Michael Douglas Shares Secrets of His Long Career, From ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ to ‘Wall Street’

Live from the TCM Classic Film
Courtesy TCM Classic Film Festival/EDWARD M. PIO RODA

Oscar-winner Michael Douglas revealed the ups and downs in his film career during a live conversation with Ben Mankiewicz at the eighth annual TCM Classic Film Festival on Saturday. Held at Hollywood’s historic Montalban Theatre, the two-hour discussion covered everything from Douglas’s early television roles to his work on Marvel’s upcoming “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Here are some of the surprising highlights.

Hairy Beginnings

In 1969, Douglas made his feature debut in “Hail, Hero!” an obscure anti-war drama about a college student who joins the army during the Vietnam war. “Arthur Kennedy played my father, and in the movie he takes my long hair and he chops it all off,” Douglas said. “So I’m showing it to my dad (Kirk Douglas) and he said “You should go to my barber. There’s a way to do that so it looks halfway decent, so you won’t look like a total dork.” Things didn’t go quite that smoothly, however. “For continuity, I had to wear a wig, a longhair wig, throughout the movie,” Douglas said. “So I go to put my hippie wig on and I look like Veronica Lake.” Despite his shaggy appearance, the role earned him a Golden Globe nomination as most promising male newcomer.

Filling the Nest

“Casting was crucial,” Douglas said about his Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Douglas, who produced the film, worked closely with director Milos Forman to fill the fictional Oregon mental institution with the perfect rogues’ gallery of patients and staff. Several stars were approached to play the lead, including Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, both who turned the part down. According to Douglas, Forman lobbied hard to cast Burt Reynolds in the role because he had what the director described as “cheap charisma.” Casting Nurse Ratched proved equally difficult. “With all due respect to the ladies out there,” Douglas said, “the woman’s movement at that particular time said that a woman could not play the bad guy.” Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury passed on the role before Louise Fletcher was eventually cast.

Silent Meltdown

Douglas learned a valuable lesson about sound (or the lack thereof) while producing his next hit, “The China Syndrome.” The film depicts a series of accidents at a fictional nuclear power plant, culminating in a tense near-meltdown sequence. Yet in the editing room, something just didn’t feel right to Douglas. “We were doing our final mix, putting things together, and I was really impressed with our sound editors in terms of all these unique sounds they found for the control room,” Douglas said. The problem came with the addition of music. “We’re doing the final mix and we had music by a very good guy, and this weird thing happened,” Douglas said. “All of a sudden we add the music and it became melodramatic. It lost its vitality.” The risky solution was to remove the entire score. Without the music, “it became taut,” Douglas said.

Tragic Jewel

“That was the lowest point in my producing career,” Douglas said, referring to “The Jewel of the Nile,” the trouble-plagued followup to his blockbuster hit “Romancing the Stone.” The film’s difficult production was marked with repeated tragedy, including a plane crash in Morocco that killed six production team members, as well as the death of 39-year old screenwriter Diane Thomas, who wrote “Romancing the Stone” and consulted on the sequel. To thank Thomas for her contributions to the film, Douglas asked her what type of car she liked. “She said a Porsche, and so I got her a Porsche,” Douglas said. “The last time I saw her was when she took me out to the parking lot to show me the Porsche. And then she got killed in a car accident in it two weeks later.”

Stone’s Gambit

Douglas earned an Oscar for Best Actor in Oliver Stone’s 1987 financial drama “Wall Street,” in large part thanks to Stone’s psychological method of direction. Two weeks into shooting, Stone came to Douglas’s trailer with a serious problem. “He said, ‘Michael are you doing drugs? Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.’” Douglas, though concerned, had no idea what Stone was talking about. “I never look at dailies,” Douglas said, “So I assumed I’d better go take a look. And he said ‘yeah, you’d better.’” Not surprisingly, what he saw “looked pretty good.” The confrontation was a ruse on Stone’s part. “Oliver wanted just a little bit more anger,” Douglas said. “He was willing to forgo our relationship to get that performance, and I went to town and worked my ass off after that conversation.” According to Douglas, Stone’s “Vietnam mentality” is what made all the difference. “He wants you in the trench with him.”

Courting Controversy

The gritty 1993 thriller “Falling Down” gave Douglas one of his most memorable roles. “It hit on the zeitgeist,” Douglas said. “It’s a picture that’s constantly brought up as one that people genuinely like.” That’s not to say it wasn’t without controversy, however. The film’s edgy violence and dark subject matter drew complaints from some ethnic groups. “I remember for instance, there was a Korean grocer’s scene where I go in and go ballistic,” Douglas said. “Soon after the picture was released, I got a call from Warner Brothers, saying, ‘Mike can you come down here? We’d like you to meet the head of the Korean grocers association.’” The group objected to the sequence, which they felt portrayed Koreans in a negative light. Douglas did his best to address their concerns. “I tried to explain that there’s a reason why the writer took the scene and made it what it is,” Douglas said. “And as a result of that meeting the Korean grocers association put those smile buttons on everyone’s shirts.”