PASADENA, Calif. — One thing you can count on in Hollywood is that actor-producer Michael Douglas always does the unexpected. When he first started he became the hot new actor in the TV series, “The Streets of San Francisco.” But he put that aside for a while to become a producer. His first venture, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” proved to be pure platinum, and he followed with three more hits.
Still, he never quit acting. And in that field he has always been willing to accept the more chancy roles like the unsympathetic characters in “Wall Street,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Wonder Boys.”
But his latest part is perhaps the biggest risk of all. He plays the flamboyant, gay showman Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” premiering Sunday.
The film — based on the book by Liberace’s former lover, Scott Thorson — is directed by Steven Soderbergh and costars Matt Damon as Thorson.
“As an actor you’re always trying to reach out and stretch and trying to do different things,” says Douglas, “so I was pleased — nervous whether I could pull it off and happy with the results.”
But pulling it off was only half the battle for Douglas. He had his own wars to wage when he was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer of the tongue. “That’s the worst level you can have,” he says, seated on a banquette in a lobby lounge of a hotel here.
“There was a while there — the odds aren’t good — it comes out of left field. It’s not a sickness that you grew up with or that you had. You always think it’s going to be somebody else and not you. The difficult time between that and my oldest son being incarcerated now, he’s in prison (on a drug charge). Dealing with those issues was a tough time, but you move on.”
Though he doesn’t mention it, his second wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has sought medical help twice in as many years.
Characteristically, Douglas says he’s managed to cope by just forging ahead. “I think people just inherently have tenacity or a stamina and an ability to identify that there is no choice but to move on,” he says.
“You can’t dwell. You have to keep going, and it’s really a question of how you focus your mind. The fact that Norman Vincent Peale (espoused) with his power of positive thinking. It’s hard, especially when these things come down all the time. It’s hard to think of different lifestyles — how you could change one’s lifestyle or location — this or that — once you have so much time invested in one occupation. But sometimes you have to.”
He’s cancer-free now and has projects lined up for the next three years, the busiest timetable he’s ever seen. He has two grown sons by his first wife, but he’s also the father of two younger children, Dylan, 12, and Carys, 10, with Zeta-Jones.
Being an older dad is a big plus, says Douglas. “On the positive side, because you’re older, you have much more patience, No. 1,” he says.
“No. 2, you’re not career-oriented so your priorities are much more in order. So there’s a joy. But saying that ... I’m looking ahead to the next five years, I’ll be in my 70s and he’ll (Dylan) be 17 and she’ll (Carys) be 15. I think, ‘Wow, am I going to have the energy to keep up with them now?’ It’s been a tremendous joy, and I would encourage a lot of men to hold off and wait and have the joy of having children later in life,” he says.
“Each child is different, but the most surprising thing was my patience, also being able to have much more time. When I had my oldest son I was very busy, very active. My work took me around the world and away from home a lot, and I didn’t really get a chance to enjoy my first son as much as I have these kids. I say it to everybody, not just people in our business, get your career squared away and all of that before you start talking about marriage and having children. Because there is no balance between trying to pursue a career, a marriage and being a good father. Something’s gotta give.”
Even though his father, Kirk Douglas, was a world-renowned movie star, acting wasn’t on Michael’s agenda at first. “Acting didn’t come natural to me. I worked hard at it and dealt with stage fright early in my career. It took a longer time, I think, to find your comfort level,” he says.
He admits he still doubts himself. “You go through terrible ups and downs, Liberace for one. Once you say, ‘What a great challenge!’ Then you say, ‘Can I do this?’ You have a good day working, and then you say, ‘This is NOT going to work.’ And you lose your confidence. ... I guess the one good thing about getting older is you can say, ‘Well, Michael, you’ve always pulled it out before. You kind of know you should be able to do it.’ But the challenge to do it well is always there. These are not things you can just sign in.”