Michael Douglas has always had a gift for playing ethically challenged and morally ambiguous characters, and even a cursory look at his greatest hits — “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct,” “The War of the Roses,” “Disclosure” and “Wall Street” — reveals just how successful he’s been at it.
“The jerks and pricks are always a lot of fun to play, and it seems to be my area, my focus,” he admits, “although sometimes when I look at my resume I’m still surprised to see that all of these characters are contemporary and all deal with moral dilemmas.”
Douglas didn’t always traffic in the jerk department. In fact, he started out playing sensitive young men.
“In a sort of strange parallel with my dad,” he says, “I moved to darker characters. He didn’t get acclaimed until ‘Champion,’ where he played a prick, and it was the same thing for me with ‘Wall Street.’ But then look at all the awards and nominations — they’re usually for bad people. So I guess we don’t reward good behavior.”
Happily for the star, there’s plenty more bad behavior on display in his two new films — “Solitary Man” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” In the former, he plays a big-time car dealer “with a couple of ethical lapses which cause his small empire and marriage to collapse.” In the latter, he effortlessly slips back into the reptilian role of Gordon Gekko, his most iconic part. “After eight years in jail he’s shed his skin — or at least one,” Douglas says with a laugh.
Is Gekko a changed man? “Hopefully you’re not quite sure where he’s coming from. And yes, there’s something of me in him — but there’s something of all of us in him. That’s the beauty of the character.”
Born in 1944, Douglas grew up on the East Coast, and although he saw little of his legendary father as a kid, he admits that Kirk Douglas’ shadow “was hard to step out of.” But he inherited his father’s “tenacity and stamina, and my mother’s diplomacy,” and landed his first acting break in the CBS Playhouse episode “The Experiment.”
“That got me out to Hollywood, where I did a few films before sliding into episodic TV and getting ‘The Streets of San Francisco,’?” he recalls. “That show was the most important development moment in my life, being able to do 104 hours and having a great mentor like Karl Malden. It was a great training ground.”
Douglas eventually parlayed that experience into a successful film career, starring in such hits as “The China Syndrome,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Jewel of the Nile.” But it was as a producer — of 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which won the 31-year-old his first Oscar — that he first tasted real success. “And everyone strongly recommended that I just focus on producing, as making the transition from TV to movies was much harder back then,” he notes. “But I always had a passion for acting. That was always my first love.”
For Douglas, the key to a successful acting career “is good material well-executed — and I’ve been pretty lucky in finding good material and never really having a low — or slow — point in my career, except for taking a break the last few years to spend time with Catherine (Zeta-Jones) and the kids,” he says. “The business has changed a lot since I began, but there’s always options, and my production company, Further Films, has a bunch of projects we’re working on including ‘Rollover,’ based on Adam Penenberg’s book ‘Tragic Indifference.’?”
Next up is Steven Soderbergh’s “Liberace” film, with Douglas starring as the flamboyant pianist. “I’m excited, although my piano-playing’s going to need some serious work,” he allows. “But hey, I saw ‘Avatar’ — they’ll be able to make me play great.”