Is there a more recognizable father and son in Hollywood than Kirk and Michael Douglas? They had a happy relationship by all accounts, though at times things weren’t so simple. Naturally, there have been tensions, like in any family. In fact, at times things went a little “Cuckoo…”
Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas: Hollywood’s ultimate father and son combo?
Michael followed in his footsteps, playing a variety of roles in Romancing the Stone (1984), Wall Street (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), and Falling Down (1993).
It wasn’t easy being the son of a famous actor. Come to think of it, it was no picnic raising a family in the limelight either.
Kirk started life in poverty. Christened Issur Danielovitch in 1916, he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father Herschel.
The shadow of his upbringing appears to have loomed large for Kirk, who was determined not to repeat these mistakes with his sons, including Michael. However, his strong work ethic took him away from home more often than not.
“Kirk was all-consumed, was overworked” Michael told the Associated Press. “Probably like myself at a certain time in my life”.
To say there was pressure in living up to Kirk’s reputation is an understatement. Nevertheless, Michael began to make inroads into showbusiness. He was an actor in the detective series The Streets Of San Francisco (1972-77). And when an opportunity came to produce a movie, he took it.
One slight problem. He had to talk to Kirk about it first.
The project was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Originally a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, it told the story of Randle McMurphy. This charismatic figure fakes mental illness so he can shelter in the relative safety of an institution. Along the way, he loses his mind. Kirk Douglas played the role of McMurphy in a stage adaptation on Broadway.
Speaking to Roger Ebert in 1969, he revealed that starring in an edgy production didn’t earn him any kudos in Tinseltown: “Van Heflin warned me. He said, They hate actors who’ve made it. They’ll kick you in the ass if they can.”
He figured it’d make a great movie and tried to get it into production. However, no studios would bite.
Then Michael wanted to give it a try. As quoted by The Guardian back in 2017, he believed Kesey’s book was “a brilliantly conceived story of one man against the system. I had never thought about producing, but told my dad: ”˜Let me run with this.’”
The making of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (according to Kirk!)
Michael wanted to make Cuckoo’s Nest happen. He also wanted Kirk to play McMurphy onscreen. Director Milos Forman was hired and everything looked rosy.
Yet one flower in the garden seemed a little past its prime to Forman. He reportedly considered Kirk too old to take the title role. Michael respected his colleague’s artistic vision, and agreed.
You probably didn’t want to be in the room when Michael told Kirk what was happening. More hackles were raised when the movie went on to win numerous awards. Kirk reckoned Michael had brushed him aside. Michael stated he was only doing what Forman wanted.
The younger Douglas recalled his father’s aggravation in a discussion with Ben Mankiewicz in 2017. It appeared to be an issue, even decades later. “If he were here right now,” Michael said, “it’s the first thing he’d want to tell you.”
In 2020, Deadline noted: “while Kirk was pleased by his son’s success, the casting incident nonetheless put a strain on their relationship”.
Later years and reconciliation
Kirk and Michael didn’t seem to have a bad relationship over the years, but rivalries and tensions existed.
Comparisons were often drawn between their womanizing ways. Kirk strayed from his wives Diana Dill (Michael’s mother) and Anne Buydens. Later, Michael would seek treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.
Health issues brought them closer together. In 1996 Kirk suffered a stroke that changed his life. Then in 2010, Michael was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Both made it through, and became stronger through adversity. Above all, they were there for each other.
Kirk Douglas passed away in 2020, aged 103. Paying tribute, Michael described him as “a legend” and “a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
To many, Jack Nicholson is Randle McMurphy. But it wouldn’t have happened had Kirk Douglas not pursued Cuckoo’s Nest as a film in the first place. And of course, without Kirk’s guiding influence, Michael may not have become a producer at all.
Passing down the torch
A recent photo of Michael Douglas, 78, shows how much the younger actor now looks like his father. Michael and his son, 22-year-old Dylan, two were spotted while they attended opening night of the Broadway play, Good Night Oscar, on April 24. Good Morning America posted a photo of the outing to their Facebook page and fans were stunned to see the uncanny resemblance between Kirk and Michael Douglas.
“Great picture of Michael Douglas and his son. Michael looks like his dad. So handsome,” noted one follower. Another wrote, “The older Michael gets, the more he looks like his dad. Congratulations Michael and Dylan!” Mom Catherine Zeta-Jones has also brought Dylan as her date to some red-carpet premieres.