Michael Douglas reminisces on 50-year career, from first screen role as Israeli army driver

Actor/producer, here to accept Genesis Prize for achievement and Jewish commitment, charms Jerusalem audience with decades of film memories

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Michael Douglas at the Cinematheque, before the Genesis Prize ceremony Thursday evening (Johana Garon/Flash 90)
Michael Douglas at the Cinematheque, before the Genesis Prize ceremony Thursday evening (Johana Garon/Flash 90)

Michael Douglas knows how to woo a crowd.

Crisp reminiscences, droll anecdotes told in that slightly gravelly voice and plenty of insider details make his audience feel like they’re sitting with him in a café, trading stories.

In a gray suit and open-necked pale pink shirt, the 70-year-old Douglas charmed a packed auditorium at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Thursday afternoon. On Thursday evening, he was being presented with the $1 million Genesis Prize for his professional achievements and passion for his Jewish heritage and the Jewish state.

His Jewish heritage has gotten Douglas a lot of attention in the last couple of years, as Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones celebrated their son Dylan’s bar mitzvah at home in Los Angeles and in Jerusalem last year. He’s also spoken publicly about his own feelings about his Jewishness, having both a non-Jewish mother and non-Jewish wife. And he has repeatedly thanked his son for bringing him back to Israel.

But Douglas was at the Cinematheque to talk about his career, his thoughts about the film industry and his place in it.

Introduced by Noa Regev, the Cinematheque director, the “incomparable Michael Douglas” came in, sat down, sighed and spread his legs wide.

“This is a fringe benefit of getting the prize,” he said. “That I get to be here in front of you.”

Actor and producer Michael Douglas, at a panel discussing his career, Thursday at the Cinematheque (Johana Garon/Flash 90)
Actor and producer Michael Douglas, at a panel discussing his career, Thursday at the Cinematheque (Johana Garon/Flash 90)

Douglas and the moderator, Benjamin Friedenberg, moved through his nearly 50-year career, taking time to view montages from various films beginning with 1965’s “Cast a Giant Shadow,” which starred his father Kirk Douglas and scored Michael Douglas his first visit to Israel.

The film, which was shot in Rome and Israel, was an incredible experience, said Douglas. He spoke about traveling the old highway to Jerusalem, lined with armored vehicles left from the 1948 battles.

“I was the assistant to the assistant of the assistant of the assistant of the director, which basically meant I got your coffee,” he said, grinning.

He reviewed the film’s story of Mickey Marcus, a colonel in the US army who came to Israel to fight in 1948 and was ultimately made an Israeli general.

“It helped me understand more about this new country and about its roots,” said Douglas, as well as the deep connection and ties between Israel, a new democracy, and the United States.

“Besides that, I remember a stunning Yemenite soldier with an Uzi strapped to her back and those beautiful skirts they wore,” he said. “It left a lasting impression 50 years later.”

The movie also gave him his first onscreen appearance, noted Douglas, as a jeep driver, “in an Israeli army uniform, I might add.”

From there, the two reviewed the highs and lows (“Hail, Hero!”) – “I thought you wouldn’t mention that,” muttered Douglas – of his career.

He said he learned about the importance of a good script from that 1969 production, in which he played a hippy who got drafted for the Vietnam War and gets his hair chopped off. Douglas related how he had to wear a wig because of his shorn hair, and his father sent him to his barber (who was also Steve McQueen’s barber) so that “I wouldn’t look like an idiot for months,” he said. “Those are the benefits of second generation actors.”

Unfortunately, he said, he came out looking like Veronica Lake and was sure it signaled the end of his career.

Fortunately, he persevered.

Douglas’s experience acting in the 1970s cop drama “Streets of San Francisco” with Karl Malden may have been one of the greatest influences in his acting career, he said.

Malden, from Gary, Indiana, in the Midwest, was Douglas’ mentor in several ways, he said.

“If you had a nose like that, you wouldn’t think acting would be the first job you’d get into,” said Douglas, but Malden had a work ethic that was “bar none.”

