When you come from a long line of performers, you had better be prepared to muscle your way into some screen time. Cameron Douglas, 24, learned that lesson well on the set of It Runs in the Family, a new film in which he stars with his dad, Michael, and grandfather Kirk. Michael and Cameron were shooting an emotional scene together, and “he was grabbing my shoulder really hard,” says Cameron of his dad. “I thought he was being supportive.” Not quite: “Actually, he was trying to move me out of his shot.”
Granted, the kid still has a lot to learn. But what he lacks in experience he makes up for in DNA. As the newest Douglas to hit the big screen, Cameron is taking his place among an acting dynasty that includes three Oscar nominations, three wins and two of the world’s most famous dimpled chins. “They are as close as you can come to Hollywood royalty,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. It Runs in the Family marks the first time Kirk, 86, and Michael, 58, have acted together. “I had the best time of my life making this picture,” says Kirk of his 86th film, which also costars his ex-wife (and Michael’s mom) Diana Douglas, 80. “I got a kick when I saw all those Douglases in the credits.”
And to think that they were almost the Danielovitches. Starting with Kirk’s self-made rise from the child of illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants (including a name change from Issur Danielovitch in 1939) to studly Spartacus matinee idol, the Douglas clan’s six decades in the spotlight have played out like a sprawling Hollywood epic: marriage, divorce, rehab, Oscar glory and staggering talent. Despite differences and distances over the years, these days they are a tight bunch. “They have all the nuances that every family has,” says Michael’s wife of almost three years, Catherine Zeta-Jones. “They’re close. They’re emotional. They never say goodbye without saying, ‘I love you.’ ” So why did it take so long to get everyone in one film? “We were always finding reasons not to do it,” says Michael, who has a son with Zeta-Jones, 2½-year-old Dylan, and newborn daughter Carys. “There was a certain fear factor of working together.”
Especially for Cameron, a New York City deejay who had almost no prior acting experience. “We were all nervous for him,” says Michael. “I could never have done it when I was his age with my dad. I just didn’t have the confidence. Kirk was larger than life and so dynamic.” Determined too. The only son of Harry, who peddled scrap cloth in New York City after emigrating from Russia in 1908, and his wife, Byrna, Kirk grew up in an emotionally cold household. “The reality is, his father never told him ‘I love you,’ ” says Michael. Drama became an outlet, and at 25, Kirk bowed on Broadway in Spring Again. (Of his stage name, Kirk recalled in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, “I wanted a last name that started with D.” As for Kirk, “I liked the crisp K sound.”) By ’46 he had landed his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and three years later he earned his first Best Actor Oscar nod for Champion.
But even as his star rose and he proved himself a savvy businessman—he was among the first actors to forge his own production company—Kirk struggled to find time for his family. In 1949 his five-year marriage to Diana (née Dill) ended, and their two sons—Michael and Joel, 55, a producer—went to live with their mother in Connecticut. “I think Michael is a better father than I was,” says Kirk. “He tries to give his children more attention than I did. I was a little more selfish, doing three or four pictures [in a row].”
While Michael acknowledges that his father—who admitted to numerous extramarital affairs in The Ragman’s Son—”was the prime example of someone who was slightly overwhelmed by the work and the actresses in Hollywood,” he says that he holds no grudges. “The truth is that growing up, there was tension,” says Michael, “but that was the extent of it.”
Eventually, Kirk and Diana both remarried—he to former publicist Anne Buydens, 84, and she to producer-writer William Darrid, who died in 1992. (Last December Michael and Zeta-Jones attended Diana’s wedding to third husband Donald Webster, 72, a former U.S. Treasury chief of staff, near her home in Bermuda.) Meanwhile, Michael’s acting career blossomed, and after a brief lark as a gas-station attendant—”I was into hot rods”—he took to the screen as well. Like his dad, he also became a successful producer, winning a 1975 Best Picture Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Michael also took home the Best Actor award in ’87 for Wall Street.
But with success came problems, and in 1992 Michael underwent treatment for alcohol abuse. Seven years later Cameron—Michael’s only child from his 22-year marriage to ex-wife Diandra Douglas—was arrested on a misdemeanor cocaine possession charge; he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct. Michael acknowledges that he was not as available to Cameron as he is to Dylan. “My priorities are my marriage and my children, where-as earlier, my career was my priority,” he says. “The one thing I pride myself on [with Cameron] is he could count on me. But there were big absences.”
These days the family tries to stay in closer contact, with golf outings and Bermuda get-togethers. Michael relishes the role of dad: “As of a couple of months ago, I had a 24-year-old and a 24-month-old; that’s a pretty good spread.” And Kirk savors his job as “Pappy.” “Kirk doesn’t want to be called Grandpa,” says Michael. “The vanity has run amok!” Kidding aside, Kirk says that the stroke he suffered in 1996, which impaired his speech, has helped him reevaluate his priorities. “You take inventory,” says the actor, whose marriage to Anne is now in its 49th year. (The couple have two sons, Peter, 47, a producer, and Eric, 44, an actor.) “You realize what is important and what is frivolous. The love of family looms large. I got closer to all the people that meant something to me.”
Filming It Runs in the Family only deepened those bonds. Watching the credits roll for the first time, recalls Kirk, “I thought to myself, ‘The Douglas Dynasty will continue’ “—and, reflecting on his six-decade career, “what an end, what an end.”
Sharon Cotliar in New York City and Amy Longsdorf in Los Angeles