The elder son of Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill, Douglas received his Bachelor of Arts in Drama from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His early acting roles included film, stage, and television productions. Douglas first achieved prominence for his performance in the ABC police procedural television series The Streets of San Francisco, for which he received three consecutive Emmy Award nominations. In 1975, Douglas produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, having acquired the rights to the Ken Kesey novel from his father. The film received critical and popular acclaim, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, earning Douglas his first Oscar as one of the film's producers. After leaving The Streets of San Francisco in 1976, Douglas went on to produce films including The China Syndrome (1979) and Romancing the Stone (1984). He won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy for Romancing the Stone, in which he also starred, thus reintroducing himself to audiences as a capable leading man.
Apart from his career in the film industry, Douglas has received notice for his humanitarian and political activism, as well as media attention for his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, and his tongue cancer diagnosis.
Douglas was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the first child of actors Kirk Douglas (1916–) and Diana Dill (1923–2015). His parents met at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
His paternal grandparents were Jewish emigrants from Chavusy (now in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire), and his father was born Issur Danielovitch. His mother was from Devonshire Parish, Bermuda, and had English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, Belgian, and Dutch ancestry. Douglas's uncle was politician Sir Nicholas Bayard Dill, and Douglas's maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Melville Dill (named after his own grandfather, a sea captain who took the Bermudian-built barque Sir George F. Seymour from Bermuda to Ireland in thirteen days in March, 1858, but lost his master's certificate after the wreck of the Bermudian-built Cedrine on the Isle of Wight, while returning the last convict labourers from the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda to Britain in 1863 ), served as Attorney General of Bermuda, as a Member of the Parliament of Bermuda (MCP), and as commanding officer of the Bermuda Militia Artillery. His great-grandfather, Thomas Newbold Dill (1837-1910), was a merchant, an MCP for Devonshire Parish from 1868 to 1888, a Member of the Legislative Council and an Assistant Justice from 1888, Mayor of the City of Hamilton from 1891 to 1897, served on numerous committees and boards, and was a member of the Devonshire Church (Church of England) and Devonshire Parish vestries. Douglas has a younger brother, Joel Douglas (born 1947), and two paternal half-brothers, Peter Douglas (born 1955) and Eric Douglas (1958–2004), from stepmother Anne Buydens.
Douglas attended The Allen-Stevenson School in New York City, Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and The Choate Preparatory School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut. He received his B.A. in drama from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1968, where he was also the Honorary President of the UCSB Alumni Association. He studied acting with Wynn Handman at The American Place Theatre in New York City.
His first TV breakthrough role came with a 1969 CBS-TV "Playhouse" special, "The Experiment"—and it was the only time he was billed as "M.K. Douglas." Michael Douglas started his film career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, appearing in little known films such as Hail, Hero!, Adam at 6 A.M., and Summertree. His performance in Hail, Hero! earned him a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer. His first significant role came in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco from 1972 to 1976, in which he starred alongside Karl Malden. Douglas later said that Malden became a "mentor" and someone he "admired and loved deeply". After Douglas left the show, he had a long association with his mentor until Malden's death on July 1, 2009. In 2004, Douglas presented Malden with the Monte Cristo Award of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut for the Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1975, Douglas received from his father, Kirk Douglas, the rights to the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Michael went on to produce the film of the same name with Saul Zaentz. Kirk Douglas hoped to portray McMurphy himself, having starred in an earlier stage version, but was deemed too old for the part by his son Michael. Kirk relented, and the lead role went instead to Jack Nicholson, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Douglas won the Award for Best Picture for producing the film.
After leaving Streets of San Francisco in 1976, Douglas played a hospital doctor in the medical thriller Coma (1978), and in 1979 he played the role of a troubled marathon runner in Running. In 1979, he both produced and starred in The China Syndrome, a dramatic film co-starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon about a nuclear power plant accident (the Three Mile Island accident took place 12 days after the film's release). The film was considered "one of the most intelligent Hollywood films of the 1970s."
Douglas's acting career was propelled to fame when he produced and starred in the 1984 romantic adventure comedy Romancing the Stone. It also reintroduced Douglas as a capable leading man and gave director Robert Zemeckis his first box-office success. The film also starred Danny DeVito, a friend of Douglas since they had shared an apartment in the 1960s. It was followed a year later by a sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, which he also produced.
The year 1987 saw Douglas star in the horror thriller Fatal Attraction with Glenn Close. That same year he played tycoon Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street for which he received an Academy Award as Best Actor. He reprised his role as Gekko in the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in 2010, also directed by Stone.
Douglas starred in the 1989 film The War of the Roses, which also starred Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. In 1989 he starred in Ridley Scott's international police crime drama Black Rain opposite Andy García and Kate Capshaw; the film was shot in Osaka, Japan.
