Breaking the Mold
Actor and producer Michael Douglas defies leading-man expectations with bold creative choices.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98
Michael Douglas creates real men. Flawed. Good. Human. Conflicted. Passionate. Smart, decent men who occasionally have moral lapses. And immoral men who are dazzlingly desirable. As an actor his choices reflect a fearlessness in the face of a public who constantly wants to identify and define its icons by the characters that they portray on film. He's a leading man who doesn't always want to do what the traditional leading man is supposed to do. And he is one of the few men, in any age category, who consistently weaves raw and blatant sexuality into the threads of incredibly charismatic characters.
Douglas eschews the typecasting trap partly because of his own journey as an artist, and partly because the public is willing to continue to go see his movies, regardless of the genre. "I create challenges by the roles I take," he says. "I'm sort of proud of the fact that I'm not really typecast. People are always trying to get a handle on what you do. With me either it's my sex trilogy--Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure--or my businessman trilogy--Wall Street, The Game and this picture I'm doing now called A Perfect Murder. I've been fortunate that, within those categories, [I've been able] to choose different types of roles, and I am proud that the audience has been able to accept me in whatever type of role I play. They are not the typical 'movie star' roles. They're more ambivalent characters. Sometimes they are morally depraved. They are not the outright positive type of images that you attribute to selecting a 'star' type role.
"And the pictures themselves are more oddball," Douglas adds. "I've been very fortunate in that area, too. I've taken chances and so far the audiences have basically condoned those choices. They have allowed me to do those different types of roles. I do pictures for myself, because I figure if I like them, some other crazy people out there might like them, too. You know, once you've gained your confidence and done some bizarre, strange films with some roles that have been successful, it gives you the confidence to go out there and take more chances."
Two hammocks, four palm trees and twilight on the magical island of Bermuda. The cigars are lit, the Black Seal Bermuda rum poured--a feat not easily accomplished on this windy evening. But we are, after all, in paradise. Michael Douglas's paradise: the Ariel Sands Beach Club, to be precise. Amid the coral-painted cottage colony that he has recently invested in (owned by members of his mother's family), on the idyllic beaches where he happily played as a boy, and near the golf courses that he cannot get nearly enough of as a man, Douglas is literally and figuratively at home.
Dressed in neatly pressed khakis and a cozy cashmere sweater, he looks much younger than his 53 years. Of course, there's his father Kirk's cleft chin to consider, as well as the sparkling aquamarine eyes of his mother, actress Diana Dill. Settling back into a hammock with an El Rey del Mundo, Douglas is your basic brilliant, successful, hard-working, recently divorced guy who just happens to be an Academy Award-winning actor and producer. He's a celebrity who dearly wishes he had more time to escape to the golf course and play hooky with his buddies. And, not unlike many men who have encountered a mid-life transition, he wonders what he is going to do to imbue the second half of his life with meaning, now that his marriage has ended and his child is in college.
His career as an actor has been driven by a series of passionate, if seemingly quirky, choices. In a way, Michael Douglas has helped reshape our definition of what a leading man is supposed to be. Very few movie stars will allow themselves the creative latitude to craft morally ambiguous or flawed characters on a regular basis. The Hero is supposed to save the day. The country. The planet. Our celluloid heroes need to be better than good. If If a movie star can't use his mind or his body or his spirit to vanquish all foes in 120 minutes or less while still looking great, that movie just isn't a star vehicle.
Douglas's body of work shows that he has built a successful career around a collection of risky characters, some of whom were downright unappealing. Even when he was portraying the romantic hero Jack Colton in the 1984 hit Romancing the Stone and its sequel, Jewel of the Nile, he did so with a self-deprecating, recalcitrant smirk. It was almost as if he had to constantly argue with himself to make the correct heroic moves.
His Academy Award-winning performance in Oliver Stone's 1987 hit Wall Street showed a seductive, arrogant Gordon Gecko, a devil in a custom-made suit whose amorality spoke to that part within each of us that secretly resonates with his ice-cold, bottom-line heart. That same year he played the husband who succumbs to a steamy, adulterous affair with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Six years later, he was the victim of sexual harassment at the hands of Demi Moore in Disclosure.
We were saddened when we realized that there was most definitely an ice pick somewhere in detective Nick Curran's future in Basic Instinct. Falling Down cast Douglas as a disenfranchised, downsized defense department worker avenging the wrongs of the world during a day-long gun-toting rampage across Los Angeles. He played The Game as successful investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, who had to lose everything he thought he had before he could find his way back to his own heart and avoid committing suicide like his father. Even in Rob Reiner's romantic comedy, The American President, Douglas created a man who could run our country, romance a woman and conduct a sexual relationship in the White House. Of course, President Andrew Shepherd was a widower.
