A candid conversation with the actor/producer about making movies in the Eighties–and about risk, romance and growing up with Spartacus as a dad.
“It was hard being Kirk’s son. Christ, I saw my father nailed to a cross, as an artist who cut his ear off, and I’d think, How can I be a man–the man this man was? It took me a long time to get through all of that.”
“I guess I was a hippie in the Sixties. It was a very open time–free speech, meditation, marijuana. There was a communal feeling that’s been lost. It’s a spirit that’s never left me and has made the strongest imprint.”
“Forget love scenes. They’re the most awkward, technically difficult situations. You’ve got to do acrobatics and contortions so the lighting is good. Sorry, guys, but love scenes are work.”
“Every kid has to kick 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 observations 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. It’s sad; I like Kesey. I’d 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. I’d 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.
Michael took his father’s advice in producing The China Syndrome and co-starred in it with Jane Fonda. It is a thriller about an accident in a nuclear power plant. About three weeks after the movie’s release, there was an accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, uncannily similar to the one in the movie.
Douglas then served as co-executive producer of Starman; but it was Romancing the Stone, made for less than $10,000,000 and grossing $100,000,000, that put him over the top. With its crocodiles and the famous mud slide with co-star Kathleen Turner and Douglas slipping and sliding through slime and muck in the jungle, the movie is still one of the top-selling video cassettes. Since then, he has taken a lackluster role as Zach, the choreographer in A Chorus Line, and, of course, the romantic lead in the current Jewel of the Nile.
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 a few stage credits under his belt 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 Nicest Guy in Town?” and, indeed, in a business known for everything but, his colleagues say that Douglas is decent and conscientious but tough. As filming of Jewel of the Nile was winding down, between a trip to London to complete the looping of A Chorus Line and the start of a short vacation, Playboy arranged for David and Victoria Sheff to meet with Douglas. Their report:
“You work hard when you’re both a movie star and a producer. For nine months without a break on the set of Jewel of the Nile, Douglas involved himself in everything from negotiating with Moroccan officials for the release of prop guns tied up in customs, to arranging to have water piped in so his actors could bathe, to averting a strike in one department by talking to each crew member involved. Then, on cue, he had to be Jack Colton, smiling his cocky smile, when the assistant director shouted, ‘Rolling!’
“In spite of fatigue, burnout and a small epidemic of the flu, Douglas, Turner, actor Danny De Vito and the rest of the cast turned out for the Survivors of Morocco party at the Regency Club on the beach in Nice, a sort of wrap party for Jewel. He still seemed tense. When the second glass of champagne finally hit, Michael began to relax. As fireworks crackled in the sky, he and Turner danced a tango and he exchanged warm hugs with De Vito. But then the producer was asked about the schedule for the last day of shooting. And about film-transportation problems. Suddenly, there were all these little things. . . .
“Several days later, we helicoptered into St.-Tropez (yes, this was a tough one), where Michael and his son, Cameron, met us and, together, we watched the finale of the annual St.-Tropez wind-surfing championship. We then headed to the hilltop château Douglas was renting to begin the interview session. In a room overlooking the vineyards, we talked for hours and then went to the beach, where, over paella and local rosé, we talked some more while Michael fended off exhaustion.
“Later, at another beach club, he seemed at last to be getting into the South of France style of life. With Cameron’s polar-bear puppets on each hand, one puppet clutching a stiff drink, he was obviously in an ornery mood. He mused, ‘It will be a long time before I act in and produce the same picture again.’
“A month later, when we had a final session at his New York apartment, he was already planning his next acting/producing venture–a political thriller about Central America. ‘But you said—-‘ we probed. ‘What the hell,’ he replied with Jack Colton’s grin. ‘Changed my mind.’
“One more thing. His old man’s a pretty nice guy, too.”
Playboy: This has been a big year for you: Besides playing a role in A Chorus Line, you’ve just wrapped Jewel of the Nile, which you produced and starred in. From the look of you, it seems as if it nearly wiped you out emotionally, as well. With all your other interests, why did you decide to do a sequel to Romancing the Stone?
Douglas: Greed. That’s a strong motivation. [Laughs] Truthfully, it was popular support. People just loved Romancing–the mix of action, adventure, comedy and, mostly, the romance between those two characters. People really wanted to know what happened to the characters Kathleen Turner and I played. Romancing opened very nicely and just kept going on and on and on, and all of a sudden, people started screaming, “Sequel!”
Playboy: Despite the romance between the two characters, didn’t you have to sue Turner for $25,000,000 to force her into the picture?
Douglas: Kathleen was under contract to do a sequel, but we got a late start on the script, and when she saw our first draft, she was very concerned. She had another picture she wanted to do that was filming at the same time. That’s when the brouhaha began. She tried to force the situation so that we would postpone. I tried to remind her that we did pretty well on Romancing. I was losing movie opportunities as an actor, too, but I felt we should get this out of the way and move on.
Playboy: Was there ever a thought of doing it without her?
Douglas: Reluctantly, because I thought Kathleen was great. But at some point, it becomes clear that nothing other than the material is irreplaceable. But, thank God, we got it resolved. We got a new script.
Playboy: How did you pick Turner in the first place for Romancing the Stone?
Douglas: There were a couple of other actresses being considered–one in particular–but I was concerned that she might be so crazy that I just couldn’t take a gamble with her in the jungles in Mexico.
Playboy: Could that have been Debra Winger?
