Turner Classic Movies
Douglas, Kirk & Michael - Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

During an interview with Kirk Douglas for "It Runs in the Family" (2003), a film the famous actor made in 2003, Douglas was eager to share the floor with his family; son, Michael, his ex-wife and Michael's mother, Diana, and Michael's son Cameron, all who also starred in the film.

Tottering into the room and speaking with a lisp, aftereffects from his stroke, Kirk Douglas did not look like the strong and stalwart actor who made "Spartacus," "Detective Story" and "The Vikings" among other great films. But the actor's great sense of humor and incredible drive to go on, are a match to the capable and vigorous actor he's always been.

Michael and Kirk had wanted to make a movie together for a long time but the idea never jelled. "I was in NY when 9/11 happened, and all you wanted to do was reach out to your family.

I looked at Jesse Wigutow's script because it had a great part for the grandfather and grandson and my part, which originally sucked," Michael Douglas said with a warm laugh.

So how did his mother get involved? "Fred Schepisi, the director, agreed to go with Cameron," explained Michael, "and then I said, €˜Thank you Fred, now I'd like to talk to you about my mother,' and he asked if this was a set-up. I said, no, it just happened."

Michael and Kirk Douglas © MGM Pictures
Just as Kirk Douglas's career just happened. Who would dream that Issur Danielovitch Demsky, born with a clef chin in Amsterdam, New York in 1916, would someday be a famous Hollywood star. His family was not well off, so Douglas relied on an acting scholarship to open up a new world to him. He took on a few theater roles before serving his country in the US Navy in 1941. After the war he did more theatre and radio work before he landed the lead role in the 1946 "Strange Love of Martha Ivers." His early interest in wrestling gave him a great physique which along with his natural good looks, made Douglas perfect for westerns, thrillers and dramas, many which kept him in the casting office continuously.

Rarely do journalists get to address an entire family of talent and part of the fun of this arrangement was the family's retelling statements they made about each other during the interview for It Runs in the Family. Like when Douglas announces that when he was going to make In "Harm's Way" in 1965 with John Wayne and wanted to take his boys (Michael, Joel, Peter and Eric) to Hawaii to go surfing. "I caught Michael smoking pot," said Douglas with his now lopsided speech, an after effect from his stroke, "and told him he had to stay home and get a job. Michael became a gas station attendant, and he won Mobile Man of the Month. I was so proud of him. And when he got his two Oscars, I said, €˜Michael, to me the most important prize you ever won was Mobil Man of the Month.'"

Michael beams with a paradoxical joy when hearing the story. "That's a weird thing to say," replied Michael. "How he could be more proud of Mobil Man of the Month than my Oscars?"

Having pride was something Kirk Douglas did not inherit from his own dad. In his latest book, "My Stoke of Luck," he stated, "I tried to find one pleasant memory with my father - Pa, who never gave me a pat on the back . . . I couldn't find a single one."

Trapped in the whirl of building a Hollywood career, Kirk and Michael both admit they were sucked into the infectious drive to succeed. A career that required endless hours away from the family.

Time not only mellows ambition, but allows many moments to reflect and both Kirk and Michael have obviously addressed the parenting aspect in their own minds many times. Michael has the luxury of starting a new family with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He admits Dylan Michael, almost three, and the couple's daughter, Carys Zeta, born last year, will benefit from his past regressions.

"I'm more patience now," said Michael. "When Cameron came around I was at the height of my production company and still trying to make myself an actor, so my ambitions were running my life and my family took second place. I didn't work as much as my father did, but I think I was a good dad. With Dylan and our new baby I have no ambitions. I like making movies, but I'm more relaxed. I don't have as much to worry about so my patience is better."

Finding his own connection to the movie, Douglas explained how "t Runs in the Family" reflected life. "There is a line in the picture where I say to Alex, €˜You're a much better father than I was,' and he says, €˜Well dad, you didn't raise the bar too high.' Later I said, €˜Michael, you said that with too much meaning.'"

On The Set

Douglas's face split with a warm grin but his eyes reflected sincerity as he continued. "I think it's true, because when you have a helicopter crash and a pacemaker and a stroke, you change your attitude about life, and you begin to take inventory. I realize I was working overtime making movies and producing and was too self-centered. I didn't spend enough time with my kids, and I always wanted too because I wanted to be a better father than my father. But I think I became a better grandfather instead." At that moment Douglas looked at his grandson who had entered the room and Cameron nodded with approval.

Michael said spending time on the set with Cameron added to their relationship? "It's certainly better. Even though he grew up with his father being an actor, it's the first time that he really got a sense of what the schedule and the hours are like.

