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Michael Douglas on “Franklin,” and his own inspiring third act


It’s been a long time since he was a student here, but on the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, Michael Douglas still knows his way around: “That theater was here when I was here 60 years ago,” he said. The campus had been a Marine base during World War II. “It was all filled with, like, barracks.”

Today, the theater with his name on the lobby is a new addition. “The most expensive lobby you’re ever gonna find!” he laughed, adding he thought it appropriate that, under his name, were the men’s and women’s rest rooms.

But when Douglas was actually enrolled here, he didn’t have the same sense of direction. “Getting to my third year in school, they called me into the counselor’s office,” he recalled. “And they said, ‘You have to declare a major.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, man. I think…’ Well, I thought theater would be easy. But I can’t say it was any big, burning desire. But I thought, ‘Well, maybe I know something about it. My mother’s a stage actress. My father’s an actor.’ And so, I reluctantly started.”

His mother was actress Diana Douglas; his father, the legendary Kirk Douglas.

At first, Michael didn’t make quite the same impression as his parents. Performing on stage, he admitted to keeping a wastebasket off to the side, “because I’d sick every time. I had terrible stage fright. Terrible stage fright! And I’d dive, and come on out, and give it my all.”

But that unpleasant taste was soon replaced by the sweet smell of success.

Douglas won an Oscar for producing the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He took home another Oscar, for his performance in 1987’s “Wall Street.”

On both sides of the camera, Douglas has shown uncanny instincts for choosing projects that meet the moment. His Gordon Gekko came to personify the avarice of the 1980s:

Wall Street (4/5) Movie CLIP – Greed Is Good (1987) HD by
Movieclips on

His 1979 thriller “The China Syndrome,” about the dangers of nuclear power, hit theaters only 12 days before the Three Mile Island disaster.

So, it would seem his latest project, in which he plays Benjamin Franklin, is an outlier. “I guess I’d never done any period pictures, so that was part of the reason,” he said.

In the series “Franklin” (streaming next month on Apple TV+), Douglas plays Benjamin Franklin during his eight-year tenure in Paris. That’s where the founding father spent most of the Revolutionary War, petitioning France for aid in the fight against the British.

To watch a trailer for “Franklin” click on the video player below:

Franklin — Official Trailer | Apple TV+ by
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But while 18th-century France certainly qualifies as period, Douglas sees the series as every bit as contemporary as his other work. “For me, this series is such a reminder of how fragile democracy is,” he said. “When you start thinking about the time we first created our Constitution, and to see the kind of shape that we’re in now, it’s a reminder.”

The success of the revolution was by no means assured. Had the Americans failed, the would-be founders would have been hanged. Franklin, America’s first diplomat, understood the need to go slow and steady with the French. One telling quote from the series: “Diplomacy must never be a siege, but a seduction.”

“He got in a lot of trouble with his fellow Continental Congress members – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, a couple of others,” said Douglas, “because it took eight years while he was over here to achieve what he wanted to.”

It was worth the wait. Franklin secured the support of the French; their money and arms were critical to the survival of the American Republic. Franklin left France at the age of 79, the current age of Douglas.

“Ben Franklin had one hell of a third act,” said Rocca. “The last third of his life was the most productive, by many accounts his happiest period. Is that something that inspires you?”

Actor and producer Michael Douglas.

CBS News

“Yeah, this has been a great time for me, but I’ve been very fortunate,” said Douglas. “Catherine and I have been together, it’ll be 25 years come this year.”

Douglas met actress Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1998 at a film festival. While Franklin took years to woo France, Douglas worked a little faster. Indeed, on their first date, Douglas blurted out to her, “I’m gonna be the father of your children.”

Rocca said, “Okay, now you were in your mid-late 50s at this point. When you said that, did you think, ‘Wait a minute. Do I really wanna have children at this age?'”

“With Catherine Zeta-Jones? Yeah!” Douglas laughed. “Yeah. I think we could do that. Twist my arm!”

They are the parents of Dylan and Carys, who are half-siblings to Cameron, Douglas’ son from his first marriage.

Douglas’ children and his film work are his legacy, as is a stretch of land down the coast from his alma mater. Today the Douglas Family Preserve in Santa Barbara is a favorite spot for dog walkers, recreational paragliders … and the man himself.

“I read about this in the paper,” Douglas said. “They were trying to save this spot here. So, I just signed up and they said, ‘If you, you know, contribute X, they’ll name the park after you.'”

Sixty years after he reluctantly stepped on stage, Michael Douglas is looking out, feeling very much at ease. “One of the joys I get is when people recognize you and say, ‘Hey, thanks for the park, you know? It’s great!’ So, to see it now and to see the importance means a lot.”

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Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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