Douglas: Sounds like. [Laughs]
Playboy: Once the situation on Jewel was resolved, how was it between the two of you on the set?
Douglas: Kathleen is just great, and she’s superprofessional. Once it was all over, we got together for drinks in New York, cleared the air and never looked back.
Playboy: But that was just the beginning.
Douglas: Yeah, it’s been quite a year. [Sighs] The location of the shooting–Morocco–was the first problem, and we were ill prepared. Also, I totally misjudged the differences between filming in the jungle in Romancing and filming in the desert. During a Chorus Line break, I went over to look at locations for Jewel. It was about six weeks before we started shooting–and I went to Morocco and realized that nothing was ready. That’s when I seriously considered pulling the plug.
Playboy: Did the time you spent on A Chorus Line distract you?
Douglas: It was a combination of things. I am used to doing everything, and because I had delegated a lot of responsibility, nothing had gotten done. Everybody was sequestered in Nice and was putting off going to Morocco. I called all the department heads to Casablanca and tried to whip them all up and get things going. Then, two and a half weeks later, we had a tragedy: Our production designer and our location manager were scouting locations and were killed. We had two planes out over the Atlas Mountains. One of them didn’t make it back. It was on the desert side of the mountain range when a storm hit. The plane hit the foothills about 30 miles from Fez airport.
Playboy: Where were you?
Douglas: I was in California. That really knocked us all for a loop. It had never happened to me before. You read about it happening on somebody else’s picture.
Playboy: Considering the incident on John Landis’ Twilight Zone set, in which actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed, did you feel responsible for this accident?
Douglas: Well, this was obviously different, but in the pit of my stomach, knowing I was forcing the situation, pushing, it bothered me. I pushed my departments into hiring the best people possible and then pushed us all into somewhat unrealistic situations. Although there was nothing I could have done about the accident, I couldn’t help being bothered about it.
Playboy: Any comments on the Twilight Zone incident?
Douglas: There’s a very thin line between accidents and negligence. Because I wasn’t there to know what actually happened, I’d be a fool to comment. Whatever happened there, there is, simply, a risk in making action pictures.
Playboy: You’re one of the few people who could comment with any expertise. You’re both an actor and a producer of action-adventure films.
Douglas: [Pauses] When you are doing major stunts, you try to keep a cool head, because there’s a lot of stuff going on. The key question on the Twilight Zone accident was whether or not the shot was changed in the middle of the sequence of events. What you do is rehearse a shot, figure out your angles and all that; you usually plan with an eye out for safety. You get into trouble if you start making adjustments in the middle of a shot. That’s a little dangerous. So is that answer diplomatic enough?
Playboy: OK. So it was crazy from the start on Jewel?
Douglas: Where should I begin? Sun poisonings, people dropping like flies with illnesses, heat–135 degrees in the shade–hepatitis, possible cholera, the flash floods that wiped out locations, the language problems–we were working with 16 nationalities–some crew problems, accommodation problems; shit, everything. I’m pretty good about keeping up a front, but in the last two weeks of filming, particularly in relation to Moroccan bureaucracy, I started losing it. Everything has to be signed by the king. It was insane. I should never have attempted this one after Romancing. . . .
Playboy: Why? Same kinds of horror stories?
Douglas: That movie we filmed in Mexico, which was great, though it rained. And rained. It happened to be the rainiest season in 35 years, and rain and mud buried us–almost literally. We had a very close call on that picture. We were shooting the sequence where the bus comes down and hits the jeep and then we go walking down the mountain and begin the mud slide. We got hit with a major tropical storm in the middle of the sequence. The road just gave way, and a rock about the size of a car came down exactly where the camera crew had been standing. One guy broke his leg. Another broke his arm. Kathleen is still scarred on her knee; she got caught up to her waist in mud. It was one of those things, an act of God, because if it had happened five minutes earlier, we would have lost 70 people. And that was the first week. Roads washed out regularly, so we would rebuild them; there were times when I would have 80 trucks dumping gravel. Yeah, it was a challenge. But not as much of a challenge as getting the film started, I suppose.
Playboy: What about the famous mudslide sequence in Romancing? How did that happen?
Douglas: The slide was in there as a sequence in the script, but the ending–my landing face first between Kathleen’s legs–came up on a story board. Stunt guys did most of the slide, but we had to do sections for close-ups. I did the last part of it in one take, but there was a lot of preparation–lining Kathleen up with her legs spread, taking careful aim—-
Playboy: That wasn’t a double?
Douglas: Oh, no. That needed my classic mud-diving expertise. [Laughs] I loved doing talk shows to promote the film and slurring the words “mud diving.”
Playboy: While we’re at it, what about the scene in which you got stoned inside the wrecked airplane? Was that Mexican marijuana you were burning?
Douglas: Sorry–just straw. That was a scene we added later on. My character, Jack Colton, was being shortchanged in terms of any kind of character development, and we realized we had to get some little pieces of information about who this guy was, where he was from, so we shot that scene after we finished the film. It was basically an ode to the Sixties, a combination of fantasies and dreams and finding one quick way of giving some idea of where this guy was from. His line about The Doobie Brothers’ breaking up sort of pegged him. But that was just wet kilos of straw.
Playboy: It took you five years to get Romancing done. Why?
Douglas: This was before Raiders of the Lost Ark and all of that, and I think it was a style that people couldn’t get a handle on: “Come on, you have a thriller one scene and make people laugh the next or then go to schmaltz romance the next time. You just can’t do that!”
