Once pigeonholed as the TV star son of a screen legend, Michael Douglas had to make his name in movies behind the camera first – and here’s how.
1987 was a big year for Michael Douglas, who starred in both Fatal Attraction and Wall Street. One was the second highest-grossing movie of the year and the other scored him his second Oscar, his first for acting, but together, this double whammy cemented Douglas as a bona fide movie star after a surprisingly long time spent trying to make it in the movies.
The eldest son of actors Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill, he had no intention of following in his parents’ footsteps until his college days, after which he played several parts in stage and screen productions. Douglas first came to fame co-starring with Karl Malden in the TV series, The Streets Of San Francisco, but even with his famous family, it was an uphill battle to move from the small screen to the big screen.
Indeed, Douglas’ way into movies was behind the camera. Since attaining stardom, he’s continued to produce and star in a whole bunch of hits and just produce others throughout the 1990s, including Flatliners, Double Impact, The Rainmaker, and Face/Off. He was originally lined up to headline the latter of those along with Harrison Ford too – you can hear more about that by listening to the Film Stories podcast episode covering the film.
But it’s interesting to look at the behind-the-scenes troubles he experienced in the projects he backed early on, which ultimately yielded four vastly different films (and a sequel to one of them), released within a decade. They’re mostly pretty excellent films too, but let’s take a look at how it all began for Michael Douglas the producer…
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
When Kirk Douglas played the role of Randle P. McMurphy in a Broadway adaptation of Ken Kesey’s seminal 1962 novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he quickly snapped up the film rights, eager to bring it to the big screen. Over the subsequent years, he was disappointed to find that not a single studio was interested in backing a dark, counter-cultural drama set in a mental institution, despite the popularity of the novel.
By 1970, Douglas was ready to let go of his stake, but was convinced to sell them to his son Michael, who loved the book and wanted to have a run at making the film himself. Teaming up with financier and co-producer Saul Zaentz, he spent the next five years getting the film on its feet.
Douglas’ friend Danny DeVito, who was playing the part of Martini in the stage version at the time he got the rights, was the first to be cast, but there were immediate disagreements over who should play McMurphy. By most accounts, Kirk Douglas was disappointed to be deemed too old to reprise the character in the film version, as the filmmakers chose 38-year-old Jack Nicholson to play a lead role was very against-type for him at the time.
However, in a stunning coincidence, there was one choice that both father and son agreed on without realising. The junior Douglas hired director Miloš Forman after the filmmaker discussed Laurence Hauben’s screenplay page by page, taking the producer through his plan for the entire film. Then again, he’d had plenty of time to think about it, as the senior Douglas had sent Forman the book back when he first bought the rights, but never got a reply.
Further disputes came when Douglas and Zaentz offered Kesey the chance to adapt his novel but were dismayed that his draft contained several psychedelic sequences that were beyond the film’s limited budget and that the author dragged the production into a financial dispute when they tried to convince him.
After this was finally settled, the producers called on Bo Goldman to rewrite Hauben’s draft. Kesey would later tell an interviewer that he wasn’t going to watch the finished film, comparing it to the prospect of watching a gang of Hell’s Angels sexually assault his daughter.
All production problems aside, the producers ultimately got the film up and running in January 1975, with Louise Fletcher joining the cast as the iconic Nurse Ratched just two weeks before shooting began. The budget doubled to $4.4m, with Zaentz borrowing against his record company to raise the difference, and the film was complete.
Douglas found that distributors still didn’t want to touch the film, but it found a home at United Artists in the end and it was released in November 1975. Now regarded as one of the great American films of all time, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of only three films to win all five major Academy Awards – Best Picture (earning Douglas a gong), Best Director, Best Actor for Nicholson, Best Actress for Fletcher, and Best Screenplay for Hauben and Goldman.
The China Syndrome (1979)
For Douglas’ producing career, that Best Picture win was enormous, bagging him an Academy Award on his first run in the industry. He handed in his notice at the start of Season 5 of The Streets Of San Francisco and set about looking for a project in which he could act as well as produce. However, he was surprised to find that it took longer than expected to get his next project moving.
