Sitting across from Diane Sawyer, recounting the moment he hit rock bottom and with tears welling in his emerald-green eyes, Cameron Douglas looks eerily like his famous father, Michael Douglas. As the title of the hour-long ABC special The Douglas Dynasty suggests, the young Douglas attributes much of his decades-long battle with addiction to the pressures of carrying on one of Hollywood’s most famous dynasties.
His grandfather, Kirk Douglas, is best known for playing Spartacus, but he starred in a staggering 87 films throughout his prolific career. Kirk, now 102, passed the baton to his son Michael, who has racked up his fair share of Emmys, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards as an actor and producer. In the Douglas family, show business was an inescapable birthright—or so it felt to Cameron.
Cameron told Sawyer about the “hopeless admiration” he felt for father and grandfather as a boy, seeing them blown up on billboards to epic, superhuman proportions. Attempting to carve out an identity for himself and feeling like he was coming up short, he turned to drugs at the young age of 13 while attending boarding school. At first it was marijuana, he said, to alleviate the feeling of pressure. Marijuana quickly escalated to cocaine, then crystal meth and heroin. He would enter 11 rehab facilities before reaching his mid-twenties. His father allegedly called him “King of the Shitheads” when he was kicked out of boarding school and began hanging out with a group of drugged-out kids who called themselves the “Sewer Rats.”
As Cameron details in his gritty upcoming memoir Long Way Home, he was shooting up liquid cocaine two to three times an hour at his lowest point. When the veins in his arms and legs collapsed, he would inject the drugs into his rib cage and even his neck. The cocaine would trigger bouts of extreme paranoia that drove him to hide in his closet for days at a time. It was then that his father called to say that he loved him, but he could not be emotionally invested any longer. He feared that his son was going to die.
Cameron Douglas did not die, but he did serve seven years behind bars, two of which were in solitary confinement. In a cruel ironic twist, when he was booked for possession of half a pound of methamphetamine, he was wearing a T-shirt in his mugshot bearing the phrase, “Yes, it’s really me.”
Making good on the promise of the title, Michael Douglas’s explanation for why he failed to offer Cameron the support he needed traces back to the weight of the Douglas legacy. “I should have focused more on my family,” Michael Douglas told Sawyer, “but that’s hard to say when you’re in a career where you’re stepping out of your father’s shadow trying to have a life of your own.”
When we first see Cameron and his father onscreen together, they are silently listening to the song “Old Man” by Neil Young. And again, the Douglas men would be barely distinguishable from one another if you were to squint, with the same vast expanse of forehead, same narrow, crooked nose, even the same wrinkles around their mouths, adding an extra dose of poignancy to their joint interview time. It would all feel a bit too on-the-nose, if their identical sets of eyes—watery and rimmed with pink—were not strained by such sincere pain. Cameron recalls listening to Neil Young’s raw, controlled wail of a voice when he was at his worst. “I think, more than anything, I wanted to believe those lyrics,” he said.
In a moving conclusion to the interview, Sawyer prompts Cameron to ask his father the one final question to which he has always wanted to know the answer. “I guess I want to know if you truly thought I wasn’t going to make it out,” he began, “or if you held onto some hope that I was going to be able to pull through?”
“I mean, hope, yes, but if you are asking me…” the elder Douglas trailed off. “Well, we always had hope, but no, I did not think you were going to make it.”
Cameron was released from prison in 2016 and has been clean for five years.