Michael Douglas’s Second Chance

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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?”

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.”

What does the Fox reporter want? To ask about nuclear proliferation? Unlikely. To ask about Douglas’s son? Perhaps.

Douglas doesn’t wait to find out. He avoids eye contact and jumps into a closing elevator. The door opens 30 seconds later into the plush, overheated apartment of John Catsimatidis, a puffy grocery store magnate and almost–New York mayoral candidate. He seems an unlikely host to a room full of anti–nuclear weapon lefties. There’s a Renoir on the wall, Yoko Ono by the fireplace, and a hyper hostess in Douglas’s private space. It’s Catsimatidis’s wife, Margo.

“Michael,” she whispers, “could you just talk to Fox for a second?”

Douglas declines and moves away. Margo pursues, a cheetah marking a wounded antelope. The Catsimatidises are a socially agile couple – their 20-year-old daughter is engaged to Richard Nixon’s grandson – and feeding the media beast is in their best interests. Douglas tries to shake Margo by taking a hairpin turn around a startled broker type – who whispers, “It’s Michael fucking Douglas” – but Margo remains in pursuit. Her husband addresses the crowd.

“I would like to welcome Michael Douglas to our home, otherwise known as Gordon Gekko.”

Everyone laughs. Douglas smiles, but you can tell he hates it. Sure, there are a lot worse fates in the world, but Douglas has heard “Gekko” shouted at him every day for a quarter of a century. It gets old. An elderly survivor of Nagasaki begins to speak. Douglas tries to concentrate on her story, but Margo keeps whispering in his ear.

Eventually it’s his turn to talk. He gives a shout-out to his friend Jonathan Schell, a longtime writer on nuclear proliferation who is in the crowd. “The issue of taking care of this by 2020 is so important; we’re racing against time,” says Douglas. “You can’t keep this genie in the bottle forever.”

He speaks for the length of a Beatles single. Yoko is next. She speaks for the length of an Ono album. Yoko goes into a dream sequence of a monologue that detours into a fuzzy anecdote about a British minister making his son publicly eat meat during the mad cow scare. By now, the jewelry-rattling crowd is swooning from the heat. Yoko finally finishes, and Douglas makes a dash for the elevator, leaving Margo and the Fox guy’s predatory grin on the other side of the door.

The whole scene is an apt metaphor for Douglas’s life – keep moving, a shark maneuvering through a heavily traveled channel. But he’s older now and even the shark gets tired. Back in the air-conditioned cocoon of the SUV, Douglas exhales. “I wonder if someone gave Yoko the wrong information about what she was going to be speaking about.” He straightens his tie. “But she looks unbelievable! She’s got to be 75, 80!”

I ask about Margo and the Fox guy. Douglas lets out a mournful laugh, contemplating Rupert Murdoch’s far-reaching empire. “The Post has creamed me repeatedly about Cameron. It’s enough that Fox is releasing ‘Wall Street 2.’ I’m not gonna talk to Fox News.”

He stares out the window. For a moment, Michael Douglas’s public cool deserts him. As the car pulls into heavy traffic, he just wants to go home.

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.”Oliver Stone was notoriously hard on Douglas during filming of the original ‘Wall Street,’ sarcastically asking between takes if he had ever acted before. “It was very adversarial,” remembers Douglas. “He was not afraid to go after me if he thought that would ratchet up the nastiness in Gordon. That’s what he wanted.”

That experience made a ‘Wall Street’ sequel seem highly unlikely; if anything Douglas has become more of a control freak through his producing, and Stone remains, well, Stone. But this time Douglas held the cards.