As the light of the day slowly begins to fade, Douglas takes a puff on his El Rey del Mundo and muses metaphorically about how he decides which film he wants to work on.
"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.
"Everybody thought I was pretty crazy to leave the series after four years because it was such a hot show, but I left to produce this picture," recalls Douglas. "I felt really passionate about it. I really loved the project. I had no idea or intention that it would win five [major] Academy Awards and all that kind of stuff, and then it became like a springboard. There I was, an Academy Award-winning producer at 31 years of age. My career as a producer gave me an opportunity to do more acting jobs, like China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone.
"The first few years, everybody just spoke in terms of, 'Why do you even bother acting?' I said, 'I just love acting.'"
His producer's résumé is equally impressive, balancing box-office success and critical acclaim with social relevance. In 1984 Douglas produced the hit of the Christmas season, Starman, which earned lead actor Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination. In 1986, Douglas created a television series based on the film. Two years later, he formed Stonebridge Entertainment Inc., which produced Flatliners, directed by Joel Schumacher, and Radio Flyer, directed by Richard Donner. In 1993, he produced Whoopi Goldberg's comedy Made in America, and in 1996, Douglas formed a production company with Steven Ruether and produced and starred in The Ghost and the Darkness. In 1997, they gave us the summer action hit Face/Off and John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Recently, the pair went their separate ways, and Douglas now has a production deal with Universal Studios.
During several productions throughout his career, Douglas served as producer and actor, but he found that doing both jobs on the same project was a bad mix. "I don't enjoy acting [when producing] because when you're producing a film that you're acting in, you're looking around at everything else. The joy of acting is being able to have tunnel vision, to have blinders on and enjoy the moment. To have no responsibility for anything else other than for creating that moment on film. To be a producer is to be responsible for everything that is going on around us. Everything. So I used to do it, and I was successful at it, but I wasn't necessarily enjoying it. So I realized that I'd rather go focus on being an actor."
Unlike many movie stars who use their box office clout to control the creative process, often to the detriment of the film, Douglas says he consciously works against this tendency, using his knowledge as a producer to temper his own actor's ego.
"Sure, I like producing. I like the development process and control and being involved in it. I'll do it once in a while. But I'm very different than a lot of guys. A lot of the guys love the control factor. They want the whole thing. I think that's presumptuous. I welcome and I try to encourage everybody else to do their best work and I try to keep my ego in line. I try not to bury everybody that's around me, and I try not to throw my weight around. I want to make everybody else as good as they can be.
"There are some actor-so-called-slash-stars who are in a position to control the production. And they make a mistake of confusing their stardom with good film making," Douglas says. "And they think that because they are a star, they can get directors whose vision they can control and therefore feel that the movie will make a better vehicle for them as an actor. Because of my career as a producer, all I want to create is the best movie possible. I want to work with the best director possible, and usually that person couldn't give a shit about my ego or what I want to a certain degree. They have a very strong vision of their own, and that vision is what I'm betting on."
With acting his true love, the lesson that Douglas would like to learn at this phase of his career has to do with allowing himself to be "creatively selfish," to think a little bit more like an actor and a little bit less like a producer.
"I tend to think in terms of the movie as a whole, first. I want to make good movies, which, as an actor, I'll be a part of. But sometimes I cut myself short as far an as actor is concerned. I don't get a chance to be as selfish as I want to be because I'm always trying to make it work for everybody else. Part of what I'm working on right now is learning how to be creatively selfish and just acting for the joy of it without having to be responsible for the whole picture."
Douglas's love for the business is apparent, as is his gratitude and his awe. "The process of making a movie continues to amaze me. There is a certain magic that happens. And you never know when it's going to be. But while a writer is alone with their word processor, or a painter is alone in a studio, or a musician is working on a song, movie making is a big kind of collaborative family. Certainly it starts with the written word, but then it becomes a collaborative art and that process never ceases to amaze me. It's almost mystical. It's something that is really alive and fresh.
