How Nice Guy Michael Douglas Came to Star in 'The China Syndrome' - Rolling Stone
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How Nice Guy Michael Douglas Came to Star in ‘The China Syndrome’

How a controversial antinuclear statement became a Hollywood thriller

Michael Douglas, movie camera, film, The China SyndromeMichael Douglas, movie camera, film, The China Syndrome

Michael Douglas holding a movie camera on his shoulder in a scene from the film 'The China Syndrome' in 1979.

Columbia Pictures/Getty

Professor Lowell: …We came very close to The China Syndrome.
Kimberly: The what?
Lowell: If the nuclear reactor vessel — the core — is exposed…the fuel heats beyond…tolerance in a matter of minutes, nothing can stop it, and it melts right through the bottom of the plant, theoretically to China. But of course, when it hits ground water, it would blast into the atmosphere and send out clouds of radioactivity. The number of people killed would depend on which way the wind is blowing…render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable — not to mention the cancer that would show up later.

Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), a radical young cameraman, is working with Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a TV reporter, on what is shaping up as one of your everyday pro-nuclear-power pieces. They are at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in southern California, and Adams has just filmed Wells and a PR man talking about how the plant works. As soon as the PR guy is out of earshot, the long-haired, bearded and frumpy Adams recites: “Steam turns the turbine that turns the generator…. and the shit hits the fan.”

Moments later, in the visitors’ room, the TV crew feels a tremor. Adams, who’s been told he can’t film the control room just below them, casually props his camera up on a table, adjusts his lens and looks bored, while his camera captures shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) accelerating from calm to panic as the rest of his staff run around the room pushing buttons, dials and levers in order to avert a catastrophe. Adams senses an antinuke scoop, but later, back in L.A., a cautious station manager refuses to air the story.

In his battle with the station executives, Adams is all agitated energy, ranting and raging. Without really knowing what had technically happened, he insists that he filmed a dangerous accident. He accuses the station of conspiring with the power plant — which is in the middle of safety hearings to license yet another plant — to cover up the incident: “You’re being pressured!” he screams.

“And you’re being hysterical,” the station manager calmly replies. Adams leans over the table and fixes the executive in an intense close-up. “And you’re being a chicken-shit asshole.”

Throughout The China Syndrome, Douglas, Fonda and ultimately Lemmon are forced into confrontations with the power and construction companies and the media in an attempt to get at the truth of the potential disaster. Their fight leads to a shattering climax, making China Syndrome an out-and-out thriller as well as a powerful antinuclear statement.

When he pulls his hands back over his forehead, Michael Douglas reminds you of his father, Kirk Douglas, with those intense green eyes and that square, hand-me-down jaw — clefted with what Michael calls “the K.D. dimple.” His long hair is ruffled; his maroon, knit tie is undone, and his shirt sleeves are not quite rolled up to the elbows. Behind him is a poster in Japanese, advertising One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he coproduced in 1975.

Douglas, 34, who lives in Santa Barbara, is in the Hollywood office of his Big Stick Production Company, preparing for the March release of his latest production, The China Syndrome. As he talks about the film and about his life, he calls in help whenever he needs to nail down a fact. An assistant brings in an early draft of The China Syndrome script and, then, a note from Robert Redford rejecting a role in the film. (“The project,” Redford wrote, “is a very viable one. Probably next to the Karen Silkwood story, the best in this genre.” But, he added, “As an actor, I am looking for something different than the character in China Syndrome.”) Later, the assistant is asked to help recall some detail about his relationship with actress Brenda Vaccaro.

Which is to say that Douglas is an open sort. He says he had no strong pro- or antinuke stance before coming across Mike Gray’s script, “other than generally being a liberal. So, I was taking an antinuke attitude because my friends were.”