“I was onboard before he was,” says Douglas. “It went to the studio, and he had just had a rough couple of years. They said, ‘Who should direct this picture?’ I said, ‘You have to go back to Oliver. This is his.’ ”

One battle that carried over from ‘Wall Street’ to ‘Wall Street 2’ was Douglas’s reluctance to deliver some of Gekko’s more aphoristic lines, including, “If you need a friend, get a dog,” “Lunch is for wimps,” and the classic “Greed is good.” Wall Street 2, out September 24, has an equal number of koans, such as, “A fisherman always recognizes another fisherman.” “You read them on the page and you think, There’s no way I can get away with saying this,” says Douglas with a chuckle. “But that’s Oliver’s way.”

In the new film, Gekko gives a speech about the state of American finance that clocks in at about the same length as the “greed is good” monologue in the original. “We take a buck and we shoot it full of steroids and we call it ‘leverage,’ ” an ostensibly remorseful Gekko tells a lecture-hall crowd. “I call it ‘steroid banking.’ ” Douglas memorized the eight-minute bit, but Stone kept adding and subtracting on the set.

“I could have strangled him,” says Douglas. “I told him, ‘You can’t change the speech; I gotta memorize this fucking thing.’ ”

‘Wall Street 2’ (the actual title is ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’) is about life after the fall – the fall of the markets and the fall of Gordon Gekko. Following a 20-year prison stint, Gekko isn’t exactly penniless, but he’s no longer a player, either on the street or with his own family. It’s a mistake to confuse the man with the role, but sometimes it is impossible to avoid. The 2010 version of Douglas had lost a part of his family, too: His brother Eric died of a drug overdose in 2004, and Cameron was about to be convicted of dealing meth. Douglas’s personal circumstances give his reimagining of Gekko an emotional resonance rarely seen in a sequel.

“Michael Douglas in 1987 had a very slick appearance,” Stone recently told ‘Malibu Magazine.’ “And his performance, I thought, was wonderfully shallow in a good way. And I think the [modern] Michael Douglas has suffered in his life. He’s gone through 22 more years of life, which weathers any man. And we play that. We didn’t want to do the old Gekko. So I think we got to another place with Gekko. Frankly, I think Michael’s improved as an actor. He’s more mature, and you see more in his face, his eyes.”

In ‘Wall Street 2,’ there’s a scene where Gordon Gekko tries to win back his estranged daughter at a black-tie gala. She resists and brings up the overdose death of her brother, blaming it on her dad. What you see next is a man crumbling. Douglas/Gekko begins to weep. “He was my only son. I tried everything. I put him in the 12-step deal. . . . I even tried paying off one scumbag dealer not to sell anymore to my boy.”

At that precise moment, you’re not seeing Gekko; you’re seeing Douglas mourning Cameron. When I ask him about the scene, he simply says, “I had done most of my crying and gut-wrenching long before and was much more into a legal mode by then.”

“The thing about Michael is he’s not the type of person who talks about this stuff,” says Danny DeVito, his oldest friend. “He keeps it to himself. Then he lets it come out in his work, and it’s very powerful.”

Not that he doesn’t ever get emotional offscreen. “Michael’s quick to tears,” says Pat Riley. “He’s one of what I call the juicy men. He starts talking about someone he cares about, someone who means a lot to him, and the tears come.”

Douglas’s disclaimer that he wasn’t a wreck during the ‘Wall Street 2’ shoot also doesn’t quite jibe with what others remember. Co-star Shia LaBeouf told a German magazine last spring that the shoot was difficult for Douglas, saying, “I met a broken man, not the star Michael Douglas. The man was in pain, trapped in an incredibly deep crisis. It was unbelievably disturbing.”

This didn’t endear LaBeouf to Douglas. Michael tapped back in interviews, saying he and Stone were initially unsure whether LaBeouf had the “chops” for his role as young trader Jacob Moore, the new Bud Fox. Douglas told me, “Shia had tears in his eyes about going back and doing another ‘Transformers.’ ” It was hard to tell if he was needling or sympathizing.

“You don’t mess with Michael,” says Kathleen Turner. “The Douglas family motto is ‘The best revenge is revenge.’ ”

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.

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