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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 5)

"The reason why I think that the United Nations is so important is that we are very close to the entire planet having the same form of government: constitutional, elective, parliamentary. We have a ways to go--there are pockets on the globe where this doesn't exist. But I think that the United Nations is my hope for the millennium, that we can have an organization that would, in effect, allow all governments to act as members of a world congress. And as a result, I make a plea to Jesse Helms to free up the money for our United Nations debt so that we will have the opportunity for this organization to make a difference in the world. I hate to see us as deadbeats as far as the United Nations is concerned. It has taken me a while to define where I want to work and what I want to do, and that's the area that captures my imagination the most."

His involvement in nuclear nonproliferation dates back to the late 1970s. "I have always had an interest in the power and the range of plutonium, both as a bomb and as an energy source. I made a movie called The China Syndrome that gave me a deeper understanding of the dangers of all of this. I am worried about nuclear proliferation. I am very concerned about the disarray of the Russian military. I am concerned about the elements of a nuclear device being stolen and used as blackmail. The elements needed to make a bomb are very small and easy to hide, and ultimately can create damage that we cannot even comprehend. I think that as a planet we have been extremely lucky and I don't want to see luck continue to play a part in this. The end of the Cold War made us think that this threat went away, but the reality is that there are still about 4,400 warheads pointed at all of us. So I think you can see why the issue of nuclear nonproliferation is important to all of us."

Douglas is also a tireless spokesman for handgun control. "I am part of an organization called Cease Fire, which was started by Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone after the death of John Lennon. Our country has more handgun deaths each year than the rest of the world combined. It's a staggering amount of people and it is clear that some kind of control is needed. Most handgun deaths are from people who know each other. So I'm actively involved doing commercials and voice-overs for them to bring public awareness to this problem."

It isn't all hard work and introspection for Michael Douglas. He's an avid, perhaps slightly obsessed, golfer. "My friend Jack Nicholson got me into the whole golf thing," he recalls. "He started a little before I did. I had knee surgery from a bad skiing accident and I couldn't play tennis. It was a quality of life issue and I thought golf would be a good outlet. Golf is a healthy escape for me. And I kind of dove into it six years ago with a vengeance, like I do most everything that I commit to. It's an addiction and a rush. Then I spend a lot of time trying to figure out whatever the hell the rush is all about." He laughs at himself while he considers the appeal of 18 holes of psychological torture. "The closest thing I can think of is that it feels like you are sneaking out of school. Driving to a golf course in the middle of the day just feels like something that you shouldn't be doing. And you can't believe that you are, especially during the week.

"I don't play as much as I'd like to, but I just love it. I love being able to go to different places in the world and finding new golf courses to play. It's a wonderfully neutralizing sport because it doesn't matter who you are playing with because the real game is with yourself. And then you get on a roll, you start hitting really well and then you fall in a tank and you don't know why. It's head and it's rhythm. And I tend to rush in everything that I do. So golf really helps me with my tempo. In life and in acting, it really helps me to slow down.

"And here is an interesting irony: I can act with 300 people watching me behind a camera and I don't see anybody or feel any different. If there is more than a foursome watching me play golf, it makes me a little bit crazy. I was thinking before the Phoenix Open, 'This is supposed to be fun. Why do you put yourself in a sport where there is a pressure situation?' But I do believe that if I continue to play in tournaments that it will make me a better golfer. I think an important part of the game is kind of a controlled relaxation. And you come in and get pissed off at yourself because you have a bunch of bad shots and it's all part of not blowing up and screwing up your whole round. I'm learning to take it one hole at a time, as the saying goes. There could be an epilogue to this story. I'll let you know."

While a good cigar can sometimes neutralize the effects of a bad round of golf, Douglas began cigar smoking on the golf course for more practical reasons. "I originally started smoking cigars to help me quit smoking cigarettes, which they did, with varying degrees of success. But what I really like about cigars is that they are easy to find when you put them down on the golf course and you are concentrating on your game. When I was smoking cigarettes, I'd hit the ball and then wander around looking for my cigarette for hours because I didn't want to pollute the golf course. But with a cigar, it's pretty easy to find it after you putt."

A zealous wine collector, Douglas enjoys cigars the way he enjoys fine wine: as an adjunct to a great meal and a great experience. "I like cigars because it gives people a chance for pause. It's a ritual. It gives you a chance to prepare your thoughts and to think a little bit. I really enjoy smoking with other people because the feeling of camaraderie is so nice. It's a sign of a certain quality of life, an opportunity to take a moment to enjoy not only the cigar, but to celebrate."

Recently, Douglas was given one of his favorite cigars, which he decided to savor solo. "Somebody gave me an Upmann and I smoked it alone. At the end of the day, I sat out on my balcony and enjoyed it and it was an interesting feeling. Most of the time I enjoy sharing the experience with other people. But cigar smoking by its very nature is much more reflective than interactive. A cigar gives you time to be philosophical and a time to reflect. I like it because it gives you something to do with your hands without inhaling a bunch of nicotine. And the whole process when you're smoking a cigar takes a long period of time, so it extends the moment for me."

Douglas uses his frequent trips abroad as opportunities to explore and expand his tastes. "I try to travel as light as possible, so not bringing cigars with me allows me to try new things," he says. "I just find that there are a lot of great cigars to be sampled out there in the world. I have not, as opposed to wines, experimented as much or remembered when I did experiment. I haven't been good at keeping the bands of more eccentric or esoteric cigars I have tried. But I'm working on discovering what I enjoy. I like the Dominican Cohibas. I like Romeo y Julietas a lot. And of course, the Monte No. 2, which is everybody's favorite."

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