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Michael Douglas: Not falling down

In his latest film, Michael Douglas plays one of four ageing friends who reunite for a bachelor party. But off screen, there's plenty of life left in the 69-year-old actor, writes James Mottram

 

IT'S BEEN A MIXED 12 months for Michael Douglas. Professionally, there was a triumphant return to the screen for the veteran actor-producer after recovering from what he announced was throat cancer. His exuberant-yet-poignant turn as the gauche, gay pianist Liberace in Steven Soderbergh's biopic Behind the Candelabra has seen him nominated for a Golden Globe.

Personally, it's been more difficult after separating from his wife of 13 years, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. He's also continuing to deal with the pain of seeing his eldest son, Cameron - from his first marriage - "incarcerated in federal prison", as he puts it, serving a 10-year sentence for drug dealing and possession. Never one for hyperbole, he simply nods, "There's been a few things going on."

Earlier this year, Douglas said he had tongue cancer, but - on the advice of his physician - told the press he was suffering from cancer of the throat, to avoid any awkward questions about possible disfigurement the illness might cause. Still, that was nothing compared to the hullabaloo that arose after Douglas said in a British newspaper interview that his cancer was caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), an STD that could be spread through oral sex. Today, the 69 year-old Douglas looks fighting fit - far removed from the paparazzi shots of him as a gaunt figure left weak by the chemotherapy. Dressed in a navy shirt and charcoal suit, his cheeks flushed with colour, everything from that infamous cleft in his chin (inherited from his actor-father Kirk Douglas) to that distinct mane of swept-back hair - now a rich silvery hue - is as you remember it. If Douglas is past his prime, nobody told his DNA.

Ageing is very much a part of his new film Last Vegas, a breezy comedy about four old (and we mean old) friends reuniting for a bachelor party for one of their number. Think The Hangover meets Cocoon and you're some way towards describing it - although neither of those films featured the calibre of actors in Last Vegas; co-starring Kevin Kline, Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman, together they have six Oscars between them.

Douglas plays Billy, a wealthy Malibu lawyer who is marrying a young woman half his age. "Billy is the charming, cavalier guy who never grew up," says Douglas. "He's a successful attorney who has been having a pretty good time his entire life and never bothered to get married. He's at the funeral of his senior partner and that death becomes his wake-up call. Mortality just kicked in and he decides to spring the question on his girlfriend."

Keen to celebrate with one big blowout in Vegas, he sets out to round up his old friends from his youth: Sam (Kevin Kline), who has taken early retirement in Florida, stroke survivor Archie (Morgan Freeman), living with his overly-protective son in New Jersey; and Brooklyn-based Paddy (Robert De Niro), still mourning the death of his wife - and still angry at Billy for not turning up to the funeral.

Once known as 'the Flatbush Four', this group of old chums hit Sin City for some gently amusing adventures - cue jokes about Viagra and other issues about entering one's advanced years. But for Douglas it's really a film about the importance of friendships: "I think what will draw people is this sense of remembering the friends they have had in their lives - what we all hold onto."

Having been married twice - to Zeta-Jones and, previously, Diandra Douglas - did he ever have a full-on bachelor party like his character? "With Catherine? I didn't have one. I didn't have one, both times. I had parties - I invited the girls too!" It somewhat goes against this image of Douglas as the alpha male - one cultivated from films like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure (not to mention persistent rumours that he was a sex addict).

Back then, the New Jersey-born Douglas was a major movie star, fresh off an Oscar win for playing the carnivorous corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's 1987 classic Wall Street (a role he repeated to lesser effect in the 2010 sequel). It was all the more remarkable because, for years, he'd been pigeonholed as a television actor on the 1970s cop show The Streets of San Francisco. "In those days, it was very difficult to go from television to feature films. I think only Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood had done television before me."

Determined to make the leap, he left the show after five seasons to produce the stunning 1975 feature One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, starring Jack Nicholson as a disruptive asylum inmate. "Everybody thought I was crazy to leave this hit show," he recalls. People changed their tune when the film swept the Academy Awards, winning five Oscars, including best picture for Douglas. "Then everybody said 'Why do you want to act? You've got an Academy Award! Why don't you be a producer?'"

While he was too drawn towards acting to quit screen work, he continued to produce - from the nuclear disaster movie The China Syndrome to adventure films Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, all of which he starred in. And, with his illness firmly behind him, he's recently produced his first movie in eight years, The Reach, in which he plays a businessman who spends his spare time big-game hunting.

He's also just shot And So It Goes for Rob Reiner, a comedy-drama co-starring Diane Keaton. But for the most part, he's been spending his time repairing his relationship. When he and Zeta-Jones separated in August, they announced they were "taking time apart" to "evaluate and work on their marriage". Reports have suggested they're trying to reconcile - Douglas was seen wearing his wedding ring at the Last Vegas premiere.

Losing Zeta-Jones will be a blow for Douglas, who admits that his second marriage - after a rather painful divorce - turned him around. "I was 55 when I got married, so I'd already had a good run. I wasn't doing a lot." It brought him "a new family which I never anticipated" - two children Dylan, 13, and Carys, 10. It's something he evidently relishes. "Kids are right up there [in my life]. I'm so happy to have a family. I enjoy time with them."

Whether he will get to take Zeta-Jones to the Golden Globes on January 12 remains to be seen - but if they do divorce, it will be the end to one of Hollywood's most rock-solid marriages. Despite the 25-year age gap, the pair seemed inseparable, nursing each other through difficulties - from Douglas' punishing bouts of chemotherapy to Zeta-Jones' treatment for bipolar II disorder last April.

Like his character in Last Vegas, he's well aware of the secret to staying young. "Marry a young wife," he grins, wolfishly. He can't help but talk fondly about his wife - even their shared passion for hitting the golf course. "When I first started seeing Catherine, I said, 'Do you love golf?' And she said, 'I love golf!' And I melted!" Somehow, you hope they're still playing together in their dotage.

48hours@scmp.com

 

Last Vegas opens on January 9

 

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