Actually, Douglas himself was once employed by one of the giants of the oil industry. It was 1964. He’d flunked out of the University of California at Santa Barbara after his freshman year; slunk back to Connecticut, where he’d spent most of his teenage years; and got a job at a gas station. And, Douglas points out, “I was a Mobil Man of the Month. I still have my certificate!” Douglas was nominated three times for Emmy awards for his work on the television series Streets of San Francisco. Cuckoo’s Nest got five Oscars. And yet he chooses to talk about being Mobil Man of the Month in detail. “I guess they have Mobil spies, who come in and get gas. You wash the windows, you wash the rear window, you ask to check the oil, you ask to check the tires.” Ah, the good old days. “Yeah,” Douglas agrees. “Now you’ve got self-service and to get full service you gotta bust somebody’s ass. But that was a good summer. I ran the tow truck. It was the first time I had a job of my own, and it was satisfying.”

Douglas was born into an acting family (his mother is actress Diana Douglas), but after some theater work, a few film roles and the part of a brash and sexy young cop in the hit TV series Streets of San Francisco, his greatest success and satisfaction have come from producing. “Shit, I can’t believe they pay you for it!” he says. “You make stories. You read something, you cry or you laugh, and you wanna make it!”

It was an emotional response then, and not politics, that got him interested in The China Syndrome? “The script got me excited,” he says, “because I saw it could be suspenseful. It was basically about a documentary film crew filming an accident at a nuclear plant. I found this parallel with Cuckoo’s Nest — individuals caught in a corporate or social structure that forces them to make a moral decision at the sacrifice of losing their lives. It’s an effort at what is basically Greek tragedy — classic drama situations.”

Jack Lemmon, the two-time Oscar winner (Mister Roberts, Save the Tiger) who’s played some forty roles in a twenty-five-year career, says he’s been looking to do a film like The China Syndrome for a couple of decades. That’s how long he’s been concerned with environmental issues.

“It started with a simple thing like smog,” he says, “and then I became more and more involved and tried to learn. In the position I was in, I figured the only way I could do any good was to make other people more concerned.”

Around 1970, Lemmon began narrating a series of TV documentaries about “all kinds of ecological disorder,” which eventually included a 1971 critique of nuclear energy. After one showing, in Los Angeles, the film was shelved by NBC following protests from Pacific Gas & Electric.

Once he read The China Syndrome script, Lemmon was anxious for the role. “I stayed out of work for a year to do this little mother,” he says, “because of the trouble getting it off the ground. I’m proud as hell to be in the damn film. It’s going to stir people and make them think. I do not think people know bullshit about the truth. I don’t think they do because they don’t want to, and not only that, the government has never wanted them to.” Lemmon sounds impassioned about the possibility of a nuclear disaster. “And as long as the possibility exists to any extent, whether it’s one in a million, we’re not talking about a train wreck, we’re talking about a whole…fucking…catastrophe!”

Lemmon is equally vocal about Michael Douglas. “What I love about Michael,” he says, “is he finally got Cuckoo off the ground and made one of the great, great films. Now, he’s the hottest thing in the world. He could have done fifteen things, I’m sure. But he didn’t just go out to be a ‘producer.’ He waited and waited and waited. He found this damn thing, and he believed in it and it was so tough to get off the ground — all the good ones are — and he just stuck with it. He’s bright, he’s talented, but mainly, he cares. That son of a bitch came up here to my house and I mean he was passionate. This was the film he wanted to do.”

Douglas got the script in April 1976, just after his Cuckoo’s Nest had swept through the Academy Awards. He figured he could pretty much call his own shots. He was wrong.

“It was shockingly difficult getting things going,” he says. “I thought I’d proven something after Cuckoo. But this realization came to me — out of the fog, I think — that when you have a hit picture, the people who benefit directly are the stars and the director, while you, as the producer, have to start from scratch with a new project.”

One of his problems was scriptwriter Mike Gray, whose previous film experience consisted only of such documentaries as the powerful exposé The Murder of Fred Hampton. Gray had provided a strong story and wanted to direct the film, and Douglas promised to try to arrange it. He knew it’d be difficult. “Number one,” says Douglas, “you’re dealing with relatively controversial subject matter that the studios can’t see a lot of commercial success in. Number two, with a brand-new director, you’d better have a cast that has some box-office appeal to make [the proposal] attractive for them. And we knew we were all gonna have to take less than we normally got.”

