Michael Douglas on Kirk’s dismay over ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ snub
The younger Douglas was just 29 when he earned his place among Hollywood’s elite as the producer behind the first movie in 40 years to sweep the “big five” Oscars for best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay.
Kirk, now 100, had starred in the Broadway version and even handed the movie rights for the iconic 1975 drama to his son, but was shocked when he was passed over for the role of convict Randle McMurphy in favor of the younger Jack Nicholson.
Michael, 72, told a Q&A in Hollywood on Saturday how his father’s plans to adapt the moderately successful 1963 play based on Ken Kesey’s novel had foundered after a number of years and he was about to sell on the rights.
“I say, ‘Please, Dad, don’t sell the project. It’s a great project. So let me take it and run with it and I’ll try to get it set up as a production and for you to play the part,’ and Dad said, ‘Okay great,'” Douglas recalled.
“Here’s where Kirk’s and my story digress. On his version, yeah sure, Michael gets the project, takes a year, sets it all up and doesn’t cast me in the part. If he were here right now, it’s the first thing he’d want to tell you.”
– Too old –
Douglas told Turner Classic Movies presenter Ben Mankiewicz, who was hosting a discussion on the actor’s glittering career, that he remembers one key part of the story differently, insisting he wasn’t to blame for his dad’s rejection.
“It was about 20 years since Dad did the play on Broadway, his career’s changed a little bit, and our director Milos Forman was like, ‘Kirk’s a little old for the part.’ I said ‘Yeah,'” Douglas said.
“Dad’s version is that I rejected him. I said, ‘Since when did the producer have casting control? That was the director.’ It was my first time out.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells the story of a felon who fakes insanity to avoid a jail term and finds himself in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon where the patients live in fear of the malevolent ward supervisor, Nurse Ratched.
McMurphy is considered to be 79-year-old Nicholson’s career-defining role, although Forman only considered him after trying unsuccessfully to secure Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando and Burt Reynolds.
Several actresses — including Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page and Angela Lansbury — were considered for Nurse Ratched, before Louise Fletcher was hired.
It was the first movie since “It Happened One Night” (1934) to sweep the “big five” Oscars — a feat that has only been matched once since, by “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
“I like to tease my father because I gave him half of our producing deal and he made more money off that movie than any movie he ever made,” Douglas laughed.
– ‘You were terrible’ –
Now a Hollywood icon, Michael Douglas was a TV actor — a job considered very much less illustrious than big screen acting at the time — on crime series “The Streets of San Francisco” when he took on his debut producing role.
He went on to win another Oscar — this time for best actor in “Wall Street” (1987) — and became one of the most bankable stars in the world through a series of roles in cinematic hits including “Romancing the Stone,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct.”
Douglas described speaking to his father, ever the taskmaster, after his very first performance, as a messenger in a college production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and being told: “Michael, you were terrible.”
“He was so relieved. He said, ‘Thank God I don’t have to worry about my son going into this business,'” Douglas remembered.
The actor said he suffered crippling stage fright in his early years and would keep a waste basket at the side of the stage in case he needed to throw up.
“Finally, a couple years later, Dad came back and he was wonderful. He was busy in his career but he saw most of my shows and he said, ‘You were okay — you were good.'”