"I have been fortunate that throughout my career, all of my decisions have been based upon what I want to do. And what I like seems to be a barometer for what audiences like," he says. "What it always comes down to is that acting is a passion for me. And all of my decisions are made with my heart. Either the choices are made emotionally or passionately, and I tend to make a lot of dangerous choices. And those dangerous choices have nothing to do with being calculated. They have to do with knowing what I wanted to do at that moment. I'm pretty good about being true to myself about where I'm at creatively. And the truth is, I haven't made that many movies as an actor. I hope my body of work will speak for itself; there just aren't a lot of dips."
Being in the same business with a successful father posed a unique set of problems for Michael Douglas. Even though he had two facets of his career in full swing, it took a while for him to feel like a legitimate success.
"When you are a second-generation success, you are provided for," he says. "And that certainly was a big opportunity. But you don't have that 'rags-to-riches story,' which is always a much more dramatic story to plot. Your success is not one that is as easily accepted by the people outside. Or they don't really have an appreciation of what you have accomplished.
"As a producer, my successes came fairly early in my career; as an actor, they came much later. Winning the Academy Award for Wall Street really helped me to finally overcome that 'second generation' thing. It's hard for people, no matter how generous and gracious they are, to really allow you any slack. They say, 'Oh it must have been hard to be Kirk Douglas's son,' but they don't really want to accept it. You grow up in this business and all that means is that you don't get the joy of succeeding. If you succeed, it's expected." He considers his words carefully, and continues. "If you look around you can see that there are hardly any second-generation people that have succeeded at all. It's a minefield of disasters, of broken careers and self-destruction out there. The public's perception is that you didn't have to do anything. So if you succeed, it's just assumed. If you don't get success, you're an asshole like everybody else.
"I think for me, my success was in two very distinct phases. One was obviously Cuckoo's Nest, and winning an Oscar at 31, which led to my producing career." His success as an actor, he says, eluded him until 1987, when he starred in the financially successful Fatal Attraction and won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Wall Street.
"Unlike your average profession, acting usually comes in concentrated doses. When you're an actor, it's anywhere from two and a half to five months of intense work and then it's done. That's the hardest part of film acting. There is no audience response, so you really don't get any immediate satisfaction," says Douglas. "What I really love is the feeling of nailing something. You nail the scene. Most of the time you don't shoot movies in continuity, you only do things in parts, so nailing a scene is really a rewarding sensation."
Douglas feels that his most important work is done prior to stepping in front of the camera. "I do most of my preparation before the filming process starts. Your principal choices are done beforehand and then if you feel like you've nailed it, and you have adequate time, then you get to try something else. One of the biggest lessons I have learned as an actor is that it's all just celluloid, it's all disposable. They only use a little bit and you try to remind yourself of that so that you can take chances and burn film if you've got to. Make a fool of yourself. Do something that's not right. And that's the biggest risk and opportunity."
Douglas tries to find different ways into the psyches of the various characters he has created. "For The American President I watched documentary footage, different presidents' speeches, newsreel footage. For Wall Street I met a few of the big players and watched their behavior. With some characters you just say, well, I can be me. But one of the greatest things about being an outright villain, which I play in my new film, A Perfect Murder, is that it entitles you to do anything, just anything. So that, in itself, is a great freedom. There are no social boundaries; you just get to lay it out there. So in truth, you don't have to research that much. You just get to play around in your dark side without ever having to be responsible for it."
He considers that for a moment. "I think many actors have had bigger successes playing bad guys. Looking back at my father with The Champion or Paul Newman with Cool Hand Luke. Villains are a lot of fun because there is no ambivalence about them whatsoever. Sometimes it's just a whole lot of fun to be bad."
In 1996, Kirk Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke after being injured in a helicopter crash. An already close father/son bond was further strengthened by this adversity, and Michael speaks with obvious pride about the latest lessons that he is learning from his father's evolution.
"I find it really inspirational that at this point in his life he continues to grow. He's somebody who doesn't look to retirement," Michael says. "For him retirement would be dying, and he has a need to continue to grow and to live his life. I'm just so proud of him. Some people just kind of switch it off as they get older, and he has almost an obsession with keeping alive by being active. He's a very cool man. A full and complete man. He's at peace with himself and that peace is admirable to watch evolve. Over his lifetime he has developed all the other parts of his life and now, at 81, he is nurturing his spirituality.