“We” included Lemmon, Douglas himself as the film-crew producer and Richard Dreyfuss as the camera operator, originally the main figure in the crew. But Dreyfuss had “reservations” about Gray, and while Columbia Pictures was considering the Dreyfuss-Lemmon-Douglas package, Dreyfuss “just fell out.” According to Gray, he did it by raising his price from $250,000 to $500,000. At any rate, says Douglas, “I was left with my thumb up my ass. It was embarrassing.” But an executive at Columbia mentioned that the studio had a development deal in the works with Jane Fonda and her IPC film production company on a nuclear-related story, and suggested the two get together.

Fonda has long been interested in the story of Karen Silkwood, the lab technician at an Oklahoma plutonium plant who, alarmed about her employer’s safety standards, began to spy on the plant. In November 1974, on her way to deliver a file of company documents to, among others, a New York Times reporter, she was killed when her car ran off a highway. The documents disappeared from her car, and her death remains a mystery. The case has become the subject of lawsuits, continuing controversy and, to several parties, an ideal feature film.

“There were a half-dozen people trying to do the Karen Silkwood story at the same time,” says Bruce Gilbert, Fonda’s partner in IPC (and executive producer of The China Syndrome). Several groups were fighting over the film rights to the Silkwood story, and IPC lost out.

“I don’t even think I would have done The China Syndrome if I’d felt it would have precluded a Karen Silkwood movie,” says Fonda, “because I think the world can have both. [The China Syndrome includes a scene that echoes the Karen Silkwood story and shows, on the screen, what some believe happened to her: a courier, driving to a nuclear safety and plant licensing hearing with evidence of falsified construction company documents, is pushed off the road. The documents disappear.] Silk-wood as a person, her process of change and her experience will be, I hope, a very brilliant movie, and I’m sorry that we couldn’t get the rights to it. But we couldn’t, and just at the point where we were being discouraged, Michael came along with the [China Syndrome] script, which I read and immediately felt was real exciting.”

Fonda agreed to participate despite the fact that there was no major role for a woman in the script, and “it was a different kind of film. It was more of a low-budget, documentary-style type of movie.”

Which is how Mike Gray saw The China Syndrome. Apart from financial realities — as Gray himself puts it, “Suddenly the budget jumps $2 million and they say, ‘Okay, who’s this guy here in the corner?'” — it was the stylistic differences between Gray and Fonda that led to his departure. Gray wanted the film to “not look like a Hollywood movie. I am disinclined to use very structured shots. I was after an untraditional film, and I told Jane this. And although Jane Fonda is politically radical, professionally she’s quite conservative.”

Fonda doesn’t disagree. “We felt that, given what we were trying to say with the film, we should try to make it accessible to as broad an audience as possible, and they are used to seeing a certain kind of production quality,” she explains.

With Fonda in, Gray out, and Jim Bridges (The Paper Chase and currently working on Urban Cowboy, with John Travolta) hired to rewrite the script — fitting Fonda in — and to direct, The China Syndrome was finally under way. Fonda, after reading a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about TV news’ increasing use of media consultants, began shaping a character for herself: a newscaster hired primarily for her looks, Kimberly Wells is trapped in a happy-news rut, struggling to prove herself with her first solid news story.

Fonda, now in Utah working on The Electric Horseman with Redford, says she’s pleased with The China Syndrome. “I think it’s gonna have social impact and I think it’s gonna be commercial,” she says. “I think it’ll be an example of the two coming together.”

Douglas, of course, knows what Fonda and Lemmon think of the film. Right now, he’s wondering about one other person: Mike Gray, the guy who wrote the original story and got squeezed out. Douglas invited him to a screening. “I was hoping he would call to tell me what he thought, and I never heard from him.”