Playboy: Yet after producing Cuckoo’s Nest and China Syndrome, both critical and box-office successes, to say nothing of all the Academy Awards Cuckoo’s Nest won, it would seem you should have had no trouble naming your next film.
Douglas: On the basis of my track record, I’m always quite surprised that I have to go through this process as if it were the first time each time. I’m not overly prolific; I’m very serious about the projects I take on–I treat these things like a torrid love affair. But the trouble I had–well, that’s Hollywood. That’s why I’m now in the process of structuring the situations that will eliminate outside financing. I’ll be able to make the decisions myself.
Playboy: You’ve said that you relate to Jack Colton–hanging out in the forest, trapping exotic birds. That doesn’t sound like a person who can hustle his way through the business alleys of Hollywood.
Douglas: I think I have a large split inside me between dropping out and taking care of business. Half of me is extremely lazy and remembers the good old days; the other half pushes relentlessly. That’s one reason I enjoyed Chorus Line so much. Everyone else was running around dealing with crisis after crisis, the way I usually do. But because I was only acting, I sat around sucking on this big old cigar, looking at the beautiful ceiling of this theater and loving every minute of it.
Playboy: The Zach character wasn’t much of a challenge for you, was it?
Douglas: Well, compared with the sort of sensitive, morally righteous characters I had played in the past–except for Jack Colton–here was a chance to play somebody obsessed and not very nice. It was also an interesting acting exercise. Ninety percent of the time, I had to concentrate on a bunch of cement bags on the stage, pretending the dancers were actually there.
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.
Playboy: So after Cuckoo’s Nest, you were flying high. What came next?
Douglas: I basically took off for a long time. Everybody was real happy to see me. When you have a hit, you are the most popular man in the world. I went around the world and just savored it. Jack and I went on a promotional tour for the movie. We had a blast. It was one of the things I learned from watching my father and watching the business itself: There is an obsession with keeping going. I have that, but I’m learning to relax a bit more. So, anyway, I did that until I felt it was time to return to work, to try to break out of television and get into feature films.
Playboy: That was after you and Brenda split up. Your parents were actors, and they split up. Were the reasons similar?
Douglas: Maybe. I don’t know how patient I could be with anybody who had another full career, I’m sorry to say. I just find that my career is so consuming, I need some support and help. Actors tend to be self-involved. To have two together is very tough. Someone has to give.
Playboy: You and your wife, Diandra, met soon after Cuckoo’s Nest. You have Jimmy Carter to thank, right?
Douglas: Yes. We met in Washington, D.C., at Carter’s Inauguration. The night before, there was a big gala. I was there as one of the tens of thousands of Carter supporters who were personally invited to the Inauguration. It was real corny. I saw her across the crowded room. She was in a white dress and looked beautiful, and we started talking over hors d’oeuvres. She was with an escort, a sort of date, and they were going off to a private club afterward. I said I would meet her there. She said, “It’s a private club. You won’t be able to get in.” I said [shrugs, cocky], “Hey. . . .” I mean, this was after Cuckoo’s Nest. I went down and, of course, I couldn’t get in.
Anyway, I thought, God, I want to see her. I had her telephone number, and I invited her to the Inauguration. We got married about eight weeks later. This was the last thing I was thinking about. I had been, uh, foot-loose and fancy-free the previous year and a half, running around, savoring Cuckoo’s Nest. A lot of people showed up for the wedding just to believe it was happening.
Meanwhile, on the business front, I felt I ought to try to keep the producing thing going. I started looking around. I set up this little company. A script came in through the mail called The China Syndrome, written by a documentary film maker from Chicago.
Playboy: What attracted you to it–the antinuclear theme?
Douglas: So many things about it interested me beyond the obvious political issue. It was a great horror movie, a movie about man against machine, a movie about an individual fighting the system. It had an interesting social message with all the aspects of a great thriller. Jack Lemmon had strong beliefs in this area, and he was interested.
Playboy: How did Jane Fonda get involved?
Douglas: The original script had two documentary camera guys who worked together. I was going to do it with Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss fell out. At the same time, Jane had been developing the Karen Silkwood story, long before the production that ended up being made with Meryl Streep. The studio suggested I talk with her about combining the films. She was instrumental in getting it a green light. So we had the script rewritten for Jane.
Playboy: When did you decide to act in the film yourself?
Douglas: It took me a long time. I’m a little thick in the head. I realized that I was putting my acting career aside. I was spending energy on this picture, anyway, so I would be foolish not to act in it.
Playboy: Did you think a movie about a nuclear melt-down would be commercially successful? Didn’t you expect resistance?
Douglas: Well, General Electric was a sponsor for a planned Barbara Walters TV special on which Jane and John Wayne were to be two of the three guests. General Electric pulled out its sponsorship. Meanwhile, we all decided to sell the picture as a thriller. We tried to duck the political issue as much as possible.
Playboy: That hardly seems possible.
Douglas: You let your social messages fall where they may, but you get in a hell of a lot of trouble if you start preaching before you start moving people. I like to think it was an exciting picture. If it could accomplish other things, too, all the better.
Playboy: You couldn’t have planned the timing, but the Three Mile Island accident happened right after the release of the film. How did you feel?