"My own success gives my father nachas [happiness], pride," Michael adds, "and gives him an additional sense of immortality. And, just as I have been able to learn from his mistakes, I hope to learn from his successes. The thing that impresses me the most about my dad, is here is a man who has had a stroke. Part of his therapy is speech therapy, so he practices reading the Torah, which enhances who he is as a person. Then, he studies the Talmud with a rabbi, to have a better understanding of who he is as a Jew. And then he writes a book about the whole experience, so other people can benefit from his journey. It's like killing three birds with one stone. And of all my father's books, Climbing the Mountain is really my favorite. It's about rediscovering spirituality, and it is that part of my father that continually impresses me. He is an inspiration because he continues to grow. And my mother is the same way. It's beautiful to see people in their 70s and 80s who are still looking for their next job. They love what they are doing."
This past year, Michael Douglas's divorce from his wife of 19 years, Diandra, became final, ending one phase of his life and beginning another. It is obvious that he has closely examined the factors that led to the dissolution of his marriage.
"For me, having a famous and successful father and having entered the same field, I identified success in my work. I had two careers, which I pursued strongly and actively. Once you've achieved a certain amount of success, you are used to a certain level of control in other areas of your life. And that doesn't always work well in an intimate relationship," he admits. "My work took first priority, even beyond my marriage, when I was working. The difference is that when I wasn't working, I could focus on my family; but when I was working there was no way to balance them. Most people have an eight-hour job and they go home, and their family and their life are the most important part of their world. I got comfortable working. I got acknowledgment and approval from working. And in relationships you don't get a medal for being a good partner each week. So my definition of success at this point in my life is much different than it was 20 years ago."
It is clear that the end of his marriage was a painful, if inevitable, passage for Douglas, and that he isn't going to let an opportunity for growth slip past him. "Divorce is a process. I think whenever you go through the loss of a relationship, there is a certain amount of self-analysis involved. I'm fortunate to say that there is still a lot of love with Diandra. We are on very good terms. I would have hated to think that 20 years would go down together and we'd never see or talk with each other.
"I was very lucky growing up; my mother and father divorced amicably and were good friends and still are good friends. My stepfather and mother and father and stepmother used to get together every couple of weeks for dinner, preferably without the kids. They just enjoyed each others' company. That is a very positive image of what a divorce can be, and we were all very lucky.
"In truth, divorce is not about children. What you're talking about is the relationship with your spouse. Therefore, children, at whatever their age, as long as they can see their parents speaking amicably to each other, they're fine. I have no patience for the selfishness of wives and husbands who put their own interests ahead and use their children as weapons. I mean we all know people who do it, and kids are irreparably damaged by this kind of behavior. No matter how old they are."
With this life change comes a new set of priorities. "For me it's a question now of the cultivation of my soul and developing new habits and interests. Now that my marriage is over and my son, Cameron, is an adult, I find this is a really exciting time for me. I don't know where it's going; I'm just part of the excitement. It's a fun time because I don't have anywhere near the personal responsibilities and obligations that I have had the last 20 years. It makes me be more responsible for myself than to others. Sometimes you can hide out behind others and being involved with others."
The obvious question is, will this handsome eligible bachelor ever remarry? "I would love the opportunity to get married again, and we'll see if it comes up. I think ladies make certain assumptions about me, so they get kind of cool, blasé. It's certainly an adjustment learning to be alone over a long period of time, although I'm enjoying it. It's giving me a chance to work on myself. To work on my golf game. To do a lot of skiing. And I'm not really looking for a relationship. That's the nice thing about getting older; you learn to make decisions without desperation. I'm enjoying this time. I'm more comfortable with myself than I have ever been before. With any luck, I'll have the good fortune to be able to give something back, but that's yet to be defined.
"What I see right now for me is a new moment in my life, a new start," Douglas says. "I have an interest now in using my ability of being recognized all over the world to do some things besides simply going out and promoting a movie." He is already involved in several causes that he holds very dear to his heart: the United Nations, nuclear nonproliferation and handgun control.
"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."
Walking to the beach at the Ariel Sands Beach Club, where his cousin Seward Johnson's sculpture of Ariel rises out of the waves, a soft-spoken, contemplative Douglas emerges as he explains why he has chosen to invest in the resort.
"I used to come to Bermuda when I was growing up, and I have a whole book full of memories and characters and family members down here. Ariel Sands was this cottage colony owned by the family. All the family were shareholders and it just chugged along that way since the 1950s. It paid dividends, and I took it for granted.
"Then in the late '70s, the world changed. The Caribbean got more popular and the airfares got cheaper and Bermuda changed dramatically. It became a bit of a burden for the family and as a result they hadn't really done the work they needed to do to this place. They gave me a call and I looked at it, and basically what I saw was an opportunity. At the same time I saw a lot of family members who were lost last year; and this relatively large family was going through the throes of generational changes. So it was a combination of elements, really.