As it turns out, Gray likes the film. Of course, he has a couple of quibbles — the film is Hollywood — but, he says, “It’s a good film. Michael’s an excellent producer, Jane’s a fantastic actress, Jack Lemmon is stunning and Michael, as an actor, was good, playing that loudmouthed punk documentary filmmaker.” Gray thinks for a second and laughs. “I think he must’ve been watching me carefully, more closely than I thought.”

Gray, formerly an aeronautical engineer and a technical writer, wrote The China Syndrome after researching several actual near accidents. Later, Douglas employed a team of technical advisers for the film, and even visited the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant near Portland, Oregon. The extensive research is evident throughout — from the technical language of the control-room scenes to the construction of the room itself, a mammoth, $150,000 set modeled after an actual control room.

Among the technical consultants for the set were three former nuclear-energy consultants who had resigned from General Electric two years ago, claiming that the company was not sufficiently concerned with nuclear safety issues.*

Gray marvels at the results of his original script. “I think it’s remarkable the damn thing got done. It’ll settle the myth that Hollywood can’t deal with serious matters.”

In 1962, Kirk Douglas heard about Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He read it while it was still in galleys and immediately purchased the film rights. He hired Dale Wasserman to write a stage version and brought it to Broadway (among his costars was Gene Wilder). “It made no big impression,” he recalls.

Douglas Sr. had no better luck trying to turn Cuckoo’s Nest into a movie. “There were all kinds of problems,” he continues. “Dale was suing me; always something fell through. Then, it got to the point where I felt I was getting too old to play the part [of McMurphy].” In 1970, he was ready to sell his rights when his son grabbed it. “A very amazing coincidence,” Kirk adds. “When I first had the movie rights, I met Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia, and I sent him the book. He never got it. I always assumed that he got it and just didn’t react to it. And when Michael told me who he’d chosen to direct Cuckoo’s Nest — Milos Forman — I fell off my chair.”

“I loved the book,” says Michael, “and I told my father, ‘Well, wait a minute. Let me take it and roll with it for a while. I’ll at least get you the money you’re asking for, maybe get you a piece of it,’ and all that. So that was what got me into producing. I had no intention of becoming a producer. I just didn’t know it was gonna take five years to make it!”

Nor did Douglas automatically consider following in his parents’ footsteps when he was growing up. Until college, the only acting he did was Gilbert and Sullivan operas in kindergarten in New York City.

Douglas’ parents divorced when he was five years old, and while he lived with his mother in Connecticut, during school vacations he went on location wherever his father was making a movie. “My parents prided themselves on not pushing me,” he recalls. “I think they had some concern about the dangers and difficulties of show business. There may even have been an overreaction to letting me make my own mind up.”

Although Douglas was born with a silver spoon in his jaw, he didn’t have an easy time growing up. He went to private schools — “You know, the flannel slacks, the white shirts, English schoolboy bags” — until he was eleven, when his mother got a film contract in California and Douglas found himself in a public junior high school, jumped from fifth to seventh grade. It was traumatic. “It was a little fast for me. Here I’d been going to this all-boy private school, and then I’m suddenly with these junior-high kids, thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. There were gangs, and the first girl I kissed had her mouth wide open.”

Douglas fled into the shelter of the Black Fox Military Academy in L.A. for the rest of the year, then went back to Westport, Connecticut, where he attended preprep schools. There, he excelled in sports, became the captain of various teams, then lapsed — in his high-school years — into nothing. “I didn’t do shit,” he says.

In 1964, Douglas flunked out of UC Santa Barbara. “It was girls, basically. Just the old thing, this discipline formally imposed on you in private schools, and then you go to a public university and have all this freedom.”

Douglas took off about a year and a half, which included his award-winning performance at the Mobil station. “After that, I worked with my father and Richard Harris on a film in Norway, and another one in Israel, as an assistant director. I was like a trainee; you just do all the shit work that you can’t delegate any lower.”

Douglas returned to UC Santa Barbara. Required to declare a major in his junior year, he enrolled in the theater department. “I began trying out for shows, and it was fairly painful.”

