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TV: Candid talk of life as a Douglas

Aug 13, 2005

Douglas Durden
Contact Douglas Durden at (804) 649-6359 or ddurden@
A FATHER . . . A SON . . .
AIRS: 8 to 9:35 p.m. Saturday, with several repeats on HBO.

It's a familiar story.

A husband cheats on his first wife and ignores his children, only to start a second family with a new spouse. Then his son, stung by his father's rejection as a child, does exactly the same thing.

Here's what makes HBO's "A Father . . . A Son . . . Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" different: This father and son are Kirk and Michael Douglas. And this father and son talk candidly about their lives together and apart in front of a camera.

Michael was 6 when his parents divorced. He says one of his earliest memories was of his parents arguing.

"The temper you saw on the set was his personality," says Michael of his movie-star father.

As becomes obvious in Lee Grant's 90-minute documentary-therapy session, premiering at 8 tonight, Michael's childhood left an ache that has never totally disappeared. Not even after the Oscars, or the affairs with beautiful co-stars, or his apparently successful second marriage to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Surprisingly, Kirk Douglas has some familial gripes of his own. For instance, how come his son, producer of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," didn't cast his father in the lead -- especially after his father had played the part on stage? (Michael explains he didn't want to override the director.)

Father and son hash over old times seated at a large kitchen table, cakes and cups in front of them, reacting with surprise, chagrin and affection to what's being said by the other man. Occasionally, they tease each other, sometimes fondly, sometimes with more of an edge.

Douglas the younger recalls growing up in his father's larger-than-life shadow. He could do everything, he says of his actor-father: shoot, ride, play a Viking. Film clips take viewers along on the ride.

"As an actor, it was really intimidating watching my father because his persona, his presence was so strong, so dynamic. Forget acting, you didn't know how you were going to be a man."

Kirk, his voice still straining from the effects of his stroke nine years ago, says that Michael, because of his privileged childhood, had to work harder to prove himself.

"I came from abject poverty. I had nowhere to go but up."

Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in 1916, was the son of Russian immigrants. That they were poor is obvious from the title of Douglas' 1988 autobiography, "The Ragman's Son."

Even now, at the age of 88, Kirk complains about his father's lack of love, or at least his inability to demonstrate it.

Kirk, three-time Oscar nominee, says he never got a pat on the back. Michael pats him on the back.

Michael gets his turn at film clips as well. Here he is as the young detective stud of TV's "The Streets of San Francisco," where Karl Malden served as father figure to the young actor. Here he is as Jane Fonda's cameraman in the prophetic "The China Syndrome." Here he is in some of the steamiest box office hits of the last 20 years, "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct."

Unlike his father, who didn't get an Oscar until his honorary award in 1996, Michael Douglas, 60, already has two of Hollywood's holy grails: one as producer ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and one as actor ("Wall Street").

Kirk and Michael Douglas have other similarities besides their acting. Both were producers of movies they felt passionately about. Both have done extensive humanitarian work. But it's their roles as husbands and fathers that "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is interested in.

This is not so much a documentary as a family album with edge, with wives, children and professional friends offering revealing commentary. For instance, Peter Douglas, Michael's half-brother, talks about his childhood as the chubby Douglas, the son who couldn't live up to his father's virile image.

Toward the end of the documentary, 26-year-old Cameron Douglas, Michael's son by his first wife, says he understands his father's absence while growing up. It's like being a truck driver; his work takes him elsewhere.

Sadder still is the fate of Eric Douglas, to whom the film is dedicated.

Kirk's youngest son died a year ago from an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription pills -- and a lifetime of being a Douglas.

Contact Douglas Durden at (804) 649-6359 or

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