It wasn’t his acting skills, but his driving skills that earned Michael Douglas his first on-camera role.
As a young man visiting his famous father on location in Israel, Douglas was tapped to drive a Jeep in 1966’s “Cast a Giant Shadow.”
“I was a pretty good driver and hit my mark,” he said. “So that was the extent of my first (appearance) on screen.”
Douglas, 64, has gone on to star in or produce more than three dozen films over his 40-year career. He was honored for his work this month with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, and the ceremony is scheduled to be broadcast Sunday on cable’s TV Land.
The Academy Award winner sat down with The Associated Press to reflect on the most memorable movies and moments of his career.
“Hail Hero,” 1969: “(This) could have been the beginning and the end of my career. I played a radical college student who was going off to Vietnam and the picture required me to have long hair and my father, (played by) Arthur Kennedy, cut it off. So we had to get a wig because the continuity of the movie so I could shoot different things. So we worked on the wig and I put the wig on and I looked in the mirror and I looked just like Veronica Lake.”
Douglas’ first producing credit, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” 1975: “We did everything wrong. We shot the film in an actual state mental hospital, the one Ken Kesey wrote about, in Oregon in January, so the light was bad outside and you had to match the light and the logistics of the location. It created an atmosphere where your actors could not really go home at night so they stayed there. The combination of all of these characters and that kind of intensity created this environment and as we saw the dailies, we said this is good, this is really good.”
On “Cuckoo’s Nest” winning the Oscar for best picture: “I remember cajoling Jack Nicholson so hard just to show up, because I think he’d been nominated four times before and had lost every time and he didn’t want to go through all of it again. Then I remember that we were nominated for nine nominations and we lost the first four of the night, and Jack was sitting right of me (saying), ‘Mikey D., I told ya. Here we go.’ Then screenplay won, then Milos (Forman) won, then Louise (Fletcher) for best actress, Jack, and then it was a roll. It was a great, great night because it was a group that had been together a long time and still were good friends.”
“The China Syndrome,” 1979: “Ten days after the movie opened, Three Mile Island happened. One of the other phenomenons besides that coincidence was in the movie, where we describe what the China Syndrome is, the character in the movie says it would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania, and Three Mile Island was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. ... It was a real epiphany for me and I thought somebody was trying to tell me something. That, on a personal note, began my whole quest in the area of nuclear disarmament, elimination of nuclear weapons ... It really made a lifelong pursuit for me in that area.”
“Romancing the Stone,” 1984: “It was really a lot of heavy, heavy-lifting producing work. Danny DeVito, my oldest buddy — he and I roomed together in New York City early on in our career — and Kathleen Turner I will always be indebted to because I can’t think of any other actress who would put up with the production issues that we had. She was fantastic. And we pulled it off. It looks effortless and it looks fun but it was a tough picture. But we all like tequila, and that helped.”
“Fatal Attraction,” 1987: “The pitch on ‘Fatal Attraction’ was so simple: A married man has an affair with a wacko who basically takes after his marriage ... That was sort of the start, maybe a little earlier, the start of me playing these not particularly popular (or) nice characters and winning audiences over. Where basically you start off as an adulterer, and ultimately the audience is rooting for you. I don’t quite know where I got this sort of enjoyment, I think it’s a little bit about risk-taking with your performances — playing parts that are initially in a gray area, you can’t say they’re really good guys, but then you eventually, hopefully, win the audiences over to your side.”
“Wall Street,” 1987: “Gordon Gekko is a great old-fashioned villain. Interestingly enough, if you look at most actor’s careers, their biggest achievement — not necessarily success — is playing bad guys.”
On winning the Oscar for his role and his father Kirk Douglas: “I know being second generation, inherently there’s a lot of mixed feelings. People think that it’s probably a lot easier than it actually is, that you had an advantage on one side. But on the other side I know it’s much harder to establish your own identity, because people have such an archetype of your father out there, and you have his genes, so how do you establish who you are? Movie history shows that there’s not a very long history of second-generation actors. So to get that nomination and to get a win, for me, was such a confirmation and really, as an actor, allowed me to step out of my father’s shadow and gave me the confidence for the future.”
“Basic Instinct,” 1992: “I was looking to do a slamdance. I wanted to just let 'er rip. Paul Verhoeven is such a wonderful director ... Well-structured, really, really good filmmaking. Star-making role for Sharon, she was wonderful in it; Jeanne Tripplehorn, and a good thriller. Great score.”
“Falling Down,” 1993: “It was right after the end of the Cold War, the fall of Communism, the Berlin Wall came down. There was a time in Los Angeles when defense contracting was the biggest business in town, not movies. There were a lot of major defense contractors here. And the wall came down, and a lot of guys were given pink slips and told thank you for their work, good patriots ... It was just a great setup of this guy walking across L.A. and giving a story with that kind of hostility and dark humor.”
“Wonder Boys,” 2000: “Curtis Hanson, great script, Robert Downey, Jr., Tobey Maguire, lovely, lovely cast, Frances McDormand. It was maybe just a little too odd, kind of in that niche people just didn’t pick up. It’s hard these days. Everything’s geared on that first weekend because of the marketing costs and everything. It used to be that a movie could hang in there and find its legs and keep on going. It’s much more difficult now. It’s hit or miss.”
“It Runs in the Family,” 2003: “It had come after some health issues and (Kirk Douglas) and I had never done a picture together before. I said this is crazy. We’ve got to find something. So we found this project, developed it. Fred Schepisi directed it. My mother, Diana, who is not as well known of an actor as Kirk, played his wife ... It was a wonderful time. We were all together in New York and it was a time to catch up between takes and spend time just seeing each other. My mother and my father had been divorced for 55 years but are very good friends, so it was a chance to catch up and I’ve glad I’ve had those memories and that moment.”