An unflinching visit with the Douglases

TV Preview

August 13, 2005|By Hal Boedeker | Hal Boedeker,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Kirk Douglas never won a competitive Oscar, but he earned something more precious: his oldest son's respect.

At the end of a touching documentary, Michael Douglas calls his father inspirational. The virile star of Spartacus might be slowed a bit these days by a stroke, knee surgery and old age, yet he hasn't given up at 88.

"I can see how much you can change in your life and how you can still learn more at a time when everybody else is so-called retiring and kind of dying and withering away. You're continuing to grow," says Michael, who's 60. "I admire you so much."

The uplifting fade-out is quite a departure from the usual Tinseltown stories, with their deluded stars, tell-all memoirs and estranged families. But the happy ending wouldn't mean much without the candor that comes before it.

Father, son, relatives and colleagues recount the family history with refreshing frankness in A Father ... A Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The 95-minute documentary, directed by Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant, premieres at 8 tonight on HBO.

Grant does a snappy job of mixing the reminiscences with film clips. Kirk is shown in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Paths of Glory. Michael is seen in Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction and The American President.

The personal insights give the film unusual poignancy. Kirk says a tragedy of his life was never receiving approval from his father. Kirk was not easy to live with, says son Joel, a film producer. Ex-wife Diana tired of Kirk's chronic infidelity. Anne, Kirk's wife of 50 years, says she gave him an ultimatum about his affairs.

Kirk still fumes that Michael produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Jack Nicholson, and not Kirk, in the lead role. Michael notes that Nicholson was two decades younger than Kirk.

As the son of Russian immigrants living in abject poverty, Kirk says he had it easier than Michael. Kirk's bravura movie-star style also cast a huge shadow over Michael.

Yet Michael found another path to success with sexy or cerebral roles opposite strong women. He won an Oscar for playing the epitome of greed in Wall Street. In picking up the trophy, Michael saluted his supportive father.

The documentary is another tribute to Kirk because Michael praises him for ultimately becoming a great father. Kirk had time to make up for past mistakes, those committed when his film career took him away from family. He also became a kinder, more introspective man after surviving a helicopter crash and a stroke.

Speakers include Karl Malden, Kathleen Turner, Jack Valenti and Michael's wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Cameron Douglas appears briefly, although the program barely mentions It Runs in the Family, the 2003 film in which he acted with dad Michael and grandfather Kirk.

Addiction is a recurring theme. Cameron has emerged from early drug problems, Michael says. The film is dedicated to Eric Douglas, Kirk's son who died last year of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs.

And Michael is still rankled about an old, incorrect story, in a British tabloid, that he went into rehab for sex addiction. The real story: Michael was feeling despair and drinking heavily.

The real draw in the HBO program isn't the gossip, but the delightful conversations between Kirk and Michael. Last month, father, son and director Grant met TV critics who were previewing the fall lineup.

"The greatest thing about the documentary, we didn't have any lines to learn," Kirk says. "We just spoke what we felt."

Those sessions were "liberatingly honest," Grant says. "And not only were they that honest, but they told all their friends and the wives to say whatever they felt, not to hold back," she adds.

Michael had attended a screening of the documentary the night before in which TV producer George Schlatter said the Douglases weren't like the Osbournes or the Hiltons of reality television.

"We're just an everyday dysfunctional family," Michael says.

Kirk jokes that he wanted to do Dancing With the Stars with Zeta-Jones. But he says he really doesn't want to act anymore.

"If something came up that was a role for me, a man who has difficulty talking, difficulty walking, difficulty seeing, difficulty hearing - but there are not many parts for me," Kirk says.

One of his biggest disappointments was turning down Stalag 17, which later won William Holden the Oscar. But that wasn't keeping Kirk down. Neither was recent knee surgery.

"I have a new knee because, as you get older, you should change your direction in life," Kirk says.

Michael was astonished at his father's quick recovery, although statistics suggested someone of Kirk's age shouldn't have his knees replaced.

"I think my father lives his life for challenges," Michael says. "It's an inherent quality of what makes him kind of special."

The documentary concludes with Michael and Kirk singing "Whale of a Tale," which Kirk performed in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. "Whale of a Tale" would have been a perfect title for this loving look at a Hollywood family.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

A Father ... A Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

When: Tonight at 8

Where: HBO

In brief: Frank and heart-warming look at an acting family.

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