Ask Michael Douglas about receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes and some of his first words are about his father.
“Let’s talk about genes, for openers,” says Douglas, referring to his being the first second-generation actor to receive the award: Father Kirk received it in 1968. The younger Douglas describes that night as “bringing back memories of all the things he had done.”
Now that it’s his turn, he also displays a bit of the Douglas humor. “I think anything like this would make (my father) shudder,” he jokes. “I think he still thinks of himself as a leading man, and no son of his is getting any kind of lifetime achievement award.”
The proud papa will get used to it. The two have had extraordinarily far-reaching careers not only for father and son, but for anyone. The younger’s includes Golden Globes for producing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and one for lead actor for “Wall Street,” and five other noms including for most promising male newcomer for 1969’s “Hail, Hero!”
His secret to longevity? “Choice of material and execution,” says Douglas. “It also helps being a hyphenate … being able to have some influence in executing projects, and never feeling threatened and enjoying strong people.”
Douglas’ career began fairly inauspiciously. After attending the elite Choate prep school, Douglas headed off to UC Santa Barbara instead of taking a designated spot at Yale. Then, genes intervened. “When I couldn’t go through college any longer without having to declare a major,” Douglas says, “I majored in theater.”
After graduation, he moved to Manhattan and studied at the American Place Theater and Neighborhood Playhouse, and appeared in workshop productions of “Pirandello” and Thornton Wilder plays. In 1969, his screen debut in the CBS Playhouse production of “The Experiment” appeared, as did his first feature, “Hail, Hero!”
Of those years, he says, “I think in my first show (at Radio City Music Hall), there were probably more people onstage than there were in the theater, with the Rockettes.”
On the boards, he appeared in works by John Guare and George Tabori. Then “The Streets of San Francisco” producer Quinn Martin spotted the young thesp and cast him as Karl Malden’s co-star.
“Streets”‘ set proved to be a great training ground not only for the actor, but the future producer. “I really broke my chops on (that series),” Douglas says. “You filmed six days a week, and it was in San Francisco, and there were no breaks. You’d film 26 hours a season for 8½ months. I learned a lot about producing.”
Next stop was putting that knowledge to the test. He produced “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975, and it took home five Oscars, including one for best picture for Douglas.
At the time, he famously joked that it was all downhill from there. It wasn’t. “Cuckoo,” which also picked up five Globes, went on to gross $180 million worldwide. And Douglas went on to produce films including
“The China Syndrome” and “Romancing the Stone” (both of which he starred in), “Flat-liners” and “Face/Off,” and to star in “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct,” “Wall Street,” “Wonder Boys” and “Traffic.”
Along the way, he became involved in politics, being named a U.N. messenger for peace in 1998, with a focus on disarmament. His interest in world issues has become a reference point for his work.
“I’m a current events freak,” Douglas says. “I read a lot of papers. I’m a news junkie, and I’m interested and concerned about how this tiny planet is going. And I’m sure that kind of affects (my choice in projects).”
One thing that distinguishes Douglas is not shying away from less sympathetic or even smaller parts. “I think early on, I learned that telling the story the best possible way is the most effective,” he says of doing a film like “Wall Street,” in which he didn’t have the starring role. “I mean, Charlie Sheen carried the movie. I just had a great part,” he says later. “Or Sharon Stone had the great part (in ‘Basic Instinct.’) But if the picture is good and rewarding, everybody benefits.”
“As an actor,” he says, “the nicest compliment I get is ‘I see your name and I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I know it’s going to be good.'”
These days, Douglas is keeping his eyes on the professional prize, but also has little left to prove.
In the words of Lorenzo Soria, president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which gives out the DeMille award: “He’s a person that, as often happens in life, has been both blessed and cursed by being the son of a very famous father. And through some skepticism at the beginning of his career, he has grown to be his own man … a person of knowledge, of value, of integrity.”
Of the roster at Furthur Films, Douglas’ production shingle, the actor-producer says, “Right now we’ve got several projects, (but I also) have two young little children and a wife in the prime of her career. I’m enjoying taking a little break. It’s probably the first time in my life that family is taking first position.”