He was, after all, the son of Kirk Douglas. “It’s part of one’s life,” he explains, philosophically. “There probably is that first step where it makes it a little easier. But you never get the credit for being yourself. There’s always that resemblance thing, or mannerisms, so it’s hard. You wonder when they will finally say, ‘Hey, that person can do something on his own.’ “

“Everybody has problems,” says Kirk Douglas, nee Issur Dempsky. “He had problems being Kirk Douglas’ son; I had problems being the son of a Russian peasant. It’s just something one has to adjust to. People develop a strength of character and overcome it.”

Douglas admits that Michael had special difficulties. “He didn’t like me for a long time,” he says. “When Diana and I were divorced, he was old enough to be affected. Only in the last few years have we become friends, and I feel a warmth. In fact, I think of him as another human being that I like, as much as a son. He’s developed into a bright, capable person with character.” Douglas flinches. “I hate that word. What I mean is, he could handle things if they failed as well as handle success.”

Actor Karl Malden, who worked with Michael for four years on Streets of San Francisco, describes him as “lovable.” “I have two daughters,” he says, succinctly. “If I had a son I’d wish he were like Michael Douglas.” Jack Lemmon, describing Douglas’ abilities as a producer, notes: “Instead of coming on strong and trying to assert himself, he’s more like a barrage of powder puffs.”

Douglas just laughs when I remind him that an adoring article about him in San Francisco’s City magazine was titled, “The Nicest Guy in Town?” “I’m not such a nice guy,” he says, still laughing. “I mean, I try in a work situation to make it as pleasurable as possible because it’s the best way people work — when they’re happy, relaxed and loose. That’s how I like to work. But if and when I have to turn killer — I’m talking about within the industry — I’m as bad or worse than anybody. If it has to get ugly, I’m capable of getting as ugly as anybody.”

At Santa Barbara, Douglas did well — acting, directing plays and winning awards for his work in both areas. But he had a slow start. Kirk Douglas remembers being surprised when his son, who had planned to become a lawyer, invited him to come see him in a small part in a school production of As You Like It. “Afterward, he asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘You were terrible!’ and I thought he’d come to his senses and become a respectable man. Then two months later he had another part and invited me again, and afterward, he said, ‘What’d you think?’ And I said, ‘You were very good.'” Michael, he feels, “has a presence as an actor. In Streets of San Francisco, even when he had nothing to do in a scene, he always made it interesting — even just standing there.”

In the summers of his last couple of years at UC, Douglas got a job at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. “They had a National Playwrights’ Conference where they would put on new plays with a resident acting company. A lot of the good off-Broadway playwrights were going up there.” During his first summer there, Douglas wasn’t exactly a full-fledged actor. “I worked in construction, on a Greek amphitheater next to an old barn, and in return I got to play a small part.”

The next summer, one of the playwrights visiting the O’Neill Theater cast him in the lead role in an off-Broadway play, Summertree. “It was about a young guy trying to find himself, and in the process he got drafted, went to Vietnam and got killed. It was a flashback of his life.”

Summertree was picked for a showcase run at the Lincoln Center in New York, and Douglas got a shot at the lead role. He wanted to take a leave from school, but was afraid of getting drafted himself. He worked out a semester’s leave while still technically enrolled at UC, went to New York, got the part, then lost it after another reading and returned to Santa Barbara, where he became a hippie.

“It started off as part of the carry-over from back East, the Bohemian thing, being into jazz music and that kind of thing, wearing dark clothes. And from there, I got into Maharishi, was doing some meditation.” Whenever he could, he would zip up Highway 101 to Sausalito, north of San Francisco, and hang out with friends in their houseboats. “You had your motorcycle or whatever, and your Renaissance velour shirts. It was fun. Marijuana and psychedelics had a real influence…that had to do with rhythm and perspective. But I was not, in that period, career-conscious at all.”

In retrospect, Douglas thinks he overdosed on blissfulness. “I was between feeling good and feeling high and feeling right and mellow. I was just ODed on being mellow. I was basically a hippie and had little political involvements until 1967. Then we started silent protests against the war and we began these guerrilla theater shows. We’d come into a classroom and create blood situations, like somebody really got hurt, doing work like that. We were following suit of what was going on at San Francisco State.” As for Douglas and the dreaded draft: he never went. “I have a missing vertebra; it’s an existing disability…and it was dramatized to get out of the army.”