Douglas: We were blown away. Later, Aaron Latham did an article comparing the film’s computer print-out of our sequence of events, which was really just for us and to help the actors with the technical job, with the Three Mile Island accident’s. The incredible similarities will make you religious in 30 seconds. I know that they deeply shook up a lot of people in the nuclear-power industry. The technical advisors on the film, who were being ostracized, felt a certain vindication, too. We came out three and a half weeks before the accident happened. We were under heavy attack about being irresponsible Hollywood lefties. People said it couldn’t happen and that we were mind-fucking, playing with people’s heads.
Playboy: The industry said that?
Douglas: And the public. The picture was doing well, we were under attack and then this thing happened. I’m not religious, but there was something about it that was uncanny. It was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve had in my life. We had educated ourselves about the possibilities of this kind of nuclear accident, and then it was happening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We were terrified. There is a line in the movie when the experts are discussing what would happen in a melt-down, and they turn to each other and say–before the Pennsylvania accident happened–that it would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania.
Playboy: You could never have bought that much publicity, obviously.
Douglas: Well, in fact, it hurt the box office considerably. What was an edge-of-the-seat thriller had become the nightly news. It was very scary, and people didn’t want to see it. It only intimidated them. I think, though, that along with Three Mile Island, the film did some good, changed some minds about the nuclear issue.
It also raised people’s expectations about what I could do. After China Syndrome, I received every wacko, off-the-wall script about every problem there was in the world. It got to be very depressing.
Playboy: But you have no problem with using your fame or position to speak out on political issues.
Douglas: There is something to be said about actors and politics. Reagan brought it home. I remember once, I was with Robert Mitchum at some public gathering, and I saw the total idolatry that surrounded him. I asked him, “What is it with you, man?” He lowered his glasses and said, “I’ve got the common touch.” Well, Ronnie has the common touch.
But about using your notoriety: There was a lot of cynical coverage of Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange when they testified on the farm crisis in Congress. But have you ever seen more attention drawn to a Congressional hearing? It was great, because I am very concerned about the farming problem, too. We have to think about what is going on before it’s too late. All these farms are going under, being foreclosed. Who is buying them? Large, multinational companies. If things happen similar to what happened with oil-controlled by these same kinds of multinational corporations–I think we are really going to be shocked at some of our food prices in a few years.
Playboy: Would you make a visit to Congress for an issue you believed in?
Douglas: I would. I think you have to be careful not to spread yourself too thin, but you have to do what you can. I don’t want to get too politically heavy here, but I am very concerned about some of the mistakes our country is making regarding Central America. I’m involved in trying to encourage discussion on this issue.
Playboy: Since you speak out on the subject, how do you explain to people what’s happened recently in Nicaragua?
Douglas: I don’t say the Sandinistas of Nicaragua are absolutely right in their policies, but we seem to have forced some of it. When you put a country that size–with fewer than 3,400,000 people–up against the wall, I don’t know why we’re so surprised by what is happening. I’m sad to see that we don’t recognize that, just as we had our Revolution 200 years ago, there are other countries, not on our timetable, that are striving to achieve their own independence.
If American troops actually become involved in Central America, we are going to see a lot of Americans going down there to fight on the other side. It will cause a very awkward situation. There is a large group of Vietnam veterans who are concerned that their children, 20 years after Vietnam, might be in the same situations they were in in Vietnam. They are now down there, working on educating people. I believe that part of the problem is that people are confused; many people can’t tell the players without a program. I helped found the Committee of Concern to try to inform people about Central American issues without turning them off.
Playboy: Even though your politics aren’t popular in the Reagan era, you manage to speak out without giving too much offense. In fact, your image, as reported by the press, has been that of a nice guy making both popular and socially relevant films. It all seems too good to be true. Is it?
Douglas: It’s actually pretty funny. My friends know the truth. . . . Part of it is that I choose to do my work–even the business–in a different way. I don’t think there’s any reason not to conduct oneself in a diplomatic, socially conscious manner. At the same time, if I have to take care of business, I do so; but being unkind to my fellow man doesn’t do anything for me–unless I get crossed. Then watch out. If I’m crossed, as certain people in the business will tell you, I’m unbearable and unrelenting; but until I’m crossed, I like to conduct my life in a civilized manner.
The image is also because of my roles–but after all the good-guy roles I’ve played, I’m ready to play a bad guy in some film. I think the reason we like bad guys is that they don’t give a shit. All the decorum is stripped away, all the social graces–which I’m in the mood for now.
Playboy: Even so, the image doesn’t seem to be that different from the man. How have you, as the child of two movie actors, managed to avoid being totally screwed up?
Douglas: Yeah, my kind of road is covered with a lot of suicides and overdoses and everything else from people in my position. I think it probably has to do with my family. My father was a son of Russian peasants. He worked hard his entire life and, after going to college, decided to become an actor. My mother is English. She used to hide under the covers at night as a child, reading plays and books, and dreamed about being an actress; at 16, she lied about her age and went to New York to become an actress. This Russian peasant met this Englishwoman from a well-to-do family, and they fell in love.
To me, all this is a microcosm of what America is all about. I was blessed because of my parents. I learned a love of acting and also some basic values from them. Then, when their careers took off, things got more difficult, and finally they got divorced. But they divorced amicably. Even during that difficult and painful time, I have memories of my father visiting me and kissing my mother on the cheek. They agreed they couldn’t stay together, but they continued to respect each other.
