'I like it; just change the pictures.' I like that kind of confidence."

In a few weeks, a doctor will find a lump on his throat, and he will begin a planned eight weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. "I'm very optimistic," Douglas will say in a statement, before going off the radar screen. But even in this perfect moment before the bad news, he has his priorities finally in order. We are supposed to walk a little longer, but he politely begs off. "The kids should be getting home from school about now." He thrusts his hand out and says goodbye.

And then Michael Douglas runs a hand through his movie-star hair and jaywalks across Park Avenue. He keeps moving. The afternoon light is fading, and this is his second take. There's no time to waste.