A Disaster Movie Comes True


The coincidence was more appalling than the most perverse press agent’s fantasy. Barely two weeks after the release of Michael Douglas’ thriller The China Syndrome, dealing with near disaster at a nuclear power plant, art came grimly to life at the Three Mile Island reactor outside Harrisburg, Pa. As the potential for catastrophe became more apparent, the moviemakers were drawn inexorably into a controversy they had hoped to avoid.

From the beginning Douglas, 34, the film’s producer and co-star, had preferred to talk about The China Syndrome‘s human drama—”It’s basically Greek tragedy”—rather than its obvious antinuclear underpinning. “Everyone tends to forget I’m a filmmaker,” he objected at one point, “not an expert on nuclear energy.” Soon, however, the improbable fusion of events real and fictitious demanded more than his awkward disclaimer. “When screenwriter Mike Gray originally talked about the script, I was curious to know how realistic the scenario was,” Douglas finally acknowledged. “He told me it would be a race between getting the movie made and a major disaster. The Three Mile Island situation really brings the point home. It’s an eerie feeling.”

Ironically, the propitious timing of China Syndrome‘s release may yet obscure Douglas’ achievement. His 1975 production of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest grossed nearly $130 million and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But Douglas emerged less than golden. “I kept smelling my armpits,” he jokes bitterly. “The stars [Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher] and the director [Milos Forman] were getting new scripts by the carload, but my phone wasn’t ringing. I guess people thought it was handed to me on a platter—that I was just somebody’s kid who’d lucked into something big.”

“Somebody,” of course, is Kirk Douglas, whose fame has been his oldest son’s burden. “I think having a famous father was a pain in the ass for him,” says Kirk. “Michael, of all my four sons, has the least ambition. But he is very tenacious if he sets his mind to something.” Now Michael has his mind set on getting even with people who doubted him. “Some of them were real buddy-buddy, then stuck it to me,” he recalls. “I have a long memory, and I like carrying grudges. In this business, where everybody makes it a policy to be so nice to everyone, I’m going to remember my friends and I’m going to remember those who weren’t.”

Among the former are his China Syndrome co-stars, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon. Fonda had been planning a film about Karen Silkwood, the young nuclear safety critic who was killed in a mysterious car crash. When that fell through, she agreed to work with Douglas, provided she had a say in production. “I was a little bent out of shape about it at first,” Michael admits, “because I’d worked so long and hard on the project myself. But I figured that if a star of her stature would agree to come in with no script, I could give up some of my rights.” Says Lemmon: “Michael is not a casual person. He waits until he has a property he believes in and then works for it. Once shooting got under way, there was never a question of stinting on quality for the sake of a few bucks. Michael was the guy sitting on the budget, the guy who’d busted his butt to keep the money flowing, but he never balked.”

“I was smart enough to pick good people, to stay away from egos,” says Douglas. Never, apparently, was there any fallout from Citizen Fonda’s activist passions. “Michael is good to work with,” Fonda says simply. “He knows what he’s doing, and I like that.” Douglas is more lavish. “Jane is a real example of what you can accomplish with your life if you have serious goals and stick with them,” he declares. Then he adds mischievously, “She’s got a real good body, as solid as a rock. I like to talk dirty to her so I can hear that great giggle.”

What intrigues Douglas most now, though, is neither movie stars nor unstable reactors but his own growing nuclear family: wife Diandra, 22, and 4-month-old Cameron. “I gave Diandra a copy of the China Syndrome script as an engagement present, and that’s all she’s heard since,” says Michael. “Now I’m going to spend some time with her and the baby. For the first time I am personally happy, I’ve really fallen in love, and I don’t want to blow it.” If that’s a surprise coming from a man who was vehemently anti-marriage during his five-year liaison with Brenda (Dear Detective) Vaccaro, Douglas doesn’t care. “Obligations bring peace and serenity,” he explains. “Besides, you have to remember that my role models were very stable. My mother has been married for 23 years and my father for 25.”

But not, of course, to each other. Kirk Douglas’ marriage to the British-born actress Diana Dill broke up in 1949, five years after Michael was born and three years after the elder Douglas was transplanted from Greenwich Village to Hollywood. “The town’s emphasis then was on sex and sex appeal,” says Michael. “It was easy to get your head turned around. It wasn’t good for my parents’ marriage.” Michael and his younger brother Joel moved back to New York with their mother, and Michael was enrolled in a private school. A few years later they returned to the West Coast, where Diana was briefly under contract to Warner Bros. “I’m 11 years old, and I arrive in California with my little beanie and my English schoolbag, and all the guys are wearing black leather jackets and duck-tails,” Douglas recalls. “Culture shock! I’d never been kissed by a girl before, and then I come in contact with these 13-year-olds who do it with their mouths open.”