After finishing school, Douglas went back to New York to study acting and begin a career. He did several off-Broadway plays, then moved on to television, in a CBS Playhouse production called The Experiment. After signing with CBS’ filmmaking arm, Cinema Center, he moved back to California and made two pictures, Adam at 6 A.M. and Hail, Hero! (in which Douglas played a hippie who enlisted for duty in Vietnam). For Walt Disney Productions, he starred in Napoleon and Samantha, then came full circle in 1971, when he played the lead role in the film version of Summertree. One of the actresses in that movie was Brenda Vaccaro. Douglas is not much help in figuring out how the relationship began. “It was a gradual process, over two or three months of working with her on the film.” He isn’t avoiding the subject, and he’s not disinterested. “I just don’t know how to explain it,” he says.

Douglas began doing television acting again. “I’d done an FBI episode for Quinn Martin Productions. I replaced someone at the last minute, and my agency pushed it when Quinn Martin started Streets. I was reluctant. I thought I had this image to live up to, and there’s a stigma attached to TV. On the other hand, I was telling myself, ‘Hey, asshole, wake up. They’re not exactly knocking your door down with movie offers.’

“It was a real good transition period,” he says. “I was too old to play the alienated college kid, but too young — or too young-looking — to play young leading-man parts.”

Douglas learned acting discipline from Malden, and in his last year on the show, he successfully directed a couple of episodes. Also, by portraying Sergeant Steve Keller, Douglas learned lessons about the other side of hippiedom.

“Playing a cop made me much more sympathetic to cops,” he says. “I mean, nobody ever wants to see a cop unless there’s trouble. I had funny experiences with going to parties. Walk into some party and somebody loaded out of his skull looks up” — Douglas suddenly stands up to recreate the reaction to him — “I mean, ‘He’s a cop! A cop! Don’t fucking tell me that’s a fucking COP! Man, I’ve seen that fucker around!’ “

Douglas sits back down. “I found when I cut my hair…I couldn’t believe it. As long as you don’t talk about politics and religion, you can get along with a lot of people. It was interesting. You get to know a little bit of what the hell’s going on.”

The series, though, had a price: his relationship with Brenda Vaccaro, with whom he lived for five years. From 1972 through 1975, the show required Douglas to live eight months of each year in San Francisco, and Vaccaro neither wanted to live in that city nor to visit regularly. “Often, I couldn’t land because of the fog,” she explains. “Many times they lost my bag.” Douglas thinks Vaccaro feared she would lose out on her career by being away from Hollywood. “Then, after a number of years, we just drifted further apart,” he says. “I would say the split should have happened a long time before.”

“We were a beautiful couple,” Vaccaro said in a 1976 interview. “People loved us. Mike was charming, brilliant: women fell over him, men admired him. And I am, naturally, a good complement to such a man. But when you are done with a man, you are done! I just began to find it boring with Mike. I realized he wasn’t the man I was going to marry, and my relationship changed at that point…and I don’t think he really wanted to marry me. Everybody but us seemed to think marriage was a good idea.”

Also, while on Streets, Douglas was putting Cuckoo’s Nest together, and left the series after his fourth season to wrap up the film. Cuckoo, the film nobody wanted, went on to win five Oscars, net more than $80 million and make everyone involved — including Kirk and Michael Douglas — rich.

Cuckoo, however, also took a toll on Douglas.

“When Kesey threatened to sue, that really hurt me deeply,” he says. “It was just a real disappointment. When you have an image of someone and that character doesn’t live up to the image.

“I had the film rights,” Douglas continues. “The bottom line was that there was no reason to contact Kesey at all. Saul Zaentz [coproducer of Cuckoo’s Nest] said, ‘I want to give Ken a piece of the picture — even though we don’t have to.’ We wanted to give him a chance to write the screenplay. We had a meeting, and Saul told him that whether or not he wrote the screenplay, he’d get a piece of the film. And if he wrote it he’d get a salary on top of that.”

