MICHAEL DOUGLAS: THE PLAYBOY INTERVIEW
"Every kid has to hick his father in the balls."
That, movie fans, is a proud Kirk Douglas on his son Michael Douglas, one of the most popular actors -- and most successful producers -- of the Eighties. Although Michael will admit that being born the son of one of the most famous men in the world hasn't hurt him professionally, he has carved out a singular, though equally granite-chinned, reputation for himself. He was the force behind a couple of the most politically influential movies of recent times -- "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The China Syndrome" -- as well as the actor-producer in one of the biggest romantic-comedy hits of all time, "Romancing the Stone," and what promises to be an equally popular sequel, 'Jewel of the Nile." He is a reminder to some that the activism of the Sixties is not dead (though it is a good deal richer) and, to top it all off, he is irritatingly enough considered by most to be a good guy.
Although Kirk is not exactly unbiased, we thought we'd let his observation's open this introduction. In a background interview, he told us how he saw Michael's development and who were we to argue? We figured he knew; and besides, the man was Spartacus, for God's sake. Herewith Kirk:
"If I'd known what a big shot Michael was going to be, I would have been nicer to him when he was a kid. For one thing, Michael had a hatred and contempt for the world of entertainment when he was growing up; I thought he might make a good lawyer. I remember that he went through this very wild period in the Sixties. Once I visited him and he asked me to stay with him. Well, he was living in this ramshackle building, at the top of these rickety steps. He slept on the floor. There was a box spring for me. I said, Next time I come to visit you, I'll stay in the Biltmore Hotel. I spent my life trying to get out of places like this.'
"It amazes me now. Here he is on the California Board of Regents, yet he got kicked out of college one semester. After Michael finally made it out of college, he got a job as a lead on a TV show, 'The Experiment.' He did an excellent job. Then he got several leads in movies that didn't do very well. I agree with him that things happened a little too quickly. At first he thought, There's nothing to it.
"'The Streets of San Francisco' was the first thing that gave him attention. When, after four years, Michael said he was going to quit to make 'Cuckoo's Nest,' I knew the show would not continue. He and Karl [Malden] had developed a wonderful rapport.
"I did the play version of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' back in 1963, but I was never able to get a movie version of the book rolling. Michael wanted to have a go at it. I thought, Why not? I knew it would be a lesson if nothing else. The movie was phenomenal. I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to play the McMurphy role, but I can't complain. The picture made nearly $200,000,000, and I have a piece of it -- I made more money on that than I did on 'Spartacus.'
'I did warn Michael about Ken Kesey and told him and Saul [co-producer Saul Zaentz] not to hire him to write the movie. There was a lot of stuff about Kesey in the Sixties, but, hey, I knew him way before those guys did. I'm the one who argued with him that he was a cop-out, that he should get off his ass and stop being a guru and start writing. That's why I told Michael not to use him. I felt he was burned out. All he's done since then is 'Sometimes a Great Notion,' which is a lesser work, and some piece for Esquire about a cow. D's sad; I like Kesey. IV like to see him.
"When 'Cuckoo's Nest' took five Oscars in 1976, including best picture, I was proud. I was watching on TV. I wasn't nervous, 'cause it had gotten so many nominations. And what's so terrible if You don't win? I've been nominated many times and I never won an Oscar,
'I've seen everything my sons have done. I do think that as an actor, Michael has not extended himself to his fullest capacities. I think he has dramatic qualities that he hasn't expressed yet. I used to kid Michael. IV say, 'Yes, you're an excellent producer. But why are you always producing pictures that have such wonderful parts for other people? How about producing a movie for a wonderful actor named Michael Douglas? Your father's company developed "Spartacus," and there just happened to be a very good role for me. Same with "The Vikings" and "Paths of Glory." What's wrong with giving a good actor called Michael Douglas a part?"'
We'll take it from here, Kirk. Douglas, 40, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was seven when his parents divorced. He went to live with his mother, English-born actress Diana Douglas, and his stepfather, novelist Bill Darrid, in Connecticut, where, he says, he "didn't do shit" in prep schools, He spent summers with his father who had also remarried-on movie sets and in Hollywood.