My father was remarried, to a lovely French lady named Anne. They’ve been married a little more than 30 years. My mother was remarried, to a wonderful guy named Bill Darrid. They’ve been married 27 years. I basically grew up with my mother and my stepfather away from Hollywood, in Connecticut. They maintained almost Victorian standards. My memories are of how thoughtful he was to her and how considerate he was of us. My father was highly immersed in his career–movie stars made three of four pictures a year then. Still, I visited him often, and the attention I got from him and Anne was very special. At the same time, Kirk was never afraid to come down pretty hard when we deserved it. Sometimes, divorced parents have this guilt, and so they always give in to the kids. He used to say, “I yell and scream because I care.”
Playboy: Did your mother continue to pursue her career after they split up?
Douglas: Oh, yeah. Up to this day, she acts at a summer theater in Santa Maria, California. My father had all the attention, but Diana never stopped. She acted because she loved the profession.
Playboy: There must have been another side; it can’t have been as easy being Kirk Douglas’ son as it sounds so far.
Douglas: It was hard. Christ, I saw my father as a gladiator, nailed to a cross, as an artist who cut his ear off–and he would be shown doing these superhuman things. I’d think, How can I possibly be a man? How can I be the man this man was? Jesus, look at this guy! . . . It took me a long time to get through all of that to a sense of myself–but, I mean, Spartacus? Van Gogh? Sure, why not?
Playboy: What’s the first picture of your father’s that you remember?
Douglas: Champion, in 1949–I was four or five–had a big impact. Then I remember Lust for Life, in ’55, ’56. I was 11. My brother Joel was eight. I remember going to the theater and running out, screaming because we saw him cut his ear off.
Playboy: Your son, Cameron, must feel some of that with your work.
Douglas: Well, he’s not convinced I really work. I do all the stuff he loves to do: action, fighting, sword fighting. . . . God, it’s amazing. I look at myself sometimes and realize, This is so silly. I’m in my 40s now. I’m 40, playing make-believe. When someone asks Cameron what his daddy does, he says. “He goes, ‘Bang-bang, you’re dead,’ and he falls down and pretends he’s hurt.” It’s all very childlike. . . . Anyway, there seems to be a difference in the way Cameron has reacted to all this, I’m happy to say. Maybe it’s the fact that Diandra and I are together as a couple–whatever–but the difference is that Cameron is bursting with confidence. I was much more withdrawn.
Playboy: Were you able to get over some of the awe, or was there always this image of your dad as Spartacus?
Douglas: He had that intensity, and that anger was inherent at that particular time. He was larger than life. He had a rage.
Playboy: Caused by what?
Douglas: He was just a driven, crazy Russian. I think he had a lot of mixed feelings about his work, about his role as a father. His father was not around a lot when he was growing up, and I think he felt guilty for the time he was away from us.
Playboy: What kind of relationship do you have with him now?
Douglas: To this day, he cannot stop giving me advice, which I adore him for. He treats me as a peer, but a peer he likes to give advice to. I’ll say, “Dad, I’m forty years old. Relax; it’s too late. I’m tainted. It’s no good; you’ve got no chance.” The only thing that changes is that now I can give a little advice back.
I remember a woman’s asking him if he was jealous of his son’s success. He looked at her as only he could and said, “Only a woman could ask that question.” I think there is a truth to that. It’s different for mothers and daughters. I was talking to this woman, who shall remain nameless, and I congratulated her on her daughter’s recent success and she gave me a look like a lethal dart. It’s different for a father about his son, I think. There’s the continuity, a sense of immortality. But he’s just great. He’s always had a really good sense of humor, the ability to laugh at himself–especially with the aid of his sons. And we all do very good imitations of him.
Playboy: Well? How about your Kirk Douglas imitation?
Douglas: [Does the Kirk Douglas look: teeth clenched, jaw thrusting out] “Son! You see, son! It’s like this, see!”
Playboy: Do you both acknowledge your physical resemblance?
Douglas: Romancing was the first picture where we noticed it. I think it’s probably because before that, I sort of shied away from the kind of parts that he had played. But that was getting kind of limiting, because he played everything. Anyway, when he saw some of the sequences in the movie for the first time, he was floored. It was the first time he could see what people were talking about. He said, “You looked pretty good.” [Laughs] Anyway, I’m very fond of him. I’ve gotten closer to him now that I have my own son. I really see how nuts they can make you sometimes, and how torn you get between your involvement with your own work and with your son.
Playboy: Let’s go back to your own childhood. What about your education?
Douglas: I went to a private school back East–blue blazers and gray-flannel shorts–until I was 11 years old. Then, because my mother was under contract in California for a year, I went to California and Went to a junior high school in West L.A. It was a tough school. They had killings. Kids carried knives. I remember the first girl I ever kissed was there. She had her mouth wide-open. Yuuuck. Couldn’t believe it. Nobody told me anything about this. I had a duck’s-ass haircut. I remember hiding behind the dashboard of my mother’s Ford Crestline convertible so my hair wouldn’t get blown in the wind.
Playboy: Did you get into trouble?
Douglas: Normal stuff. I got alcohol poisoning once on a quart of gin. I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t drink gin until I was an adult. Midnight hot-rod stuff. Drag racing, hot-wiring cars, stealing parts for cars. I was not a good student. I really had not much interest.
Douglas: I went back to Connecticut. Even when I was away, I kept my membership in the Downshifters Hot Rod Club in Westport. Used to race C-class dragsters on weekends. Well, I didn’t drive myself. I was in the crew. But later, in California, I did race Formula III cars for a season. I almost got kicked out of my prep school at the end. We brought a cow down from a pasture and took it into the main reception hall of this swank private school.