The series had a total of 104 episodes over four years, from 1972 until 1977, each shot in seven days of filming on location, creating six-day weeks for eight and a half months a year, with a new script every seven days.

“Karl had a discipline,” said Douglas. “We would get into it together and work on next week’s script just to be sure we got it right. So the writers hated us because the scripts had to be longer because we picked up on our cues and knew our lines.”

Malden also knew how to listen, said Douglas.

“In those days, if you were second banana like I was on these police shows, you were two steps behind in soft focus. Karl was the first guy who would say, ‘C’mon,’” he gestured with his hand. “He wanted everyone to be part of the ensemble.”

It taught him to always try to have have the best possible actors around him, he said, which he did in many of his 50 films. He also loved the roles in which he showed the ambivalence of a person trying to do the right thing while seduced by sex and money (think “Fatal Attraction and “Wall Street”). But comedy always attracted him, too.

“For me, I’m always blessed to get a laugh,” he said. “When you’re not known as a comedian, it’s one of those things you really cherish. As opposed to the theater where you execute something and then wait for a laugh, in film it’s a silent set. So you do something you think is funny and then there’s dead silence. I would rush to the theater to be with the audience and see if it succeeds or not. The joy of sitting in a theater and getting a laugh is probably my highest.”

He’s loved working with certain people as well, in particular Kathleen Turner, his co-star in “Romancing the Stone,” “Jewel of the Nile” and “War of the Roses.” They were very physical films, he said, and she made it seem effortless.

“You understand then why you work with the same people again,” he said. “There’s the sense of timing, the comfort factor. You don’t have to go through the formal introduction meeting each other and getting to know each other.”

Ditto for certain directors, he said, as they spoke about Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone.

He told the audience about working on “Traffic” with Steven Soderbergh’s intense work ethic, in which he was director as well as camera operator, cinematographer and film editor.

“By the time you get home, take a shower and turn on the email, there’s the day’s work already,” he said.

Stone, he said, is a fabulous talent, a great writer and has a unique quality about him. The two worked together on “Wall Street” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

“He challenged you,” he said. But the experience is not necessarily “pretty and not necessarily pleasant.”

They spoke of his work as a producer of 19 films, including one of his first efforts, “One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest,” made in 1975, which his father tried to produce on Broadway but didn’t manage to. After Douglas graduated college and had fallen in love with “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” in his 20th century literature class, Douglas asked his father to give him a year to “run with it.”

“It took a lot longer, and part of our deal was we would produce it together,” he said. The elder Douglas also wanted the part of Randle McMurphy, which ended up going to Jack Nicholson, who won an Academy Award for the role.

“You understand the value of a good part,” he said.

Ditto for “China Syndrome,” the 1979 film in which Douglas plays a cameraman to Jane Fonda’s television reporter and the two discover safety flaws at a nuclear power plant.

But despite the activism inherent in the film, the entertainment value has to come first, said Douglas.

“I’m of the school that this is entertainment, it’s two hours, like a restaurant, sometimes there’s fast food, go in and go out,” he said. “I’d rather make a movie that might leave some residue. This movie, we were highly criticized for making it, and then we had this amazing situation that the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg happened ten days after this movie opened, so that was an epiphany for me.”

He still chooses roles based on the script, said Douglas.

“I look at the movie, I read the script and try to say, is this a good movie?” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good the part is because if the movie isn’t good, no one’s going to see you.”

And having made more than 50 films, he’s focused entirely on contemporary films — no science fiction films or movies with special effects, but rather character-driven movies. And, for that matter, he’s never directed a film, even though, he said, he’s asked all the time.

“As a producer, I always felt satisfied, never felt deprived,” he said. “I always have the final cut. It’s very lonely directing and I’m a little lazy, too. The director is the first in there and the last to go. I never felt a strong desire, but every 18 months I say maybe it’s time to direct.”

For now, he’s still focused on acting. His upcoming film is a Marvel movie called “Ant-Man,” based on a character from the 1960s and co-starring Paul Rudd.

“And, I’m an ant,” he said. “I can go into detail but Marvel is very secretive and I might get a blowgun in my neck.”

And with that, he exited.

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