Speaking to Marc Maron on his WTF podcast in 2018, Douglas explained that even with an Oscar under his belt, he was still seen as “a television actor who’s trying to get into feature films”. As the standard of telly has improved, that stigma has certainly eroded over the last few decades, but it proved a bar to Douglas starring in any of his productions at the time.
After taking acting roles in the suspense thriller Coma and the sports drama Running, Douglas happened upon The China Syndrome, the debut feature screenplay by documentary filmmaker Mike Gray. As explained in the movie, the titlular syndrome describes the possible effects of a catastrophic meltdown at a nuclear power plant, including loss of life, illness, and permanent ruin of the surrounding areas.
At this time, nuclear energy was a controversial subject for high-profile liberal activists, but the more ambivalent Douglas was drawn to the script because he saw parallels with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in the story of a nuclear technician making a stand against his penny-pinching bosses. As he saw it, both stories pit one man against a moral conundrum within the structure that confines them.
Before the script came to Douglas, Robert Redford had already read and loved it, but turned it down only because he was consciously looking for something different to his previous political thrillers. That should give you an idea of the tone and pedigree of Gray’s script, but the subject matter still made it a bit of a hot potato.
Nevertheless, Douglas managed to sell The China Syndrome as a package deal to Columbia Pictures, with Gray directing, Jack Lemmon and Richard Dreyfuss starring, and Douglas himself playing a supporting role. This plan hit a speed-bump when Dreyfuss subsequently pulled out of the project.
Enter Jane Fonda, whose influence prompted something of an overhaul of the script. Like Lemmon, she was attracted to the script because of her own serious concerns about nuclear energy, and at the time, she was one of several environmentally conscious filmmakers vying to make a film based on the true story of corporate whistleblower and nuclear union activist Karen Silkwood, (who would eventually be played by Meryl Streep in 1983’s Silkwood).
During this period, Douglas sent Gray’s script to Fonda and secured her to take part in the film, even though there was no female role for her to play in the original draft. Columbia gave the budget a boost, and Gray stepped down as director after having creative differences with Fonda over the untraditional mockumentary style he intended to create. James Bridges was hired to rewrite and also direct the film.
Incorporating Fonda’s suggestions, Dreyfuss’ documentarian character was replaced with Kimberly Wells, a local TV newscaster who’s assigned a puff piece about nuclear power at the same time as an emergency plant shutdown takes place. She and Douglas’ cameraman investigate the events that follow as Lemmon’s shift supervisor battles with his bosses to ensure safety regulations are improved and avoid disaster.
By the time the film was released on March 16th 1979, the issue hadn’t cooled, and the press circuit was partly disrupted by major corporations such as General Electric pulling sponsorship from programmes where Fonda and the cast were scheduled to discuss the film and its portrayal of nuclear energy. Sight unseen, The China Syndrome was deemed “a sheer fiction” and “a character assassination of an entire industry.”
On March 28th 1979, just 12 days after the film was released in cinemas, a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station in eastern Pennsylvania underwent a partial core meltdown. Fortunately, the accident caused no immediate deaths, but took 14 years to clean up and, more topically, turned public opinion against nuclear power.
The timing of the accident was all the more ironic because at one point in The China Syndrome, a character says that a catastrophic meltdown would “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable”. Eager to avoid capitalising on the accident, Columbia did pull the film from some cinemas, but many have observed that there was a significant upswing in audience interest thereafter.
Already a critical success, the film became another sizeable box-office hit for Douglas, recouping 10 times its $5m budget during its theatrical run and scoring four Oscar nominations, including acting nods for Lemmon and Fonda.
After his success at Columbia with The China Syndrome, Douglas wanted to step up production significantly, intending to make a film a year under a three-year-deal he struck with the studio in 1980. It would take another five years for his next project to make it to the screen, as Douglas was continually frustrated with the studio’s procrastination. That project was the cracking sci-fi road movie, Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen.
Douglas had encouraged executives to buy Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon’s script when it first crossed his desk in 1979, and the studio saw it as a chance to make a grown-up love story with a science-fiction element. Having committed to make this film, executives turned down Steven Spielberg’s project Night Skies, seeing it as an uncommercial family-friendly affair.