Playboy: No girls?
Douglas: No girls. This prep school was very close to Yale University, so my junior and senior years, I would sneak out on weekends to go to parties down there. I remember it being a little unhealthy, like animals: Mount them on Friday night, get wasted for a day and a half. It was a little weird. So then I went to a college advisor, who was sort of like a travel agent–he’d thumb through these college brochures–and I happened to notice a campus by the sea, the University of California at Santa Barbara: three girls to every guy. I flunked out after one year. I just could not handle the discipline of doing work and dating.
Playboy: Do you remember those days as good old times?
Douglas: Oh, it was the best time, the best. The school didn’t actually kick me out. It just said, “We think you need to take a break for a while.” So I took a year off and worked in a gas station for a while. I was a Mobil Man of the Month. I loved it. There was the greatest sense of accomplishment. I loved cars–right?–and there was a work ethic that was very rewarding. I would wash the windows, check the oil. I learned so much about women. They’d leave their skirts up just to see if I were watching or not. Then I’d hang out and have beers with the guys.
Playboy: You were slumming?
Douglas: It probably was rebellion, in the sense that I was like a regular person. Then I’d go off to work on my father’s pictures.
Playboy: Doing what?
Douglas: At first, I used to just hang around. Then I got jobs–I was a gofer getting coffee for people on the sets. I was a gofer on Spartacus. I went in and said something and I remember my father’s saying, “Michael, never interrupt the director when he’s talking.” I was floored. Next I became the assistant director, then an assistant film editor on Lonely Are the Brave.
Playboy: Do you have memories of the actors your father was working with?
Douglas: Yeah, because a lot of them were around the house, too. They had a lot of fun. They also hold up very well. I find . . . Diandra and I are both surprised because we have found that we would rather spend an evening with people of that generation than with a lot of our own peer group. They’re very bright, really witty and fun.
Playboy: Who, for instance?
Douglas: Billy Wilder, for one. I see Lancaster a fair amount. Gregory and Veronique Peck.
Playboy: You were telling us about your summer jobs.
Douglas: Yeah. . . . There was another summer I spent, in Europe, on a picture called The Heroes of Telemark. I was, like, 16, 17. My father was staying in this suite in a hotel and had to go to France. That was a period in my life when I was lonely, uptight and real concerned about being dignified. I went out one day to the London zoo. I visited the monkey cages, and for some reason, every monkey in the place was masturbating. There was something so human about these monkeys’ sitting on top of rings, jerking off, reaching through cages and helping each other out. I broke up laughing. Well, every time I get too serious or too uptight, I have this vision of a bunch of monkeys looking out at everybody as they jerk off.
That was also the summer the assistant director on the picture asked me to go out and see a new rock group at a local club. He wanted me to invest, but I declined the offer. The band was The Who.
Playboy: That’s some way to grow up–wiring hot rods and hanging out on Kirk Douglas’ movie sets. Did you feel schizophrenic?
Douglas: It’s just the way it was. And believe it or not, it didn’t feel that abnormal from myend. Even though Hayley Mills was my date at my 16th birthday party. [Laughs] Actually, I got off more on her and Annette Funicello than on being around Kirk Douglas’ movie sets.
Playboy: Hold it. You actually dated Annette?
Douglas: No, but like every other guy in America, I remember when she first broke out in her sweater on the Spin and Marty show. Oh, fabulous. . . . Yeah, I agree, in retrospect, it wassomething. That’s one of the reasons we just decided to move out of California. Everybody looks at California as being where it’s all happening. Kids are so hip at ten years old. I just visited it from time to time, which maybe saved me. It’s all relative. Growing up, we all struggled. As Kirk always said, “Hey, we’ve all got problems.”
Playboy: When did the sexual revolution hit you?
Douglas: Remember Oh! Calcutta!? That was the first time I got a hard-on. [Hums] “When I come, I come like a river.” Anyway, I was in Santa Barbara at a wonderful, joyous time. I worked out a deal with five girls who lived together. I would share dinners with them. Cost me five dollars. Kirk asked, “Didn’t you at least buy them a bottle of wine?” I said, “No way! I’m paying them five dollars.” All five were stunning in the way only a good California girl can be. It was just a very open time, combined with all the best qualities of free speech, meditation and marijuana. It was a time when you didn’t hide drugs. There was a communal feeling that’s been lost. I guess I was a hippie. I was strongly involved in the student meditation society, and I had a lot of great Renaissance velour shirts. My folks were probably a little concerned; I wasn’t the best of students and tended to look for alternative lifestyles. I think it’s a philosophy and spirit that’s never left me and has made the strongest imprint on my life.
Playboy: Were you involved politically?
Douglas: Yeah, against the Vietnam war. We started silent vigils in front of the library–things like that. Then I slipped into this guerrilla-theater group. It was basically class disruption–a guy would run into the classroom and another guy would run in and shoot him. We had blood bags and everything. The idea was to get a visceral reaction–to make people feel that somebody was actually being killed up close, not just on the other side of the world. Then we’d announce how many people were killed each day and dash out before the teacher could arrest us. Sometimes we had to fight our way out.
Playboy: Was it really political or was it getting swept up in the social climate?
