Given the enormous shadow father Kirk cast on Michael Douglas while growing up, the adage “like father like son” might have seemed a stretch when the younger Douglas was taking drama classes at UC Santa Barbara in the early ’60s. But more than a few similarities have surfaced since: Both actors’ screen personas are characterized by a combination of wounded pride and hair-trigger intensity; both became proactive players by producing their own movies; and both refuse to allow the sands of time to slow them down.
When the 65-year-old Douglas fils steps up tonight to accept his AFI Life Achievement Award, it will be the first time the organization has honored two generations of actor/filmmakers from the same family. And while following in his father’s footsteps was more than a little intimidating early on, Michael Douglas has achieved what his dad never accomplished: winning a competitive Oscar — and not just once, but twice.
The first was for producing, with Saul Zaentz, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), the first film since 1934’s “It Happened One Night” to sweep the top five Academy Awards, and as auspicious a debut in the film biz as scaling
Mt. Everest would be for a first-time climber. As Douglas noted at the time, “It’s all downhill from here.”
Granted, Douglas had inherited the project from his father, who reportedly tried for 13 years to translate Ken Kesey’s novel into bigscreen drama. But once Michael took the reins, he stripped away any notions that this was a vanity project from a pampered scion of Hollywood royalty. The then-30-year-old first-time producer managed to independently finance “Cuckoo’s Nest” and took a chance on a little-known Czechoslovakian director named Milos Forman.
“I never planned on being a producer,” Douglas recalls. “It was simply a love for that particular project that started it.”
In the mid-’70s, Douglas was primarily known for his role as Inspector Steve Keller on ABC’s “The Streets of San Francisco.” But self-produced efforts like “The China Syndrome” (1979), “Romancing the Stone” (1984) and its sequel “The Jewel of the Nile” (1985) helped him establish a bigscreen persona — difficult for many actors who started out in television.
It wasn’t until the late ’80s/early ’90s, when his Mephistophelian turn as ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” landed him his second Oscar, this time for best actor, that Douglas solidified his status as an A-list leading man with a distinct edge. Also notable was what Douglas refers to as “the sex trilogy” — “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct” and “Disclosure” — which combined for a domestic gross of more than $350 million.
While interviewing Douglas in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel recently, it was curious reconciling the relaxed family man with those relentlessly driven, eternally flawed characters. (The one apparent consistency was sartorial: Like many of his characters, few actors don suits woven from luxurious fabrics as gracefully as Douglas.)
Besides, for every heartless cad, reckless cop or philandering husband Douglas has played, he has also shown a kinder, gentler screen persona, e.g., the idealistically liberal chief executive in “The American President” (1995), the literature professor/
blocked novelist in “The Wonder Boys” (2000) and the unstable, if sweet-natured, father who tries to reconnect with his daughter in “The King of California” (2007).
And unlike Warren Beatty, last year’s AFI honoree, who rarely works unless he’s top-billed, in control or both, Douglas hasn’t frowned on tackling supporting roles in such comedies as “You, Me and Dupree” (2006) and this year’s “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”
“As you get older, past the single phase, you relax,” Douglas says. “You’re not trying to be everyone to everybody. You’re less worried; you’re freer. Comedy, I think, is underestimated, and it’s not particularly easy to do. Looking back, there were a few (films) — like ‘Romancing the Stone’ and ‘War of the Roses’ — but (recently) I have been having more fun making fun of myself.”
Kathleen Turner, with whom Douglas enjoyed a push me-pull you chemistry on “Romancing,” “Jewel” and “Roses,” points to Douglas’ identifying traits as an actor: “He certainly has a great deal of presence; he has a good voice; and he’s very intelligent, which comes through in all of his characters, which I think is also very attractive. He’s got a good strength to him.”
That strength took root in the days when actors like Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra would swing by the house. He knew his father’s colleagues were major celebrities, but he saw a side of them that helped boost his confidence.
“I think the biggest advantage of being second generation,” Douglas says, “is you saw the work ethic; you saw the insecurities; you saw them as people. So I think in some ways it made it easier for me to understand how all of it worked rather than being overwhelmed and having false images.
“But I look at my father,” he adds, “and I’ll be continuing.”
What: 37th AFI Life Achievement Award
When: Thursday – 6 p.m. cocktails, 7 p.m. dinner
Where: Sony Pictures Sudios, Stage 15, Culver City
Watch: TV Land Prime, July 19, 9 p.m.