Throughout his 40-plus-year career, actor Michael Douglas personified the modern male in film, as a sensitive youth rebelling against authority, as a middle-aged man grappling with problems of marriage, career and changing times, and as an older adult, still seeking a late-in-life kick or two.
But now Douglas is playing another role, one filled with pride and nostalgia, as he looks back to his beginnings and to a place that shaped him as an actor and a producer.
At a gala fundraiser in New York on Monday, April 16, Douglas will receive the Monte Cristo Award from the Eugene O'NeillTheater Center in Waterford. It's an institution where Douglas, as a college student without purpose, spent three summers, beginning in 1966, at the placid-looking yet artistically exciting campus overlooking Long Island Sound.
"It was the most valuable experience in my professional life," says Douglas in his spacious, elegant, yet family-friendly home on Central Park West. "It taught me more about play structure and the role of an actor. I also had a lot of fun."
At 67, and following his 2010 bout with throat cancer, Douglas is happy to talk about old times.
Growing Up In Connecticut
Michael Douglas grew up the eldest son of legendary film actor Kirk Douglas and actress Diana Dill Douglas. His parents divorced when he was 5. When his mother married Bill Darrid, the family moved to Westport. He was 12. He attended Choate Preparatory School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford.
Douglas went to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara where he says, "I was a hippie and I was doing very well at it, thank you. California in the '60s were exciting times. Politics were raging and the music scene was fantastic. And I was at a school where there were three girls to every boy. I was in Nirvana."
When the college's chancellor demanded that he choose a major or get the heave-ho, Douglas chose "theater" though the subject didn't interest him despite having spent time on his father's film sets. "I would visit him on locations but it was usually a tense situation because he was making pictures.
"The only other time I was on stage was in kindergarten when I played a fairie in a Gilbert & Sullivan show." He still remembers his song, too, singing: "We are dainty little fairies ever dancing....."
Once he became a theater major his stepfather, who was on the board of the then two-year old O'Neill Center founded by his friend George White, suggested to Douglas that he spend the summer there. The young Douglas could help build the much-needed new facilities on campus and perhaps get some acting experience.
"It was a magical place," says Douglas. "First of all, I loved the physicality of construction work. I helped build the amphitheater off the main barn. Secondly, I learned that theater girls were loose."
But the most important thing he learned was that an actor is there to serve the work. "If not me, there are probably 10 other actors who could play a role. But a play is written by a sole figure. Learning that responsibility has served me throughout my career."
He was surrounded by eading figures of the American stage: Lanford Wilson, Israel Horovitz, John Guare and Sam Shepard among them. Douglas got to perform in some of the readings, too, originating the leading role in "Summertree" by Roy Cowen.
It was at the O'Neill where he became friends with actors Raul Julia and Danny DeVito. Douglas would form a life-long friendship with DeVito and the two would cruise New London on Douglas' motorcycle, Devito behind him.
Douglas returned to college where he had leading roles in Shaw's "Candida," Pinter's "The Caretaker" and Pirandello's "Henry IV," among others.
"However absentee my father was when I was younger, he was always there in the audience for all of my college productions — and he saw some real bombs, god bless him."
After college, Douglas headed to New York where studied with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theatre and performed in off and off-off Broadway productions. A TV gig for a CBS Playhouse show called "The Experiment" brought him to Los Angeles.
His first film, "Hail, Hero" was "a difficult experience. I played a college kid with long hair and I had to wear a wig that made me look like Veronica Lake. I thought, 'Man, this is going to be the shortest career ever.' "
But other films followed including "Adam at Six A.M." and the film version of "Summertree." He also started doing episodic television in shows such as "The F.B.I." and "Medical Center."