When we meet at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, Michael Douglas has just battled afternoon traffic from Pasadena, where he was doing an errand while in town to present at the Emmys and do promotional press for “The Kominsky Method,” the Netflix comedy created by Chuck Lorre that bows Nov. 16 and in which Douglas stars.
“I hate traffic,” says Douglas, who lives with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their teenage daughter, Carys, in Bedford, N.Y., about an hour outside the city (son Dylan is a freshman at Brown U. in Providence: “He’s taking British colonial history in India — it’s him and six seniors.”). “The beauty there, I love it,” says Douglas of their leafy suburban hamlet in Westchester County, far away from the sprawling network of asphalt highways comprising Los Angeles.
Douglas, in a pale yellow button-down and baggy khaki pants, takes a seat at the Montage’s outdoor café and runs a hand through his white-gray hair. At 74, he radiates charisma, but also a familiarity and warmth that makes you feel instantly at home. He’s a grandpa — son Cameron and girlfriend Viviane Thibes had a daughter, Lua, in December — and shares iPhone snaps of the baby.
“I’m the ‘Baba,’ he says, smiling wide. He orders an iced tea for me and, for himself, a cappuccino. “I’m going for the cobbler,” he tells the waitress who, in turn, apologizes profusely: the Montage has turned over its dessert menu and the cobbler is not currently available. Douglas’ eyes grow wide with boyish disappointment. “There’s nothing sadder than having your heart set on a dessert and not be able to have it.” Eventually, he settles on the mango sorbet.
It’s a scene one can easily imagine plucked straight from “The Kominsky Method.” Wry and subversive but also poignant and bittersweet, the series revolves around Sandy Kominsky (Douglas), a disgruntled over-the-hill actor who runs an acting studio in Hollywood, and Norman (Alan Arkin), his longtime agent. Together, in Los Angeles, a city obsessed with youth, Sandy and Norman navigate old age and mortality, paternal woes (Sarah Baker and Lisa Edelstein star as their respective daughters) and romantic dysfunction. They go to funerals together and share clinical notes on the difficulties of urinating. They eat lunch at Musso & Frank. For Sandy and Norman, prostate problems abound.
To Douglas, who is receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Nov. 6 and celebrating more than 50 years in the entertainment industry, a tenure marked by two Academy Awards, one for producing the groundbreaking 1975 drama “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the other for his lead role in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” Lorre’s pilot script was not only piquantly funny, but also a refreshing change in terms of subject matter in an industry wherein ageism runs rampant.
“At a point where everybody else is sort of kvetching about age, Chuck finds the humor about getting old,” says Douglas. “There’s great poignancy in the script’s tone and I just loved the writing.”
The project, on which he is also a producer, marked a plum opportunity for Douglas to return to the small screen in a meaningful and steady way.
“Most of my career has consisted of character-driven smaller movies, and there’s been this plethora of tent-pole pictures and the odds for smaller films are such that if you’re lucky you get one week in the theater before it goes straight to streaming,” says Douglas, who won an Emmy for his inspired turn as Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” a small-screen project that, Douglas says, “was turned down by every studio” before HBO picked it up.
“I read Chuck’s script and I said, ‘this is really interesting,’ ” he continues. “I hadn’t seen writing like this in a feature film. I thought, this is just a great opportunity to work with the great comedy stuff and learn a little more about timing. I’m always a sucker susceptible to a good comedy. So I said, ‘let’s do it.’ ”
Granted, comic actor is a not a term one immediately puts to Douglas, who broke out playing Inspector Steve Keller opposite Karl Malden on the 1970s crime drama series “Streets of San Francisco.” “He was my mentor,” says Douglas of Malden, who played the veteran detective to Keller’s rookie. “He called me ‘buddy boy.’ He taught me lessons in acting that have carried me on for the rest of my whole career.”
Later came such blockbuster 1980s and ’90s fare as “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct,” films far more infamous for their taboo sex scenes (the elevator, kitchen sink, knives) than comic zingers (intentional ones, anyway). But there’s an undercurrent of humor in those films — especially those scenes — notes Douglas. “I like nervous laughter, where you don’t know whether you should be laughing or not. It strikes you as funny, but you don’t know if you should laugh.”
“The joy of acting is how selfish it is. Actors are paid to not be aware of anything else going on.”
“I absolutely adored working with Michael because of his underlying sense of humor in everything he does,” adds Glenn Close, who earned an Oscar nom for her “Fatal Attraction” performance. “Even heavy drama needs a light touch in order to resonate, and that demands an actor who has a command of his craft, but who also doesn’t take himself too seriously while plying that craft.
“Michael and I had a great time shooting ‘Fatal Attraction’ because we laughed a lot. The scenes that come to mind: the scene where he carries me from the sink to the bed with his underpants around his ankles. That was Michael’s idea and it was genius and so real. Then there was the seduction scene in the restaurant, at the beginning of the movie. I think it was one of the first if not the first scene we shot and I was more than a little intimidated in playing across the table from a Hollywood icon. But Michael put me at ease with his humor, even though I didn’t always get his jokes. And the scene shot in the elevator, on the way up to Alex’s apartment. I had asked for a pitcher of margaritas and my longtime friend, prop man Tommy Saccio, had complied. Michael didn’t imbibe, but I did. I was really nervous. We laughed a lot, with Tommy just out of shot, working the service elevator. It’s the only time I’ve ever been tipsy on the job.”
