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Breaking the Mold

Actor and producer Michael Douglas defies leading-man expectations with bold creative choices.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

"Choosing which movie to do is a lot like falling in love with a woman," he says, the twinkle in his eyes attempting to disguise just how seriously he takes this process. "I don't know how well you analyze what qualities of a woman you are looking for, as opposed to what hits you in the face. You are attracted to her, you are attracted to a project. You then, because you are a little older now, don't impulsively go out and get married, i.e., commit to a project, but you find out about it. How many times do you find yourself thinking about it? Do you have to have a paper and pen by your bed at night? Do you wake up thinking about her, about the project? And if she stays with you, that project, and you can't get enough of her, you're hooked and you know you gotta do it. You gotta go and make that movie. If the initial infatuation wavers and wanders, you know that you don't want to make that commitment."

He takes another puff on his cigar. "Sometimes you want to do the dance a little bit. The director is of utmost importance. There are only about eight directors that I would walk off the boardwalk to make a picture with. So, short of those directors that I would sign off on immediately based on their résumé, I want to talk to the director. I want to be sure that they have a vision, that they actually have a picture in their mind of this movie, how they want to do it--even if it is different from what I saw when I read the script. It's important to see just how clear and strong their vision is."

Pausing for a moment and exhaling smoke, he adds wryly, "Although it is possible to have love at first sight. I have learned that, professionally at least, I have pretty good instincts."

The eldest son of Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill Darrid grew up in New Jersey and Connecticut, away from the glare of Hollywood. His desire to become an actor surfaced at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as far as a young man could get from the rigidity of his New England prep schools.

"I went to Choate, which was this very fancy prep school. For a while I was debating about going to Yale. Going to California to go to college at UC Santa Barbara was the first real decision in my life. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was a real tight-ass and I figured I had to change, so I made the most radical change I could think of. I went to my college adviser and then to a travel agent and I looked at all these brochures and said, 'I want to go there.'

"It was great to be in California in the early 1960s. The UC system was in fabulous shape. The whole culture was just spectacular. It was an important time in my life and I think it paid off pretty well. I was undeclared for years and years and then in my junior year they called me and said, 'You gotta get a major.' I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was a hippie and I was hanging out. I had flunked out for a year already and I was enjoying myself. So I thought, I'll take theater. I figured, Mom was an actress in the theater and my stepfather was a Broadway producer before he was a writer and it just seemed like it was an opportunity to do something that would be easy. I thought, my dad's an actor, but I had this terrible stage fright. So after majoring in theater, I worked as an assistant film editor on my dad's film, Lonely Are the Brave. I worked as an assistant director on The Heroes of Telemark and Cast a Giant Shadow."

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1968, Douglas moved to New York City to continue his dramatic training, first with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and eventually with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theater. "I did a lot of Off-Broadway work and summer stock and eventually I was put under contract to CBS. I did three pictures for CBS Playhouse that did not work out particularly well, but it did bring me out to Los Angeles. I did a few episodes of 'Medical Center,' 'The FBI' and the like, and then the series ["The Streets of San Francisco"] came. And it was a really, really phenomenal opportunity."

"The Streets of San Francisco," which Douglas starred in from 1972 to 1976, became one of ABC's highest-rated prime-time programs; it was, in a sense, his graduate level curriculum as an actor. The fast-paced, demanding work of a one-hour dramatic series honed Douglas's talents. "What happened on 'Streets' is that I learned what each actor's responsibility was to the process as a whole," he says. "In my case, I was the second banana and Karl Malden and I were responsible for carrying the plot. Each week we had a different guest star coming in and we had a different director. We did 104 hours of the show. Basically, we made a 52-minute movie in seven working days. It was a lot about structure, prologues, three to four acts, epilogues. The only thing that mattered was, 'Is it good for this episode?' It was a really great experience."

Thanks to Malden's goodwill as an actor, Douglas's character did not fade into the background, like that of so many of his predecessors in the one-hour dramatic format. The exposure allowed him to work though his residual stage fright. "Karl was incredibly generous and supportive," Douglas recalls. "Up until that series, the second banana was always two steps back and in soft focus. He made sure that I really got the chance to shine. He was always saying, 'Come on, come on up here.' Any fears that I had of the camera were allayed by simply having to be up there every hour working." Douglas earned three successive Emmy Award nominations for his work and directed two episodes of the series.

In the fourth year of production, Douglas opted to leave "The Streets of San Francisco" to follow a decidedly different career path. For years, his father had been trying without success to produce and star in the film adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Now Michael decided to take a stab at the project.


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