Divorce, father issues, drinking, rehab, prison, a family suicide—the Douglas dynasty has been through more human suffering than Job.
But all that was supposed to be in the past.
After his stroke in 1996, the once-irascible screen legend Kirk Douglas was reborn as a far more peaceable man, who rediscovered his religious roots and in 2004 renewed his vows to his wife of 50 years. His Oscar-winning son, Michael, meanwhile, had entered into a fairy tale second act with Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and their two children together. Having admitted to being a less-than-perfect dad to his first son, Cameron—who last spring was sentenced to prison for drug-related charges—Michael was relishing the role of Mr. Mom with his new family.
Michael Douglas’ cancer is “a real shitty card to be dealt,” says Sherry Lansing, the former head of Paramount Pictures. “But I have no doubt he’s going to beat this.”
But the nearly perfect mise en scène was ruptured with the recent news that Michael has been diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. For a youthful 65-year-old, who is—as his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman last week reminded us—as charming and elegant as ever (if a bit more frail), the revelation has been greeted with great sadness in Hollywood. The diagnosis is, as Sherry Lansing, the former head of Paramount Pictures, told The Daily Beast, “a real shitty card to be dealt”—though she emphasized, “I have no doubt he’s going to beat this.”
The news is the latest tragedy to strike a family that has been through biblical-level highs and lows, and that boasts one of the most unique father-son sagas in Hollywood history.
As for how the saga began, Michael perhaps summed it up best when he told the Mail on Sunday in 2006, “I had Spartacus as my father.”
Indeed, the relationship between him and “Kirk,” as one friend said he referred to his dad, was defined by years of Oedipal horn-locking and a childhood in which Michael was much closer to his more mild-mannered stepfather, who raised him with his mother in Connecticut. The worst of it came when Michael, at age 29, produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and did not cast his father as the film’s lead, asylum troublemaker R.P. McMurphy (a role Kirk had played on Broadway), but instead gave it to a young actor named Jack Nicholson. Insult was added to injury when the film won five Oscars in 1975, including Best Picture.
Kirk, who has been nominated for three Best Acting Oscars, but never won (in 1995, he received an honorary Academy Award), took the blow hard. Even in a 2005 HBO documentary about the men, A Father… A Son… Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he bristles when Cuckoo’s Nest is brought up. When Michael asks him what he could have done differently, Kirk says, mouthing the words with forceful determination (his stroke heavily impaired his ability to speak): “ What could you have done? You were the producer of the movie! You could have said, ‘No, no. My father must play that part!’”
In the 1970s, as Michael began taking acting more seriously, his father “never helped him get a job,” said one friend of Michael’s. “I’m not saying [Kirk] wasn’t loving, but Michael’s career achievements were all his own.
“Before Kirk had a stroke, he was a very vigorous guy,” this person continued. “He probably saw every actor as a competitor to him.”
“Kirk set a very, very high standard and high image for his sons,” Lee Grant, who directed the HBO film, told The Daily Beast. “He was a tough Jew from upstate New York, his father was a ragman, as he has said in countless books. He was tossed around himself, he went out and became a star at an early age, and was intense. Well, that same intensity was at home. And he had these boys who tried to live up to their father’s magic and volatility and intensity.”
As an actor, Michael possessed the onscreen charisma, and inner (as opposed to outer) steeliness of his dad, and his career gradually began following suit, as he turned in solid performances in consistently interesting films, such as The China Syndrome (1979), Romancing the Stone (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Wall Street (1987), for which he won his second Oscar.
But he also inherited his father’s foibles. Like Kirk, Michael became known as a chronic womanizer (while making Romancing the Stone, he’s said that he and co-star Kathleen Turner “carried on like bandits, onscreen and off”; New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd was another fling), and neither man’s first marriage lasted. (Michael’s is still haunting him: His ex-wife Diandra recently sued him for half his earnings of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which is due out this month.) Fatherhood was another challenge, one that Michael has talked openly about over the years. “My priorities were very similar to my father's,” he told Vanity Fair in April, referring to when his son Cameron was an adolescent. “Career first.”
“He’s handled [the trouble with Cameron] very elegantly, very professionally,” said Billy Gerber, a producer and former president of production at Warner Bros. who has known Douglas for years. “I think it does weigh on him very, very much, and I think he’s been an amazing dad. But it’s just a tragic situation.”
If Kirk’s second act began when he survived a terrible helicopter accident and later had a stroke, Michael’s began when he saw a screening of The Mask of Zorro in 1998 at the Deauville Film Festival. He swiftly arranged for a dinner date with the film’s starlet, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Before the night was over, he told her that he was going to father her children. And so began the Cinderella story of Michael and Catherine, who, more so than ex-wife Diandra, “likes being in the Douglas dynasty—that’s something she seems to enjoy,” said one publicist. “They seem very affectionate with each other.”
“He’s so happy now. And he’s doing such interesting film work,” Lansing said. “He seems genuinely at peace.”
Part of that has come from reconciling with his father, with whom Michael is now very close. The two co-starred, along with Cameron, in the 2003 aptly titled film It Runs in the Family. And in the HBO documentary, at one point father and son kiss on the lips and each say, “I forgive you.” As Michael has been dealing with his latest setback, cancer, Kirk has been cheering him on, sending him bawdy emails. “I tell a lot of dirty jokes,” Kirk told People magazine. “I try to make it fun.”
Michael Douglas’ appeal as an actor has always been his relatable flaws, which, like his father, he has always been remarkably candid about. Even in Fatal Attraction, Lansing said that audiences always rooted for the horrible, cheating husband he played. And Gordon Gekko, the merciless tycoon he portrays in Wall Street, went on to become a cult icon and hero. Who’s to say how much he’s drawing on his own life to infuse his characters, but audiences, at least, are the richer for it.
In Wall Street 2, co-screenwriter Stephen Schiff said in a telephone interview that Douglas brings a “sardonic sadness” to the film, and that his performance “contains an extraordinary amount of emotion. A lot of pain.”
“There’s a lot of family feeling that’s been twisted, and that he suffered, as people do, from actual family interactions,” Schiff continued. “I think he’s a guy who’s been through a lot since 1987, and I think he brings it all to this performance. This is not a cocky, young guy performance. This is someone who’s lived through ups and downs."
Correction: This story has been revised to correct the year that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won five Oscars and the year that Kirk Douglas received an honorary Oscar.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.