Lorre had long admired Douglas before sending him his “Kominsky” script — “he’s had a staggering career,” he says of the actor — knowing that Sandy’s character required someone “with a deep love of acting, someone whose love of the profession was a paramount issue.” Working with Douglas, Lorre says, “was an ongoing education in the craft of acting, both comedically and dramatically.”
“Dealing with the issues of age and the fragility of his health — these things are embarrassing and difficult to talk about and he dove right into it,” he says. “I was just really struck not only by how well it turned out, but the bravery of saying, yeah, let’s do this, let’s tell this story. As you get older it’s a real issue. I wanted to take it seriously but at same time laugh at entropy. Michael never flinched. He just went after it. I love that about him and love watching his work. He’s a very brave actor.”
Born in New Brunswick, N.J., Douglas grew up shuttling between his parents’ homes, spending most of the year with his mother, the late Bermuda-born actress Diana Dill Douglas, in New York and Connecticut, and summers and vacations in Los Angeles with father Kirk, Hollywood legend and “Spartacus” icon who turns 101 in December.
“He’s great, still has a sense of humor, remembers everything for about 10 minutes,” Douglas says of his father. “He’s discovered FaceTime. He doesn’t quite remember that we have a three-hour time change back East so he’s been known to FaceTime me back about 10 minutes after hanging up. ‘How are you? ‘We just talked’ ‘Oh, yeah!’”
While being the son of a famous movie star wasn’t always ideal for a kid aching to fit in with the rest of his school chums — “For a long time it was hard for me to realize that some people’s responses to me were based on presumptions that they had” — there were considerable perks too.
|Douglas won an Emmy for his portrayal of Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra.”
Courtesy of HBO
“The plus side, I think, was that I ended up getting into the business,” he says. “And I could look back and remember those evenings at the house — Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis were dear friends of dad and [stepmother] Ann, and there was Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster was a really close friend. You could see everybody getting together, see the insecurities and the foibles of all those people.”
At prep school at Choate and later at UC Santa Barbara where he majored in theater arts, Douglas asserted his own identity through his burgeoning love of acting, music and film. “I was in my renaissance velour shirt, driving my motorcycle up to San Francisco. I was at the Fillmore every weekend,” recalls Douglas. “It was Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin. ’70s classic rock was the music for me.”
Danny DeVito, a fellow New Jerseyan whom Douglas cast in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” has known the actor since summer 1966 when they met at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. DeVito remembers those early years, namely the rides he took on the back of Douglas’ motorcycle along the Connecticut coastline hauling cases of beer, as “precarious, but liberating, freeing, incredible.”
“I was just coming through with a play, just visiting, and Michael was a resident. John Guare was up there and all the aspiring playwrights, and we were building an amphitheater and it was hot,” says DeVito. “We were all moving cement blocks around and somebody said, ‘Is anybody gonna go on a beer run?’ It was Michael. And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ We were best friends right away. We shared an apartment on 89th street doing Off Off Broadway work and summer stock and then I visited him at UCSB in the early days. We were there during the Summer of Love and we didn’t hold anything back.
“I’m a guy from Jersey and I always wanted to be out in California. I just didn’t expect that I was going to go to ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ parties,” DeVito continues. “I mean, I’m a modest Italian boy — I would never take my clothes off and go into a swimming pool. And Michael is the bad influence on that. We got naked and went into swimming pools. Let it be known that we basically legalized marijuana back in 1968.”
As Douglas continued to step out of his father’s shadow, carving out a career not only as a leading man but also a high-profile producer, Douglas’ “unbelievable generosity,” says DeVito, never waned. Douglas worked repeatedly with DeVito, casting him in “Romancing the Stone,” “Jewel of the Nile” and “The War of the Roses,” in which Douglas both starred and produced.
|Danny DeVito and Michael Douglas have been friends since the late-1960s.
“I think I benefit from being a producer,” Douglas says. “It’s not that I’m a nice guy, but it’s that I know it’s in my best interest to make it as comfortable as possible [during a shoot], particularly when it comes to women, the actresses. It’s important to make them feel comfortable and secure. If you’re the lead of the picture you have a responsibility and the truth is, if you’re an irresponsible dickhead, that picture is going to struggle.”
But he’s slowing down from the decades producing movies in which he starred.
“The joy of acting is how selfish it is,” says Douglas. “Actors are paid to not be aware of anything else going on aside of what’s going on. It’s very narcissistic — wonderfully so. Producing is being aware of everything. I appreciate both of them, but I don’t like to do them together.”
One of the things that has made him happiest, says Douglas, is that he’s have never been “pigeonholed” into any one genre. The roster of projects Douglas has chosen represent a varied swath, from Richard Attenborough’s “A Chorus Line” to “Ant-Man” and its sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” movies that have introduced him to tween superhero fans.
He’s also spent a fair amount of time investing in business ventures. “Passions,” he calls them. He was one of the original six investors in the L.A. Weekly and he’s developing a hotel in Bermuda, where his family on his mother’s side has lived for 400 years. Should “Kaminsky” get a pick-up for a second season, he’s already got plot points in mind.
But what matters most to Douglas, from a creative perspective, is not the size of the role, but the quality of the project overall.
“What I learned early on is that all I want is a good movie,” says Douglas. “If I have a good part in a good movie, fantastic. But if not, I want to be in a good movie. I always look at it, whether it’s acting or producing, is this a good movie? Only if it’s a really good movie does it make sense. I have to believe in the movie. If I read a really good part but I think the movie’s not going to work, I have to trust my instinct. Because if that movie doesn’t work nobody sees the great part.”