However, while Columbia dithered over greenlighting Starman, Spielberg took Night Skies to Universal, where it eventually evolved into E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which became the biggest sleeper hit of all time upon its release in summer 1982. While the entire blockbuster landscape shifted, Starman was continually rejigged to fix its similarities to the project Columbia turned down. To add insult to injury, Douglas was denied the lead role.
“I wasn’t approved by the studio, but I wanted the Jeff Bridges part”, Douglas later recalled on WTF. Although he parted ways with the studio in 1983, having tried and failed to get dozens of projects greenlit, (including one that eventually turned out to be Fatal Attraction) Douglas stuck with Starman as an executive producer and chose one heck of a director to bring it to the screen.
John Carpenter had also been stung by E.T.’s success, having released his “nasty alien” remake of The Thing in the slipstream of the Spielberg love-in, and was looking for something lighter after a string of horror and action movies. After half a dozen directors had passed on the project, Douglas signed up Carpenter based on his view of the story of as a romantic comedy in the vein of It Happened One Night, rather than a massive blockbuster undertaking.
Starman was very positively reviewed at the time but suffered for competing with other sci-fi films Dune and 2010: The Year We Make Contact at the box office. Bridges went on to bag a Best Actor nomination at the 1985 Oscars for his superb performance – he’s still the only actor to be Oscar-nominated for playing an alien, so keep that one in mind for film quizzes.
35 years on, Douglas is now developing the planned Starman remake, which has Shaun Levy directing. He may have missed out on an Oscar-worthy role here, but his breakthrough role had already made a splash in cinemas earlier in 1984…
Romancing The Stone (1984) and The Jewel Of The Nile (1985)
As well as arriving in the same year as Starman, Romancing The Stone was similarly buffeted around in development after Douglas acquired the script, also in 1979. It was written by Malibu waitress and debut screenwriter Diane Thomas, whom Douglas tracked down and contracted for a deal that guaranteed her $250,000 for the screen rights.
Thomas’ relative inexperience worked in her favour, enabling her to craft a screen story without it feeling beholden to the same structural tricks and tropes as the other scripts on Douglas’ desk. Impressed, he kept in touch with her throughout the five years it took the film to come to the screen, even drafting her in for some uncredited script doctor duties on Starman in the meantime.
Douglas saw this project as a chance to break out of the socially conscientious mould of his first two producing credits and, through the Jack Colton character, play the type of matinee hero romantic lead role he’d previously resisted. Again, Columbia didn’t see it his way – they wanted “either Clint or Burt” (Eastwood and Reynolds, respectively – not Howard and Ward) but both stars turned it down.
And once again, a Steven Spielberg project pipped Douglas’ film, with 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark prompting Columbia to put the film in turnaround. However, Indiana Jones had revived the sort of rollicking adventure that Romancing The Stone essayed, making it easier for Douglas to get the film going at 20th Century Fox. Kathleen Turner was cast as author-turned-adventurer Joan Wilder and Douglas’ old mucker Danny DeVito rounded out the cast.
The producer has admitted that at this point, he leant towards relatively untested directors to avoid creative differences. On the other hand, it’s just possible that there was method to him meeting Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis, then best known for comedy flops I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars and hired him to direct the $10m caper.
The result is a terrifically entertaining film that won over critics and audiences alike and minted a fruitful Douglas-Turner-DeVito triad that continued for the rest of the 1980s. Unfortunately, this started with a sequel, The Jewel In The Nile, which was sped into production just over a year later, but not without a change of personnel behind the scenes.
Zemeckis had moved directly from Romancing The Stone to Back To The Future and Jewel was directed by Lewis Teague, who arrived to find an unhappier production than the one that had gone before. Douglas and Turner’s easy chemistry was somewhat fraught as a result of disputes over the script – she was upset that he hadn’t hired Thomas to write the sequel in the first place, (she would be consulted on later drafts) and at one early stage, she wanted out of her contract. The stars reportedly wound up trading pages of different script drafts on a hotel room floor, leading to a very compromised shooting script.
The Jewel Of The Nile fails to capture the alchemy of Romancing The Stone, in part due to a harried production schedule that saw it reach cinemas by Fox’s requested release date of Christmas 1985, but nevertheless, this pair of films finally proved Douglas’ bankability as a movie star. It’s just as well that it wasn’t completely easy because his hard-won victories as a producer gave us at least four cinematic gems.
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