Douglas: It was a combination of the two. Yet, at the same time, I was living with a guy who was a member of a fraternity, and I went to some fraternity parties– Animal House stuff. Atrocious things, like a pig party: You invited these girls over and the guys would vote on who was the least attractive girl and then crap in her purse. Real mature stuff.
Playboy: You were draft age, right?
Douglas: My lottery number wasn’t that high–meaning I was eligible–and I had some problem with my back. I did some work with orthopedic surgeons, and I got letters and a brace. I’m not particularly proud of that now, but I knew I didn’t want to fight in that war.
Playboy: What parts of the Sixties stuck with you?
Douglas: I haven’t analyzed that, but it’s an interesting question. There was certainly a communal spirit. There was a spiritual side, a sense of trying to find a rhythm of life, whether it was through hallucinogens or music. There was an idealism. I think a lot of it did stay with me. As corny as it sounds now, there was a sense of brotherly love that was unique and quite extraordinary. It wasn’t just that, of course. A lot of bad asses also found they could grow their hair long and put on beads and think they had found sucker heaven. Then drugs took on another dimension–from being something to share and to experience in the context of that time to becoming a big, money-making entity. But in all that, there was a joyousness, joyfulness and idealism. There was a seriousness about being idealistic.
Playboy: Do you have any idea what it all meant in the historical process? Was it, as The Big Chill asked, all fashion?
Douglas: I think it’s on its way back. I think we’re just beginning to see the rebirth of the Sixties. We’re going back to paisleys.
Playboy: What’s the significance of that?
Douglas: Well, paisley was the easiest pattern to start hallucinating on. [Laughs] No, that’s the trivial side. But look at the music world, for instance. I’m seeing much more of a social consciousness emerging. The film industry should be ashamed of itself. The Live Aid events have been remarkable. Bob Geldof [Live Aid’s organizer] may very well win the Nobel Peace Prize this year. It made my heart proud to see that almost every one of those fuckers up there was my age. These guys are still going strong.
I think two things are happening: There is a phenomenal curiosity among today’s youth about the Sixties. They really recognize that something special was going on then. On the other side, the people who lived through the Sixties are now in a position of power. Whether they are principals of schools or heads of companies, I don’t think they have forgotten the things we learned in the Sixties.
Playboy: In any case, you were saying you weren’t much of a student.
Douglas: Yeah. When I returned to school in Santa Barbara, I signed up for the theater department, just because I had to have a major and I figured it was the easiest thing there was. No, it was not out of any burning, longing desire to act. In ’67, I left school and went to New York. Ron Cowen, the author of a play called Summertree, wanted me to revive a part I had played in a summer theater. I auditioned about five times and got the part. The next day, they decided I didn’t have the part and I’d have to audition again. So I went back to school to study theater.
Playboy: Did your parents encourage you?
Douglas: They were carefully neutral.
Playboy: Your break came with the part of Lieutenant Steve Keller in Streets of San Francisco. How did that begin?
Douglas: I had made three or four miserable pictures that were all failures, and I had just started getting episodic television–an episode of The FBI, which was produced by Quinn Martin, who was planning to produce Streets. He had Karl Malden set, and they were looking for a side-kick. Karl and my father had been in summer stock together many years before. They changed their names the same summer. Karl’s name used to be Mladen Sekulovich. My father’s used to be Issur Demsky. Those things made a difference when they were considering me for the part of the second banana.
Playboy: Second banana?
Douglas: At first, I was always two steps behind Karl, in soft focus.
Playboy: What did that show do for you?
Douglas: Well, I will always be indebted to Karl, because he really taught me a lot about discipline. He was a workaholic. We got into the habit of working on the next week’s script between rehearsals. And, meanwhile, I kept my eyes and ears open. I used to stick close to the production manager of the show. When a script came in, I would watch how it broke down. I watched the producers and directors. That’s basically where I got all my production experience. After the first year, Karl got the producers to let the kid do what he wanted. In other words, he made me much more of an equal.
Karl and I became good friends, but it took a while. I remember the first episode we ever did. We were getting to know each other a little bit, kind of being polite. We were on top of Nob Hill, right in front of the Fairmont. The light was going to be quick. We were doing a scene where we dashed off in the car. We jumped into the car, put the gum ball on the roof and took off. As always, I was behind the wheel. We heard, “Action!” and we jumped into the car and I wheeled around the corner, and we were going so fast that as we got over the top of the hill, we were airborne. All I know is that I had enough time in the air to stop and look at Karl. He was looking over at me, ready to murder. Thank God, our wheels were straight; we sort of sc-r-eeeched to a stop. I thought I was fired. He was screaming, “That’s not driving! You call that driving?” [Shrugs] I had only one accident the whole four years, and I used to drive all the time. He got used to it. He used to get his foot up on the dashboard and hold on tight, and I would fly. You’ve got to do something to release energy sometimes. . . . I put him in more four-wheel slides and spins—-
Playboy: As a child of the Sixties, did you have qualms about playing a cop in 1971?
Douglas: There was an element of that. Most of my parts before that had been hippie draft resisters. After I’d been playing my TV role for a while, when I went out socially, I’d walk into a party where people were in different degrees of debauchery, and they would look up and, more than once, flip out: “A cop!” Anyway, the character seemed to grow on people–as did the show. Whatever it was, to this day, people seem to love the show. It’s in syndication and seems to go on forever.
Playboy: With all that exposure as Lieutenant Keller, was it difficult for you to finally shed the role?
