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[Only IN Hollywood] Michael Douglas’ sensible rule on set? ‘No dickheads’

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Michael Douglas’ sensible rule on set? ‘No dickheads’

Michael Douglas in Conversation at the Palais des Festivals

Earl Gibson III/HFPA

The veteran actor, who recently received the honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, says that taking care of fellow actors and crew members pays off

LOS ANGELES, USA – “No dickheads.”

That’s the practical, sensible rule that Michael Douglas, as an actor-producer, learned early on and implemented in his productions for many decades.

The day after receiving an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Michael sat down for a conversation with several members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) who were attending the festival. HFPA president Helen Hoehne presided over the chat held at Salon des Ambassadeurs, a room on one of the top floors of Palais des Festivals.

We witnessed the standing ovation for Michael at the festival’s opening night inside the Palais. Cannes feted him with its highest honor to celebrate his career which is capped by two Oscars, four Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award and three for best actor in various categories, and an Emmy Award.

Douglas, now 78, reflected on his career, which has spanned almost six decades despite the giant shadow cast by his dad, Kirk Douglas, whom he eventually understood and became close to. He also shared his thoughts on current projects, and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their kids, who are aspiring actors.

He has valiantly battled tongue cancer which he first announced in 2010. At one point, Michael confirmed that the cancer was at stage four but apparently, he is now in good health.

The actor, who has been a producer since the 1970s, beginning with the landmark One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which swept the 1976 Oscars and Golden Globes, including best picture, elaborated on the “no dickheads” dictum he implements in his sets.

It’s all part of what he learned from his early days – that taking care of fellow actors and crew members pays off. “Encourage them, help them, give them support, make them relax because that’s what you want,” said the actor-producer, who was dressed in a navy blazer, dress shirt, and slacks.

“You want to create the best possible working conditions. So, my motto has been, no dickheads.”

Michael Douglas: “You want to create the best possible working conditions. So, my motto has been, no dickheads.” Photo by Earl Gibson III/HFPA

“Sometimes you have the part and you just then do the best you can. And then the other thing in the spirit of surrounding yourself with the best people possible is the producing hat. You try to make everybody else as good as they could be.”

“Don’t try to undermine or try to take away. Help them, support them. I learned this with Karl Malden on The Streets of San Francisco, where we have guest actors come up to work on the show. You’re always a little more nervous and everything.”

With Michael’s mention of Karl and The Streets of San Francisco, he instantly took me back to the ’70s when I first watched him and his veteran costar as two homicide investigators in the City by the Bay in the series that successfully ran for five seasons, from 1972 to 1977. From that show, Michael rose to prominence as an actor and producer.

Asked about the most important career lessons that he learned, Michael answered, “It’s all in the material. It starts, it ends with the material. Not a good idea but a good script. And then you complement that with as much talent as you can possibly find.”

“I was fortunate enough at a very early point with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the time we spent working on that script, and then gradually, because if you have a good script, it attracts the talent. It brings the talent.”

“Also, I worry much less about my part. This is the lesson I got from both my father and Karl Malden. I want to be surrounded by the best possible actors.”

“Paul Newman did this a lot. He wanted to have the best actors around him. He wasn’t worried about being upstaged. If they have the part, let them go with it.”

“When I was doing Basic Instinct, it was clear Sharon Stone had a fabulous, wonderful part and she was great in it. That’s what you want because the more good people, you’ll ride with them.”

“So sometimes, people just look at the part and forget, ‘Oh, it’s a great part,’ but it’s a lousy movie. So, I want to be good in a good movie, not a bad movie. Bad movie – just nobody goes to see.”

“So, the issue is just making sure that the material is good and don’t worry so much about your part because if it’s good material, it’s going to attract good people. That’s what you want to be with.”

“And then the reality is that you may get four or five really good parts in your entire life that you want to do. This is why with Cuckoo’s Nest, when we finally got it together and dad was too old, he was disappointed because RP McMurphy was probably one of the four or five best parts he could have had in his career.”

Back story: Kirk bought the stage and screen rights to Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel. He played RP McMurphy, one of the lead characters, in a 1963 Broadway adaptation. The veteran actor tried without success for several years to bring One Flew… to the big screen.

Michael, then an actor known for The Streets… who wanted to be a film producer, convinced his dad to let him try and make the screen adaptation happen. When Michael succeeded in setting up a film version, Kirk insisted that he play RP McMurphy.

But Michael thought his dad was too old to play the role of a rebel ward in a mental institution run by Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher), a tyrant who has coerced the other patients into docility. Instead, Michael gave the plum RP role to Jack Nicholson, who went on to give one of his most unforgettable performances and win the best actor Oscar.

This casting issue reportedly affected Michael and Kirk’s relationship for a time but eventually, they got over it and had a good relationship until the senior Douglas died in 2020.