"Given my selfish side, I see this place as something that could really be kind of fun. It is the right size--the kind of place I could bring friends and hang out. On the other side, I saw an opportunity where myself and my other two cousins, Seward Johnson and Elaine Wald, could give something back to the family and at the same time keep the family together. So these board meetings, which for the last five or 10 years have been sort of a pain in the ass, could now be a kind of family reunion. With an insurgence of money we could fix the place up, bring a little spin to it and have some fun. So it is something that has revived the family and brings us all a little closer. And of course, you can get Cuban cigars in Bermuda, and I've got a nice cigar bar at Ariel Sands."
One of the pitfalls of celebrity is an insatiable and intrusive tabloid press. Recently, Douglas's private life has been its target. "I try to protect myself a little bit from a certain amount of public scrutiny. And when you protect yourself, you pay a price, particularly from the tabloids. We have a phenomenon today that did not exist in my father's generation. They had polite gossip columnists, nothing like what goes on now. There was a civilized quality rather than this 'take no prisoners' attitude, and I'm disturbed by it. I certainly support the First Amendment, but when you look in our trade papers the largest classified ad is an ad that says, 'We pay for information.' Tabloids will pay cash to anybody who has any piece of information about a celebrity. And I find that incredibly disturbing. Now mind you, I might be more likely to buy it if they want to split half the money with me so that I could give it to my favorite charity, but they don't want to do that. They want to follow me around, stalk me with 600-millimeter lenses. They even have people who will go through my trash, just so they can sell a piece of toilet paper at the checkout lines once a week to prove, once again, that I have foibles just like everybody else."
Another drawback of fame is that it insulates a celebrity from making new friends. Most of Michael Douglas's friends have been close to him for more than 30 years, which speaks well of him; but he grapples with wanting to forge some new alliances.
"It's hard in my business to find new friends because you're always suspect of what their [motives] might be. And while I don't like that about myself, I tend to get a little more cautious about making new friends. The people that you knew either when you were starting out in your career or in college didn't take your success as part of the equation of your friendship. They are the ones you love and trust. I would like to be more open about meeting people, but it's hard."
Douglas shares a passion for cigars with his friend and collaborator, actor and director Danny DeVito, who proudly credits himself with Douglas's initiation into cigars.
"Michael and I have pretty much known each other since 1963 or 1964, so we're really what you'd call old friends," DeVito says. "And I think just about everything that I have done in my life, Michael has imitated. One of the most incredible things that he has ever done is when he started smoking cigars. He may not admit it, but I introduced Michael to smoking cigars," he says. "And Michael, you know, travels in really good circles where he can get all the good cigars. So whenever I need a good stogie, I know where to go."
DeVito takes the opportunity to throw in a little reminder. "I want Michael to know how much I rely on him to have good, fresh stogies whenever I arrive at his house."
So how does a man who travels as much as Douglas deal with humidor maintenance on a regular basis? "Basically I have cigars in Point A and cigars in Point B and one of the prerequisites for my personal assistants is to make sure that the humidity is correct in my humidors," the actor says. "That's certainly a high-quality problem to have in life: I'm not worried about the quality of the cigars I smoke, I'm just worried about how dry my cigar is. At the level that I'm living my life right now, it's fairly rare that I get passed a bad cigar. I may get a dry cigar, but never a bad cigar."
Douglas is aware of the toll that movie making can take on body, mind and spirit, and he is consciously looking for healthy avenues to regenerate and create balance in his life. "I think part of the reason that I am doing fewer pictures as I get older is that acting takes part of your soul. You give and give and give, and basically it's depleting your store of power and energy. You have to find ways to renourish and restore it. Whether it's learning more about cigars or wine or food or traveling or religion. Culture, nourishing your soul, your stomach, your mind and all the other things."
As the first stars of the evening begin shimmering on the horizon, Douglas takes the last puff of his cigar. "The hardest thing for me is to find the next picture that I want to do. I never know what my next picture is going to be. Most actors have got a slate. They have pictures lined up. Right now I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do next. I wish I was one of those people who could line up pictures, but I never really know what I want to do. And I'm pretty fortunate in that way, because it allows me to follow my instincts. I love to act. And my job is to give the audience something that they want. And I don't know what's going to come next and sometimes it makes me a little nervous and antsy, but that's really just part of the fun."
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, California.
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