In 1992, Douglas had another successful starring role when he appeared alongside Sharon Stone in the film Basic Instinct. The movie was a box office hit, and sparked controversy over its depictions of bisexuality and lesbianism. In 1994 Douglas and Demi Moore starred in the hit movie Disclosure focusing on the topic of sexual harassment with Douglas playing a man harassed by his new female boss. Other popular films he starred in during the decade were Falling Down, The American President, The Ghost and the Darkness, The Game (directed by David Fincher), and a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic – Dial M for Murder – titled A Perfect Murder. In 1998 Douglas received the Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
In 2000 Douglas starred in Steven Soderbergh's critically acclaimed film Traffic, opposite Benicio del Toro and future wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. That same year he also received critical acclaim for his role in Wonder Boys, as a professor and novelist suffering from writer's block. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Drama as well as several other awards from critics.
Douglas starred in Don't Say a Word (2001), filmed shortly before his marriage to Zeta-Jones. In 2003, he starred in It Runs in the Family, which featured three generations of his family (his parents, Kirk and Diana, as well as his own son, Cameron). The film, although a labor of love, was not successful, critically or at the box office. He then starred in and produced the action-thriller The Sentinel in 2006. During that time, he also guest-appeared on the episode, "Fatal Attraction", of the television sitcom Will and Grace, as a gay cop attracted to Will Truman (Eric McCormack); the performance earned Douglas an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Show.
Douglas was approached for Basic Instinct 2, but he declined to participate in the project.
In December 2007 Douglas began announcing the introduction to NBC Nightly News. Howard Reig, the previous announcer, had retired two years earlier.
Douglas collaborated with Steven Soderbergh again on the 2013 film Behind the Candelabra, playing Liberace, opposite Matt Damon, centered on the pianist's life. His portrayal of Liberace received critical acclaim, which resulted in him receiving the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards. He also won SAG and Golden Globe Awards for the performance. He played Hank Pym in the 2015 movie Ant-Man, based on the Marvel Comics superhero of the same name. The film was directed by Peyton Reed and starred Paul Rudd.
Douglas is on the Board of Selectors of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service.
According to film historian and critic David Thomson, Douglas was capable of playing characters who were "weak, culpable, morally indolent, compromised, and greedy for illicit sensation without losing that basic probity or potential for ethical character that we require of a hero." Critic and author Rob Edelman points out similarities in many of Douglas's roles, writing that in some of his leading films, he personified the "contemporary, Caucasian middle-to-upper-class American male who finds himself the brunt of female anger because of real or imagined sexual slights."
These themes of male victimization are seen in films such as Fatal Attraction (1987), with Glenn Close, War of the Roses (1989), with Kathleen Turner, Basic Instinct (1992), with Sharon Stone, Falling Down (1993), and Disclosure (1994), with Demi Moore. For his characters in films such as these, "any kind of sexual contact with someone other than his mate and the mother of his children is destined to come at a costly price." Edelman describes his characters as the "Everyman who must contend with, and be victimized by, these women and their raging, psychotic sexuality."
Conversely, Douglas also played powerful characters with dominating personalities equally well: as Gordon Gekko, in the Wall Street franchise, he acted the role of a "greedy yuppie personification of the Me generation," convinced that "greed is good;" in Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, he played an idealistic soldier of fortune; in The Star Chamber (1983), he was a court judge fed up with an inadequate legal system, leading him to become involved with a vigilante group; and in Black Rain (1989), he proved he could also play a Stallone-like action hero as a New York City cop.
Having become recognized as both a successful producer and actor, he describes himself as "an actor first and a producer second." He has explained why he enjoys both functions:
After the filming of Summertree in 1971, Douglas began dating actress Brenda Vaccaro, a relationship that lasted nearly six years.
In March 1977, Douglas, who was 32 years old at the time, married 19-year-old Diandra Luker, the daughter of an Austrian diplomat. They had one son, Cameron, born in 1978. In 1995, Diandra filed for divorce and was awarded $45 million as part of the divorce settlement.
Dating since March 1999, Douglas married Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones on November 18, 2000. They were both born on September 25, though 25 years apart. Zeta-Jones says that when they met in Deauville, France, Douglas said, "I want to father your children." They have two children, son Dylan Michael (born August 8, 2000) and daughter Carys Zeta (born April 20, 2003). In August 2013, People claimed that Douglas and Zeta-Jones began living separately in May 2013, but had not taken any legal action towards separation or divorce. A representative for Zeta-Jones subsequently confirmed that they "are taking some time apart to evaluate and work on their marriage." It was reported on November 1, 2013 that the couple had reconciled and Catherine moved back into their New York apartment.
Douglas, who has a Jewish father and an Anglican (Church of England) mother (his cousin, the Right Reverend Nicholas Dill is the Bishop of the established Anglican Church of Bermuda.), was not raised with a religious affiliation, but stated in January 2015 that he now identifies as a Reform Jew. His son, Dylan, had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and the Douglas family traveled to Jerusalem to mark the occasion.
Douglas was selected as the recipient of the 2015 Genesis Prize, a $1 million prize, awarded by the Genesis Prize Foundation. Douglas plans to donate the prize money to activities designed to raise awareness about inclusion and diversity in Jewish life, and to finding innovative solutions to pressing global and community problems. Douglas is a U.S. citizen by birth in the United States and has British Citizenship with Bermudian Status through his mother's birth in Bermuda.