Back East, where his mother married writer-producer William Darrid, Michael graduated from Choate, then picked the University of California at Santa Barbara (“the only school I know that has lockers in the dorms for surfboards”) over Yale and a career in the law. He romped nude in an off-campus commune (“I’m your basic flasher; I’ve always loved exposing myself”) and flunked out of college after a year. In exile, he won the Mobil Man of the Month award while working as a gas station attendant in Westport, Conn. and talked his way back into college. He paid his bills with his gas jockey’s earnings, a $10,000 endowment from Kirk and the proceeds from some small-scale dope dealing. “It was,” he confesses, “sort of illegal.”

Michael went on to earn his degree as a theater major, then headed for New York to take acting lessons. He debuted on CBS Playhouse and followed up with two dead-on-arrival antiwar films (Hail, Hero and Summertree) and a lions-and-tigers number for Disney. “I thought I was launched—what did I know?” he recalls with a laugh. None of the pictures made money, and he seemed to have bottomed out before he’d begun. It was a frustrating time. “When you get turned down for a role, you never know why,” Michael explains. “No one ever says, ‘Your last three pictures were dog food.’ They just smile and say they’ll be in touch. It makes you crazy. And when your father has been a famous film star for 25 years, it can make you even crazier. You never know if it’s working for you or against you.”

For five years he shared a home in Benedict Canyon with Vaccaro, whom he had met on Summertree. In 1972 he took a role in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco, co-starring Karl Maiden. Vaccaro didn’t want to go along, says Douglas, “so I would work for six days in San Francisco, fly into Los Angeles on Saturday night and leave Sunday evening. The relationship sort of fell apart due to neglect.”

His father, meanwhile, had acquired the screen rights to Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk had starred in the Broadway version seven years earlier, but felt he was too old for the movie. Michael took over like a man possessed, scrounging up money, hiring Forman to direct and signing Nicholson for the lead after Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman had turned it down. Filming began at an Oregon mental hospital in 1975, and Douglas put inmates to work on the set. The hospital director roared when he saw what was happening. “No wonder these guys are doing so well—they’re in heaven,” he told Michael’s brother Joel, production manager on the film. “You’ve got a pyromaniac in the electrical department, a kleptomaniac in props and a rapist in wardrobe.”

When Cuckoo was finished, Douglas and Nicholson took off on a month-long promotional wingding. “You bet your ass we blew off some steam,” says Michael. “I’d worked six years to get Cuckoo in the can, and I was proud of it. We checked out some ladies, and we dropped in on some parties.” By the time he ran into Diandra Luker, at a concert in Washington the night before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, he admits he was “pretty well wasted.” Diandra, whose late father was a career Navy officer, was a student at Georgetown and had come to the party on the arm of a congressman. Undeterred, Michael made his pitch and took her to the inauguration the following morning. They flew to Los Angeles a few days later, and Michael called his mother from the airport. ” ‘I’d like to come over and have you meet someone,’ ” she remembers him telling her. “I hung up and said to my husband, ‘This is it.’ ” Michael and Diandra were married two months later at his father’s Beverly Hills home.

The couple did not live happily ever after. “Basically the problem was that there were a lot of ladies who weren’t that happy to see me get married,” says Douglas. Some were outraged Vaccaro loyalists; others had designs on Michael themselves. “They made life hell for Diandra,” he says. “She thinks Hollywood is very decadent anyway, and she was hurt by the sniping.” Instead of hunkering down to life in the flak zone, the Douglases bought an eight-bedroom home in the Santa Barbara hills (“We looked in Aspen,” says Diandra, “but that’s Beverly Hills in the mountains”) and awaited Cameron’s birth last December.

Socially, says Michael, “our only problem now is finding couples to go out with that we both like.” Though James Brolin, Robert Mitchum and John Travolta live nearby, Douglas hardly knows them. He and Diandra prefer small dinner parties with his Santa Barbara artist friends and tooling around town in a ’73 BMW and a Porsche (driven only by Diandra after he ran up eight speeding tickets). Michael went into rigorous training for the upcoming Universal release Running (he produced and starred) and is now doing up to five miles a day. Gone by the wayside are 15 pounds and his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

Though scripts are pouring in and he has optioned a book, Virgin Kisses, Douglas is in no hurry to move onward and upward. “My father once told me the trouble with this business is that you are always so worried about where your next project is coming from, you don’t take time to savor your successes. I’m not letting that happen to me,” says Michael confidently. “I’m watching my child grow day by day, and I’m taking some time off just to pat myself on the back.”

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