On receiving this recent international recognition, the Palme d’Or from Cannes, which attracts filmmakers, talents, media, and cineastes from around the world, Michael replied, “I’ve always had strong relations with the foreign countries for my work, going back to The Streets of San Francisco and my first awards, like the Bambi Award from Germany.” (Bambi is Germany’s answer to the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys.)

Michael Douglas: “I have movies that I love that nobody has seen. But overall, I’m very proud.” Photo by Earl Gibson III/HFPA

The Basic InstinctFatal Attraction, and Wall Street star shared his personal connection to the world’s preeminent film festival. “Here (Cannes) in particular, two things come to mind. One, this is where my father met his wife, Anne, my stepmother.”

“Anne was my stepmother for 63 years so I was very close to her and loved her very much. She and my mother (Diana Douglas, Kirk’s first wife) were very close. I benefited from stepparents who all liked each other and had a lot of time together.”

“Anne was a French publicist and she actually was a publicist here at the festival in the ’50s, for a famous public relations company with Georges Cravenne. She worked with him.”

“I remember those stories going back to when I was 10, 11 years old about Cannes Festival. I actually came and visited a couple of times. So, that started it.”

“But then every time that I was here, of all the different festivals I went to, Cannes is clearly in a class by itself. And it’s not by how well they do it but just by the joy and affection the filmmakers, predominantly in France, have and how much they love cinema.”

“In a lot of film festivals, there’s sort of a little bit of an anti-American (sentiment) or American films sort of overtake everything. And here, they don’t have that. You feel joy.”

“I’ve been supporting the Foreign Press (HFPA) for…we did our first event over 45, close to 50 years ago. I love that our work translates around the world. And in the same way, I love the fact that this is one area that brings us all together.”

“I feel that at this festival, this is a time, as I tried to say last night, with COVID and the war going on, to bring us all closer together as human beings. The dangers of social media that we’re still realizing are happening, which have kind of separated us. Hopefully, it brings us back.”

“And then everybody’s got a joy of cinema. So, I find Cannes has always been friendly, supportive, and in good spirits.”

The famous Cannes red carpet has witnessed the premieres of some of Douglas’ important projects: James Bridges’ The China Syndrome (1979) with Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon; Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) with Sharon Stone; Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993); and Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013).

“Well, every time I was here, I just enjoyed these premieres,” he recalled. “They always were different. In The China Syndrome, Jack Lemon won that year, winning the Palme d’Or for best actor. That left a big impression.”

“I remember we came here with Basic Instinct. And it was like, ‘Whoa!’ I remember the screen was almost…the festival was too big for what was going on.”

“I remember the dinner afterwards was very quiet. Nobody quite knew what to say after that. That’s all right.”

In a Cannes festival interview with Variety for his honorary Palme d’Or, Michael was quoted as saying that in 1992, Basic Instinct was “unique, even for France…. Seeing a lot of those sex scenes on the Grand Palais’ huge screen, it was a little overwhelming for a lot of people.”

Michael again stressed that he welcomes good performances by his fellow actors. “I’ve never sensed rivalry or competition – only real joy of the cinema.”

He reiterated his praise of Cannes as a joyous celebration of world cinema. “People are happy, no matter which country you came from. Politics tend to stay at a minimum here.”

“As an old supporter of the United Nations, this is important for me because I’m not happy with how the world is getting divisive and how we should probably be coming together more.”

Looking back at his performances, Michael, who first broke through on TV via a CBS Playhouse Special, The Experiment, in 1969, said, “I feel, using a baseball term, that I have a good batting average. I can’t say they’re all home runs and all that but I have a lot of hits. And if I were going to be a batter, I would be the third up or there.”

“I picked my material pretty closely. I said before, obviously, we have our failures which you work on. I have movies that I love that nobody has seen. But overall, I’m very proud.”

“And particularly, it was nice – there was some discussion, a little controversy when I was here with Liberace (Behind the Candelabra) a few years ago as to whether it could be eligible for a best actor Palme d’Or at that time. Some discussion was made by HBO although it was shown theatrically in movie theaters in France.”

“I’m a little bit of a different school because for me, the beauty of streaming is it’s the first time we brought together television and film talent. Finally, it’s together.”

“I don’t know how it is in some of your countries but unfortunately in the States, film and television have always been kind of separate. And film looks down on television.”

“As somebody who has come out of television before, I have a lot of respect for television because I realize the value of what you can make for the price versus the incredible amount of time and cost in films. It doesn’t necessarily equate but so be it.”