The screenplay Kesey submitted “was too surreal,” Zaentz says. “There was one scene that had a nurse, wearing a Vulcarian helmet, and she reached her arms out to two walls and scraped her hands, and blood ran down the walls.”

But, Douglas recalls, they were still willing to see what Kesey might do on rewrites. “Then he brought by a guy he said was his agent, with these demands about how much they wanted. It was silly. We talked, but it got nowhere. He said things like, ‘You’re paying not only for the talent but for the name, too.’ It fell apart. Finally it ended in a settlement, and we gave him what we’d agreed to give him in the first place.

“I still love the book,” says Douglas. “But I don’t love Ken Kesey.”

The success of Cuckoo’s Nest propelled Douglas and Jack Nicholson, the star of the film, into what the producer calls “a year of celebrating.” Douglas had split from Vaccaro at the end of 1975 and done a six-week globe-trotting promotion tour with Nicholson to Japan, Australia, England, France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. “Then I went to South America and Mexico and Venezuela and Brazil, quasi-promoting the picture but mixing that with hanging out.”

What did his partying with Nicholson entail? Douglas, like a kid reporting to his parents after spending a sordid weekend in Tijuana, tries to make it sound tedious. “Just all different things,” he says. “Having a lot of choices. And nothing restricted either because of a familial structure or a work structure.” Or, I suggest, financial limits. Douglas laughs, as if suddenly remembering a luxury of that time. “Yeah,” he allows, “you didn’t have to answer to anybody!” But, I say, they naturally observed all legal limits.

“Oh,” he responds quickly, “of course.”

Douglas explains his affinity for Nicholson. “He had a giggle in him. Early on we were able to be honest with each other — at a time when he was getting a lot of hype, over his career and about him as a person. He was a real twinkle, and he thought I was funny. He just got a kick out of me.”

In fact, didn’t Nicholson once say that Douglas liked things that were bizarre?

Douglas laughs. “I knew this was coming,” he says. After a little prodding, he admits, “I’m a little bent. I’ve got a sick sense of humor. It’s a little kinky, like things you shouldn’t laugh at.” Like what?

“…. Well, I have a bad time at funerals.

“There’s a side of me that struggles for discipline. Sometimes I think the reason I work as hard as I do is that I could go on a binge that could be a lifestyle. So maybe that’s the way I release myself, rather than turning into a complete mo-mo.”


“You know, a blithering idiot.”

Kirk Douglas also hints at edges when he speaks about similarities between his son and him. “I think he has that intensity…. He’s not as volatile as I am, but you feel that way down there, things are churning, that underneath, there’s a possibility of a more explosive quality.”

Near the end of their year of avoiding becoming mo-mos, Douglas and Nicholson found themselves in Washington D.C., for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and attendant parties. The two had been invited to the concert at the Kennedy Center on In-augural Eve.

“After the concert there was a reception upstairs to meet the president, and I looked across the room…” (the song “Some Enchanted Evening” must be flashing in Douglas’ head). “You know, ‘across a crowded room,’ corny thing — and I saw Diandra and asked her to marry me three weeks later, and we got married two months after that.

“I fell in love instantaneously,” Douglas says. “I have not quite figured it out. It never happened to me before.”

Diandra Luker had been in the United States only three years at the time of the party. She was only twenty, and a student at Georgetown University, in the School of Foreign Service. Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Majorca, she speaks five languages and was planning to go into diplomatic work. Not having watched television in Spain, and always too busy with studies to watch TV while in school, she had no idea who Michael Douglas was. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have recognized him, anyway.

“He had this enormous, burly beard,” she says. “He looked like a painter or sculptor.” They were introduced, she recalls, and moved to the hors d’oeuvres table. “I just thought he was very interesting. He was different. He had different perspectives about things. He was Sixties, rock & roll, and drugs. I had never even heard of that. We were people from opposite worlds.”