I think that he has a better understanding of what I've been doing. I gained a lot of respect for him because truthfully I couldn't have done it when I was his age, working with my dad. "I mean Kirk had this tough screen image, larger than life with "Spartacus," "Detective Story" and "Champion." I would've been too intimidated. For Cameron to kind of take on his first big part with his father and grandfather, I was really impressed."

Cameron wasn't sure at first he wanted to do the film. "After the first day when we were all having such a good time together, my family gave me a lot of genuine love and support which was real nice," he said.

Douglas appreciated working with his son and grandson. "It was the apex of my career. I never thought, especially after my stroke, that I would get a change to work with my son Michael or my grandson. I thought Michael is a good actor, and I thought that I was a good actor, but that Cameron was a good actor, that came as a pleasant surprise."

Working with father, son and mother was also been an incredible experience for Michael. "I realized that every family is dysfunctional, everyone has skeletons in the closet ... most families don't pay a lot of attention to each other unless there is a crisis and then, when a crisis happens, because your blood, you kind of come together. It was everything that I'd hoped for - both us serving the picture, the story of the Gromberg family, and just spending two months with my family."

The film is filled with hundreds of personal photos of the Douglas family. So was it kind of like old home week? "Yes," answered Michael. "Sitting around having all of those photographs brought back memories. And spending time with my mother and father who have been divorced for over fifty years, but who've always been good friends. Talking about things and sharing it with my son, too, is something that I'm just glad that we did it."

Diana, still a stage and film actress, divorced Douglas in 1951, but found making the new film a wonderful experience as well. "I've always enjoyed working with Kirk, and making the film with all my family was a special treat," she said. "And at the end of the day, we each went home to our respective spouses."

Families who share good times must also share bad times and Michael admits he knew about the terrible depression that his father suffered after his stroke. "Talking to him, one of the things that you find out about stroke victims is that depression is the biggest thing to get over, and if you don't get over the depression in your first year, then your days are numbered."

Kirk Douglas © Photoplay Magazine
In "My Stroke of Luck," Douglas writes about the moment when he almost didn't make it. "I picked up the gun . . .I stick the long barrel of the gun in my mouth and it bumped against my teeth," he writes.

His own grit along with support and letters from friends and fans started his recovery, and when Douglas realized that he could help so many others beat the same depression bug, he got to work getting better.

"He gutted his way through that," said Michael. "I think that something, maybe it's mortality or just increasing his spiritual life, made him a different man. His sense of humor, his joy, his compassion are dramatically changed. And he knows the joy of staying busy. But there were a couple of days on the set that ended up being much longer than they should've, and I was concerned about that as I was with the night shooting, but he's an old warrior."

An old warrior who has found not only patience and resolve as a life crutch, but as he states in "My Stroke of Luck," laughter. "I talk about dealing with depression and that no matter how bad things are, they could be worse. I realized that you have to have a sense of humor. It's very important to be able to laugh at yourself. So now I have a new career," Douglas jested with a cute wink, "because I have the monopoly. If they want an old guy with sloppy speech, they come to me."

Welcoming A New Family

The brave gladiator is also welcoming new family. Among his four sons, Douglas has many grandchildren but he really looked forward to his newest grandchild. "I hope it's a girl," he said only days before the newest Douglas female entered the world, and then admitted, "I ask Michael what it is, but he said, dad, you never keep a secret."

It's no secret that the Douglas clan, including the new Mrs. Michael Douglas, are blessed with great acting genes. Now along with Douglas's and Michael's Oscars, Catherine Zeta-Jones won her own for Best Supporting Actress in "Chicago." How did Michael feel about that moment?

"I can't even begin to say. When you have such unadulterated love for someone, and to see this opportunity she never thought she'd have to sing and dance again, and all the hard work they did and then to win an Oscar, it's been a heck of a year."

Oscar was somewhat illusive in Douglas's life.

He was nominated in 1950 for "Champion," in 1953 for "Bad and the Beautiful" and 1957 for "Lust for Life," but didn't take home the statue until 1996 when he was presented with an honorary Oscar from the academy. Michael won an Oscar as best actor in "Wall Street" in 1987. For "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), a project that Douglas wanted to star in but became too old for the part once it was green lighted, Michael took home a producing Oscar for Best Picture.

But both men's Oscars probably don't get the regard that Catherine places on hers. "It sets in the middle of our dining table," explained Michael, "and Dylan already knows what kind of respect it deserves. First thing he does when he sits down for breakfast is say, €˜Good morning Oscar."

Kirk Douglas has been involved in humanitarian causes and has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the US State Dept since 1963. In 1981 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He  recently  starred in "The Illusion."




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