Douglas: I don’t think I’ve yet gotten over that role, though I’m optimistic. It certainly gave me a notoriety that one would never get in a film. I did 104 episodes over four years. There were a minimum of 25,000,000 people watching once a week. If you get 25,000,000 people to see one film, it’s a phenomenal, smash success. So the kind of exposure you get in TV is hard to match with feature films.
Playboy: When you finally broke away from TV to films, were you afraid of being compared with your father as an actor?
Douglas: I was a young, insecure actor who in hindsight probably should have stayed in New York and done a lot more training. In general, I was savvy enough to know I didn’t get a job starring in a picture because of my father. Maybe on your first film they can get some press off of it, but it isn’t worth the responsibility of casting you in a multimillion-dollar film.
I also knew what a strong persona my father had, so I think I tended to avoid any personality comparisons. Early on, I’d find myself censoring myself–even with gestures or expressions I might naturally have as a son–for fear that it might inspire, “Aha, that reminds me of Kirk.” That was the most limiting aspect of it in hindsight, and it’s something I’ve come to grips with only in the past few years.
I’m still not entirely comfortable in front of a camera. For a long time, it was like an X-ray machine at a dentist’s office. I was always aware of its presence and got used to it only over time.
Playboy: So what do you do? Just take a deep breath and switch it on?
Douglas: It depends on the part. If I’m not sure what I’m doing, then I definitely close up. I like the idea of opening up, but to me, that means pushing emotions. It’s just like an interview like this. It is scary to open up, but if you push yourself to do that, you will achieve more, and it’s the same thing as an actor. I feel comfortable opening up when it involves extremes of emotion. On the other hand, it takes another kind of confidence to allow yourself to do nothing. My father always complimented me by saying that, on The Streets of San Francisco, I could do nothing better than anybody else. [Laughs] There were pages and pages of scenes where I sat there listening with my arms folded, nodding, just listening to what was going on. He said I could do nothing better than anybody he’d ever seen.
Playboy: You need an excuse to open up?
Douglas: Oh, yeah, a movie is an excuse to open up. It definitely allows you an opportunity to show emotions that you might find more difficult to show in real life. It gives you carte blanche, and I love the opportunity. I’m lucky enough to live out fantasies, so I think I’m always somewhat reserved in my feelings in my life–my English upbringing or something.
Playboy: Do the pitfalls of celebrity make you wary, too?
Douglas: The biggest advantage of being second generation was that you had no illusions about what it was all about. Growing up with my father and mother and being surrounded by the other stars, you saw their vulnerabilities and their insecurities, saw their good times, their bad times. I have no illusions about who I am. I haven’t changed at all. People’s reaction and response may change, but I haven’t. It’s more difficult for your son, for your wife and for friends around you.
Playboy: How have things changed in Hollywood? Would it be more or less difficult to make a China Syndrome or a Cuckoo’s Nest today?
Douglas: On one hand, it would be more difficult. Studios have become more and more conservative as films cost more and more to make. Right now, the industry seems to be sequel crazy. They don’t want to see pictures unless they’ve got a sequel, which means a relatively sure thing. On the other hand, outside the studios, there appears to be a rejuvenation of low-budget, independent films. This hasn’t happened in about 15 years.
Playboy: Do you find it ironic that the upstarts in the film industry–Spielberg and Lucas being the best examples–are now the heart of the industry?
Douglas: We’re all establishment. All of a sudden, you turn the corner and you’ve been sucked in.
Playboy: You’re not just establishment; you’ve also become a romantic leading man–that’s closer to classical.
Douglas: I know; there just aren’t many romantic leads now. There are a lot of guys playing with guys–male buddies–or guys playing alone: the loner types. But there are not many actors who complement women now. You have adversary situations with women but rarely equal situations with them. I look back at the Forties films and see how many couples there were–films where there were much more equal male and female parts. For Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile, we looked a lot at It Happened One Night and The African Queen. It seemed that those kinds of wonderful relationships just don’t exist now–though I think some of it’s coming back.
It’s the part after the first infatuation, the craziness, that makes for real romance. One of the things that strike home when I look back at the relationship of my mother and stepfather is how well they treated each other, which makes me much more aware of how well we tend to treat strangers and how poorly we tend to treat the person closest to us. We tend to treat the person closest to us with a lack of sensitivity and with thoughtlessness, while we make these grand gestures to strangers for our own self-image. It now seems to be coming back around. It’s the realization of the stuff that holds water in the long run. When Playboy does a pictorial, for example, there’s a reason you usually start off with the woman’s clothes on. There’s a reason you tell us a little bit about the person–you give us her sense of humor, what she likes to do–we’re getting to know her. We ultimately get completely exposed to that person. Sex obviously plays an important part, but those other stages are more interesting to me.
Playboy: Nevertheless, you’ve filmed some fairly intense sex scenes with your leading ladies. We shouldn’t finish before you’ve told us how you keep things professional. At least a few of our readers might be willing to trade places with you for a love scene with, say, Kathleen Turner.
Douglas: Forget love scenes. Love scenes are the most awkward, technically difficult situations. For instance, if you’re on top of a woman in a love scene, it’s very hard for the camera to get angles. You’ve got to do acrobatics and contortions so the lighting is right and the camera angles are right. Sorry, guys, but love scenes are work.
Playboy: So what are you telling us–that you’re just feigning passion?
Douglas: Well, we’ve all done that, haven’t we? [Laughs]
Interview conducted with Vicki Sheff-Cahan