He attended the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he was more interested in the social climate- this was the mid Sixties-than in his studies. With few stage credits under his bell and a resemblance to his father as either help or hindrance, he got leading roles in four forgettable movies. It took a big break in TV to turn things around-which led to four years as the sidekick turned co-star in "The Streets of San Francisco."
Off screen, Douglas has an unusual reputation for a Hollywood big shot. City magazine once titled a piece about him "The Nices Guy in Town?" and, indeed, in a business known for everything but, his colleagues say that Douglas is decent and conscientious but tough.
PLAYBOY: Your first producing credit was Cuckoo's Nest. How did that come about?
DOUGLAS: My father bought the book after reading the galleys -- before Cuckoo's Nest was even published. He read it in 1960 or '61 and had the book adapted into a play. It was his return to Broadway. This was before the book became a cult novel. By the time I went to college, in '63, '64, it was required reading. My father then tried to get it made as a movie and just couldn't get the project off the ground. He was seriously debating selling his rights to the book. This was about 1969. I had been out of college, been in Europe for a while, was an off-Broadway actor. I had gone to Hollywood and starred in three movies that did not do very well at all, and I was not getting any offers. I was beginning to go into episodic TV-an episode of Medical Center, that sort of thing. Basically, my acting career was going nowhere fast. Streets of San Francisco was a little later. So I loved this story. I wanted it to get made.
PLAYBOY: What was it about the book that captured the imagination of a generation?
DOUGLAS: It was, in fact, a classic story: the story of an individual man fighting the system. Particularly in the Sixties, people identified with this individual trying to overpower the establishment and, at the same time, breathe life into a group of men who had been buried by the system. There were larger-than-life images in it, combined with the sort of hallucinogenic style, which a lot of us related to and had never seen before. It's just a great, great story. So I said to my father, "Look, I love this thing. Let me take it." I told him I would get the money he was looking for. Also, he originally wanted to play the part of McMurphy. By then, he had become a little older than the character, so his interest diminished because of that. Finally, he said OK. I think he saw it as an opportunity for me to learn about the business. I mean, this was a hell of an education. My saga began-and it was a long one.
PLAYBOY: What happened then?
DOUGLAS: Rejection. Lots of it. Finally, after I had begun acting in the television series, I met Saul Zaentz, at Fantasy Records, who believed in the thing as much as I did. So the next step was getting a script.
PLAYBOY: Ken Kesey was hired to write the original script, wasn't he?
DOUGLAS: That was Saul's idea-we all loved the book so much, Saul thought we should give Ken a chance to write it. Ken came to Los Angeles. I was a major fan. Saul said, "Look, we're going to give you a percentage whether you write the script or not. But we would also like you to write the script."
Ken came in not believing in agents and contracts and all that, so we shook hands. He went ahead and we paid him more than members of the Writers Guild get, plus a percentage. He wrote a draft, which was interesting, though it maintained the hallucinogenic voice-over of the Indian character. Ken felt very strongly about it, but we felt it didn't work. That was the time he had a friend come down representing him, making all kinds of demands. We had a very awkward, uncomfortable meeting up in Eugene, Oregon. The business thing became a mess. I think it was really a cover for his disappointment that we didn't feel that his script was the way to go. We hired another writer and got a screenplay that was very good. With it, we got [director] Milos Forman interested. Neither Saul nor I had produced before, but we shared a vision for this thing.
PLAYBOY: How did you cast the film?
DOUGLAS: We decided to go with Jack Nicholson. There had been some other thoughts, including Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, who both turned it down. We also discussed the possibility of Burt Reynolds. As right as Jack seems now, at the time there were a lot of questions. But Jack had always loved the book, too, and wanted to do it.
Casting Nurse Ratched was more difficult. Five of the biggest actresses turned the part down. Herein is the yang side of the women's-liberation movement: God forbid a woman plays an evil character, yet every actor knows that those characters are some of the best parts to play. This was a perfect example of the women's movement's affecting the women's attitudes toward roles. These women have been kicking themselves for not realizing that this villain is the kind of role that makes careers. Anyway, Milos had seen Louise Fletcher in a Robert Altman movie; she came in and read and was great.
