“I’m telling a story you’ve heard before,” Kirk Douglas announces to his son, Michael, as the younger man steps into his father’s living room.
“Tell it like it’s the first time,” Michael Douglas replies, gently teasing his 88-year-old father and co-star in a new HBO documentary detailing their careers and, with intriguing candor, their relationship.
Their style of affectionate banter is on display in “A Father, A Son: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” along with a glimpse at the push-and-pull tension between a father who has conquered an industry and a child who follows him, eager to make his own mark.
Add a rags-to-riches tale, old Hollywood glamour, beautiful wives, affairs and divorces to the mix and the result is irresistible, an intimate look at a family much scrutinized by the media but taking this chance to tell its own story.
Kirk Douglas was the more eager of the two to get involved, relishing the idea of an honest record as family heirloom. The film debuts 8 p.m. ET Saturday on HBO.
“You were a little reluctant,” he reminds his son. “But I told him, ‘We’ll have something to show the kids.”’
‘Tell the truth’Actress-filmmaker Lee Grant, a longtime friend of Kirk Douglas and his co-star in the 1951 movie “Detective Story,” proposed the project and then captured the men and those close to them in forthright on-camera conversation.
“I think there was a longing in both of them to do a film together,” Grant said. “The film they did (2003’s “It Runs in the Family”) was not a successful one. And I think there was this unfulfilled longing for Michael to do something for Kirk, to pay him back for all the encouragement that Kirk had gone out of his way to give him.”
The actors credit Grant’s skill as a filmmaker and their trust in her as a friend with drawing them out. But she said they were ready to be frank and encouraged others taking part to do the same.
“Kirk and Michael said, ‘Say the truth. Don’t pretty it up. This is our lives. The way to give it dignity is to tell the truth,”’ Grant told The Associated Press.
In one scene, Catherine Zeta-Jones recalls Michael Douglas using the brazen I-want-to-father-your-children pickup line when they meet at a film festival.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, I’ve read a lot about you and it’s so nice that it’s absolutely true,” she told him, before bidding him goodnight. Married since 2000, the couple has two children.
There’s a still-simmering confrontation over “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the play in which Kirk Douglas starred and which Michael Douglas produced for the screen in 1975 and turned into an Academy Award-winning picture — with Jack Nicholson in the lead role, not his father.
The clash carries over into their interview.
“That’s the picture where you destroyed me,” said Kirk Douglas.
Whether he’s joking or not, his son laughs, then replies: “Here we go again. So nice to know he forgives and forgets.”
Tackling the tough questionsEven the most deeply personal questions are faced head on.
“Was I a good father?” Kirk Douglas asks at one point in the film, drawing a kind but complicated answer from his son. The demands of stardom and a fiercely ambitious personality shaped by childhood poverty didn’t make Douglas the easiest father, as the film indicates.
But Kirk Douglas made every effort to take time for his son’s early stage appearances. “It says a lot,” said Michael Douglas, 60, whose mother, Diana, and father divorced when he was a child.
For both men, there’s drama aplenty both on- and off-screen to record.
Kirk Douglas bucked the Hollywood blacklist that kept communists and suspected communists from working, or working openly, insisting that author Dalton Trumbo get his rightful screenwriting credit for “Spartacus.”
“That could have been your career,” Douglas remarked to his father during their interview.
“You know, I’ve often thought if I were much older, I might not have done that,” Kirk Douglas said. “As you get older, you get more conservative, but I was still young enough to be a little bit impulsive. What got me was the hypocrisy.”
For Michael Douglas, winning the best-actor Oscar for “Wall Street” was his proudest career moment. In his speech, he thanked his father for “helping a son step out of a shadow.”
Among the sweetest scenes: video from a spiritually renewed Kirk Douglas’ bar mitzvah at age 83. “I’m 13 years old again and I promise, I promise to be a good boy,” he impishly tells his friends and family at the celebration.
The man sitting in his longtime Beverly Hills home, still handsome but made frail by age and with his speech hindered from a stroke a decade ago, is removed from the muscular, brash figure who dominated 1950s and ’60s movies including “Spartacus” and “Lonely Are the Brave.”
“After all, when you’ve been through a helicopter crash, a pacemaker and a stroke, it quiets you down a little bit,” Douglas said.
His son, too, claims a new perspective, comparing his present life to when he was a first-time dad (he and his former wife, Diandra, have a son, Cameron).
“I’m starting a new family now and at this point I’m certainly enjoying my two kids much more than Cameron at a time when I was overwhelmed with working,” Douglas said. “I don’t think there’s a balancing act. When you’re doing pictures, your personal life, your family life takes second position.”
In “A Father, A Son: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” family takes precedence. But the parlance is that of the family business.
“It’s just a joy to see somebody finish his last act in such a graceful way,” Michael Douglas says of his dad.
“I am a big fan,” Kirk Douglas tells his son.