 Michael Douglas: “It’s a wonderful existence but it really did help to be a second generation. I think it really helps you keep grounded and understand just how hard the work is.” Earl Gibson III/HFPA

When the topic turned to growing up with a formidable figure like Kirk and how it must have been a challenge, Michael said, “First of all, I would recommend a documentary (The Prodigal Son) that’s here at the festival. If you get a chance, see it. It’s really good. It’s not a love letter.”

The Prodigal Son, directed by Armine Mesta, was screened in Cannes for two days and will air on Arte, the European culture TV channel.

The Prodigal Son addresses some of the issues, particularly on my end of what does it mean to grow up with a highly successful, well-known father, and then begin to get into my career. In the beginning, there was a certain resentment because he was starting before television was even around.”

“So, it wasn’t unusual for him to do six, seven movies a year. He was working all the time and he really didn’t have a lot of time for his family. I think I probably resented it until I got old enough to have my own family and understand a little better.”

“And then I thought, he wasn’t so bad, after all. But there are advantages of being a second generation. You get to see how they are socially in situations.”

“You get to see him and his friends, and his friends are Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, but you see them with their insecurities and their foibles. And you see them as real people.”

“You understood that. And you also saw how hard your father worked. You saw the tenacity, you saw the strength. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to really see through a project all the way, not to lose confidence, not to lose faith.”

“He was quite an extraordinary guy. Then later in life, he changed and we had a very close relationship. I felt very fortunate.”

On his coming projects, he mentioned Reagan & Gorbachev, announced in 2020 as a Paramount limited series that would star him and Christoph Waltz and is based on Ken Adelman’s book, Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War.

“There’s not a current discussion about it,” he revealed. “I was going to do Reagan at Reykjavik when he met Gorbachev. We were going to do that. Still maybe but it never came to fruition.”

The actor, appointed as a UN Messenger of Peace in 1998 and is an advocate of nuclear disarmament, added, “I haven’t done that many historical pictures. That was an area I’m very interested in and concerned about disarmament and elimination of nuclear weapons. That particular story in Reykjavik was just a situation where we probably came closest to eliminating nuclear weapons.”

Franklin, an Apple TV+ miniseries where he plays the title role, Benjamin Franklin, depicts the eight years that one of the Founding Fathers spent in France to persuade the country to underwrite America’s democracy.

Noah Jupe, Eddie Marsan, Ludivine Sagnier, and Marc Duret co-star in the limited series shot mostly in Versailles. Michael shared, “This was the enjoyment of doing something while learning a little history and having a wonderful time here in France for eight months.”

“…Just realizing what an important role France played in the creation of America. It was really their support, money, ships, and finances which helped us get through the war with the British.”

On how being a father to Dylan and Carys, his children with Catherine, impacted his choice of roles when they were younger, Michael admitted, “There was a time when they all were still in the house, you questioned those projects that would take you away. I think Ant-Man was a certain product to show my kids, when they were younger, that I was relevant.”

“And also, a whole new audience that you were introduced to, which was really an impressive part. But now, they’re all out and about.”

“But I must say all three of my kids want to be actors.” Dylan and Carys are 22 and 20, respectively. Cameron, Michael’s son with his ex-wife Diandra Luker, is 44.

Michael Douglas on Carys Zeta Douglas (left), his daughter with Catherine Zeta-Jones: “My daughter’s still in college but pursuing acting. That’s a real testament to their grandfather who they were very close to and I guess, to me.” Photo by Earl Gibson III/HFPA

“My daughter’s still in college but pursuing acting. That’s a real testament to their grandfather who they were very close to and I guess, to me.” Carys stunned on the Cannes red carpet when she showed up with her famous parents.

“And to think there could be a third generation? At last count, Dad and I looked. I think we’ve done over 160 movies. He was a producer, too – about 60, 70 productions so it covered a bit.”

As for seeing Michael and Catherine together on the big screen, he pointed out, “We were (in a film) once. We were in Traffic together. It was different parts of the movie. And actually, she was carrying Carys. She was pregnant with Carys when she did that.”

“We should. I would think so. We should find something to do. Maybe a remake of The War of the Roses. You don’t want to see us lovey-dovey. You want to see…Catherine would be a great one to go at it with. She would be, yeah.”

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones on the Cannes red carpet. Earl Gibson III/HFPA

In closing, Michael talked about him possibly taking a shot at playing one of his dad’s roles. “There was some talk at one time about Lust for Life. He played Van Gogh. That was so good. It’s hard to touch.”

“We had that one experience with Wall Street and Money Never Sleeps which was okay. But I haven’t made a history of doing remakes. I’d like to try to think of things original to do.”

Summing up, Michael reflected, “It’s a wonderful existence but it really did help to be a second generation. I think it really helps you keep grounded and understand just how hard the work is. It’s not all autographs and sunglasses.”

“It’s really hard work and you need a marathoner’s mentality in terms of the amount of time that it takes to see projects through.” – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.