PLAYBOY: And she won an Academy Award for it. What happened next?
DOUGLAS: We were having a lot of problems getting a location. State mental hospitals were concerned about the controversial nature of the book, which brought to light questions about lobotomies, shock treatments and all that. Of course" this was all a metaphor for the world; but in the meantime, the hospitals were very sensitive. We ended up in Salem, Oregon, where Kesey had set the book, because the director of the state hospital there loved and understood the book.
PLAYBOY: What was it like on the set?
DOUGLAS: Like a mental ward. Part of the arrangement we made with the hospital was to employ as many patients as possible, to give them extra money and a sense of responsibility. What I did not realize was that we were employing patients from the maximum-security ward-generally, criminally insane patients. We had an arsonist working with turpentine with the painters, He had tried to burn the hospital down a year before. We had a murderer working with the electricians. There were a couple of child molesters.
PLAYBOY: Wouldn't it have been easier to create a set in Burbank?
DOUGLAS: Maybe, but the realism of the location rubbed off We gave the hospital director the script and asked him for profiles of the characters and their possible problems. Then he found patients in the hospital for the actors to hang out with. It created a tension, a realism. Jack came five days later than the rest of the crew. There were no names in the picture to speak of and jack didn't know any of the actors. We were having one of the group-therapy rehearsals, and we broke for lunch. In the cafeteria, Jack all of a sudden put his plate down, and I saw him walk outside, obviously upset, and I followed him out and said, 'Jack, what's wrong?" He said, "Man, these guys don't quit. I'm eating lunch and nobody breaks character, nothing. What's going on here?" [Laughs) I explained it to him.
That ward we saw was a film set, but behind the locked doors was the real thing. Same thing with Jewel of the Nile. Why did we shoot in the desert in Morocco instead of in Palm Springs? There is just something that you cannot fake. Never mind the problems of finding 5000 Moslem extras in Palm Springs. What's important is that the credibility comes through.
PLAYBOY: Was there a sense of the film's being as important as it turned out to be?
DOUGLAS: We knew something special was going on. We had no idea what. It was a really magical experience for all of us -- for everybody except, unfortunately, Ken Kesey, and that has always hurt me, and it has probably hurt him a lot. It is the only thing about the film that I regret.
PLAYBOY: Did the film affect the people who were involved in it? How difficult was it to return to the normal world?
DOUGLAS: It was a very close, intense set. For the actors, it was emotionally exhausting. People didn't drop it when they said goodbye. I mean, midway through the picture, we found out that one of our actors, Billy Redfield, the guy who played Harding-Hard-On-was dying of leukemia. When he found out, he desperately wanted to finish this picture. He finished the picture and died six weeks later. . . . So, yeah, it was intense. But it was gratifying afterward, because of the response. There used to be a law in Florida that if someone showed abnormal behavior, he could be detained or arrested. After the movie came out, with the idea, as McMurphy pointed out, that these people were no crazier than the average asshole on the street, the law was rescinded, partly because of the film. There was a heightened awareness about the whole aspect of mental institutions.
PLAYBOY: What was the Academy Award evening like for you?
DOUGLAS: It was a bittersweet thing. I had been with Brenda Vaccaro for years, and we had just separated. She had been nominated that year for her supporting performance in Once Is Not Enough, which, coincidentally, my father had been in. So we went together, though we were not together. Jack had been nominated three times before and had not won. I persuaded him to go. We had nine nominations. As the night wore on, we had lost the first four. Jack was sitting there, going, "I told you." You try not to put importance on it, but it gets you crazy. But then the writers won. The director won. Then Louise won and, for her parents, who are deaf, she gave her acceptance speech in sign language, which was quite moving. Then, finally, jack won. We won best picture, too, so, yeah, it was extraordinary. I remember Milos' saying, "Well, it's all downhill from here." Last year, I was presenting an Academy Award, and Milos and Saul cleaned up for Amadeus. Milos came to me after the show and said, "Mikey D., Mikey D., heh? Ten years ago, we say, 'It's all downhill from here, Mikey D.' Well, we do it again." He was great.
Copyright Playboy February 1986.