Diandra didn’t discover exactly who or what Douglas was, in fact, until the next day, when they attended the inauguration together and went to dinner.

When he suggested marriage, she was surprised. “But by that time, we were obviously very much in love.” They were married last March and have a four-month-old son named Cameron. Her only concern was California. “When I first came, it was difficult. I didn’t know anyone, and every-one there is involved with movies and TV. I was ignorant and would just sit there. But after two years, I’m a pro.” Diandra even appears in The China Syndrome, as a newscaster ready to substitute for Fonda. “I had a couple of party scenes, too, but they had to cut the film down. All the nonimportant characters were sliced out. It was just for fun.”

Between his marriage and The China Syndrome, there was Coma, in which Douglas starred opposite Geneviève Bujold. This was a warmup, he explains. “I hadn’t done anything for a year and a half so this was a chance to start getting into acting.” Coma, like China Syndrome had an anti-greed motif: “It was about a black market on organs. These doctors had a thing rigged up, and they were putting healthy patients into a coma and selling their organs to the highest bidder. It was good,” says Douglas. And, then, of course, he laughs.

Douglas, in recent months, finished another acting role, in a film called Running. (“It’s about a competitive runner who’s never quite made it and decides to make one last try for the Olympics. It’s really moving.”)

And, in an unrelated project, Douglas appears in a television special about running. The program is being produced by his brother Joel, 31.

Douglas talks about wanting to take things easy for a while, and says he’d like to find a partner to help him run his production company while he gets more involved in acting. And yet he’s looking at two scripts right now for films he might produce.

“I think my biggest asset as a producer is having good instincts,” he says. “My other asset is tenacity.” On China Syndrome, “I just hung in there until it all finally came together.”

Michael Douglas won’t say that The China Syndrome is an antinuke movie, at least not before the film’s release. In fact, the movie’s production notes do not use the word nuclear.

Douglas didn’t want to “presell the picture as antinuke,” he says. “It’s an issue that is polarized. We felt it was important, particularly when it’s a good picture, for as many people as possible to see it — for commercial reasons and social reasons.”

James Bridges says he entered the project “ignorant” and wound up “impassioned” about the nuclear-energy issue. But he won’t fess up, either. He calls China Syndrome “anti-profit motive, anti-greed.” In the end of the movie, he reminds me, “the system works. The plant shuts down and there is no China Syndrome.

“But,” he adds, “it is so close to one.”

And in China Syndrome, some of the most poignant words are not the work of Bridges or the other writers. They come from transcripts of testimony at the atomic safety hearings for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant’s bid to obtain an operating license in California:

Young man: This country is proceeding with nuclear plant construction, and yet we do not have a program for the safe disposal of deadly waste products, a poison that will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. You know this. You’ve known it for a long time. Any further words are pointless.

Since 1959, when the first nuclear power plant went into commercial operation in Shipping-port, Pennsylvania, 244 plants have been ordered by power companies in the U.S. As the antinuclear movement has grown, however, approximately forty-nine of those orders have been canceled. Sixty-nine plants currently have operating licenses, ninety-six have construction permits and 113 more are still in the planning stages. The existing plants produce radioactive waste with a half-life of tens of thousands of years.

Readers can contact the following organizations for further information on antinuclear efforts:

Nuclear Information and Resource Service
1536 Sixteenth Street NW
Washington D.C. 20036
(202) 483-0045 or (800) 424-2477

Clamshell Alliance
62 Congress Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801
(603) 436-5414

Trojan Decommissioning Alliance
215 SE Ninth Avenue
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 231-0014

Abalone Alliance
452 Higuera Street
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
(805) 543-6614

Palmetto Alliance
P.O. Box 1065
Barnwell, SC 29812
(803) 254-8132

Catfish Alliance
P.O. Box 20049
Tallahassee, FL 32304
(904) 222-8603

*The General Electric Corporation withdrew its sponsorship of a Barbara Walters special on ABC-TV, slated for March 13th, because of an interview with Jane Fonda in which she discusses The China Syndrome and her support of the antinuclear movement.


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