In 1980, Douglas was involved in a serious skiing accident which sidelined his acting career for three years. On September 17, 1992, the same year Basic Instinct came out, he began a 30-day treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction at Sierra Tucson Center.
In 1992, Douglas founded the short-lived Atlantic Records distributed label Third Stone Records. He founded the label with record producer Richard Rudolph, who became the company's President and CEO. Among the acts signed to Third Stone were Saigon Kick and Nona Gaye.
In 1997, New York caddie James Parker sued Douglas for $25 million. Parker accused Douglas of hitting him in the groin with an errant golf ball, causing Parker great distress. The case was later settled out of court.
In 2004, Douglas and Zeta-Jones took legal action against stalker Dawnette Knight, who was accused of sending violent letters to the couple that contained graphic threats on Zeta-Jones's life. Testifying, Zeta-Jones said the threats left her so shaken she feared a nervous breakdown. Knight claimed she had been in love with Douglas and admitted to the offenses, which took place between October 2003 and May 2004. She was sentenced to three years in prison.
It was announced on August 16, 2010 that Douglas was suffering from throat cancer (later revealed to have actually been tongue cancer), and would undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Douglas subsequently confirmed that the cancer was at stage IV, the most advanced stage.
Douglas credits the discovery of his cancer to the public Canadian health system since a doctor in Montreal, Quebec diagnosed the actor's medical condition after numerous American specialists failed to do so. To express his gratitude, Douglas has since participated in fundraisers for Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, where he was diagnosed, and the McGill University Health Centre with which the hospital is affiliated.
Douglas attributed the cancer to a combination of stress, his previous alcohol abuse, and years of heavy smoking. In July 2011, Star magazine published photographs which appeared to show Douglas smoking a cigarette while on holiday that month. A representative declined to comment on the photographs.
In November 2010, Douglas's doctors put him on a special weight-gain diet due to excessive weight loss that had left him weak. On January 11, 2011, he said in an interview that the tumor was gone, though the illness and aggressive treatment had caused him to lose thirty-two pounds. He noted that he would require monthly screenings because of a high chance of recurrence within two to three years. In June 2013, Douglas told The Guardian that his type of cancer is caused by HPV, transmitted by cunnilingus, leading some media to report this as well. His spokesman denied these reports and portrayed Douglas's conversation with The Guardian as general and not referring specifically to his own diagnosis. Although Douglas described the cancer as throat cancer, it was publicly speculated that he may actually have been diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer. In October 2013, Douglas said he had suffered from tongue cancer, not throat cancer. He announced it as throat cancer upon the advice of his physician, who felt it would be unwise to reveal that he had tongue cancer given its negative prognosis and potential for disfigurement, particularly because the announcement came immediately before Douglas's promotional tour for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Douglas and Zeta-Jones hosted the annual Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo, Norway, on December 11, 2003. They acted as co-masters of ceremony in the concert celebrating the award given to Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi. In 2006, Douglas was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
He is an advocate of nuclear disarmament, a supporter of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, sits on the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and is an honorary Board Member of the anti-war grant-making foundation Ploughshares Fund. In 1998, he was appointed UN Messenger of Peace by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is a notable Democrat and has donated money to Barack Obama, Christopher Dodd, and Al Franken. He has been a major supporter of gun control since John Lennon was murdered in 1980.
In 2006, he was a featured speaker in a public service campaign sponsored by a UN conference to focus attention on trade of illicit arms, especially of small arms and light weapons. Douglas made several appearances and offered his opinions:
The conference is an opportunity for UN member states to build on the Program of Action and to encourage countries to strengthen their laws on the illicit trade, … an issue that affects us all … [and] while owning guns is a legal right in most countries, the illegal trade in guns continues to fuel conflict, crime and violence.
A few years earlier, in 2003, Douglas hosted a "powerful film" on child soldiers and the impact of combat on children in countries such as Sierra Leone. During the documentary film, Douglas interviewed children, and estimated that they were among 300,000 other children worldwide who have been conscripted or kidnapped and forced to fight. Of one such child he interviewed, Douglas stated, "After being kidnapped by a rebel group, he was tortured, drugged, and forced to commit atrocities." Douglas discussed his role as a Messenger Peace for the UN:
I'm in an enviable position … When I talk about movies I can talk about messages of peace, and infuse them into the entertainment pages.
In February 2012, following his return to the character of financial criminal Gordon Gekko, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a public service announcement video of Michael Douglas calling on viewers to report financial crime. In August 2014, Douglas was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.
In June 2015, during a visit in Israel to receive the Genesis Prize, Douglas said the boycott movement against that country is an "ugly cancer."
In 2009, Douglas joined the project Soldiers of Peace, a movie against all wars and for global peace.
Douglas lent his support for the campaign to release Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman, who after having been convicted of committing adultery, was given a sentence of death by stoning.