LAST week it was announced that Michael Douglas has cancer. Lesley-Ann Jones believes his greatest allies as he fights the disease are his feisty wife Catherine and tough-guy father Kirk
However good the Hollywood superstar’s cancer prognosis, however optimistic his specialists that he has what it takes to survive, what Michael Douglas has felt every day since his throat tumour diagnosis are the most basic of human instincts: fear and dread.
Despite the immortality of a screen legend’s image, despite the high-flying, risk-taking, hell-raising recklessness which go with the territory of the celebrity lifestyle, no amount of fame and fortune can buy life.
Despite what harrowing recent photographs suggest, however, the double Oscar-winning star of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Wall Street, does have reasons to be cheerful, big reasons. Any optimism he now allows himself is thanks to the two most important figures in his life. One, his fiercely devoted second wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, 40, is the woman we would all want beside us when our oncologist imparts the worst.
“Catherine is one tough cookie,” says a friend of the New York-based couple who knows the Douglas family well. “What Catherine wants, Catherine gets. What she says goes. She rules that roost like some Shakespearean matriarch. Michael came to life the day he met her and he has never looked back. She woke all kinds of things in him he never knew he had. His very life now depends on her and he is letting her take control.”
It’s an especially fascinating relationship, says their friend, because Michael is now 65, a quarter of a century older than Catherine, who shares her husband’s birthday on September 25.
“I think a lot of us thought it was about Catherine getting the father figure. How wrong can you be? What’s happened is that Mike has resorted to quite a child-like state in a lot of ways since they married 10 years ago, which does happen to men especially as they age. While she has risen as this magnificently powerful creature, mothering her mate as well as her kids. Mike’s in very safe hands. Catherine has gone into overdrive to make sure he gets the best treatment, the best advice, the best of everything money can buy.
“She’s risen to the occasion and is showing her true colours. I take my hat off to her, as do so many of us. Diandra, Mike’s first wife, was lovely in her way but she never was what he needed. Diandra would never have handled this the way Catherine is doing. They are a match made in heaven.
“I have no doubt that, because of her positive attitude, her action, her fearlessness, the fact that she is so very down-to-earth and practical, that she’ll be making him eat the right stuff and lay off the booze and so on, Mike will get through all this and will be healthy again.”
The other champion of Micheal’s cause is as legendary as Hollywood gets: his father Kirk, the star of Spartacus. Although 93 and frail he’s still invincible and has come out fighting.
“Kirk has always been Michael’s inspiration and he is being a tower of strength,” says an A-list executive producer who has worked with both father and son.
“Kirk knows better than most that survival is largely in the mind. He succeeded himself, against all kinds of odds, and he learned to do that by not allowing himself to give up. He will not allow Michael to give up. He’ll be the voice in Michael’s ear five times a day, encouraging him, galvanising him. Kirk also adores Catherine, he would do anything for her.
With those two behind him, how could Michael give in to this? His father and his wife just won’t let him. He needs them both too much, just as they need him.” Kirk has not just played men of extraordinary physical strength on screen; he has also fought physical battles of his own.
He suffered a stroke from which he was not expected to recover in 1994, three years after surviving a helicopter crash in which two other passengers were killed. His youngest son Eric died of an accidental drugs overdose in 2004, so Douglas senior is used to dealing with personal disasters.
“I have seen first-hand that hard, determined, ferocious dimension to Kirk Douglas’s personality which rises when faced with a challenge like this.” says Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend. “I met him at Catherine and Michael’s wedding at the Plaza Hotel, New York, in November 2000. We were covering the celebrations exclusively for OK! Magazine.
“Kirk is a basic guy, a poor Jewish immigrant from the old Russian Empire who made it to America against plenty of odds and reinvented himself as a screen idol. He married up when he took Bermudan actress Diana Dill as his bride. She was East Coast aristocracy compared to Kirk. His tough, working-class ancestry is perhaps what resonated with his daughter-in-law, a proud Welsh girl from the Valleys with coal in her blood. Kirk and Catherine obviously bonded for life; he thinks the world of her.
“It must have been tough for Michael at times, living up to the old man. He’s such a trouper. Even in his 90s, bandy-legged and with that boxer’s physique; the small compact body with disproportionate arms and legs, the rheumy eyes, shades of the role he played in The Champion, way back. he’s larger than life.
“He, in turn, has had his issues with his offspring, that thing of the next generation having it easy because of their parents’ endless effort and graft, determined to give their children the best. It does cause resentment, on both sides. Kirk and Michael have come through their difficulties, emerging stronger than ever. They are lucky to have such a great father-son relationship. It will undoubtedly be a factor in Michael’s survival.”
Cancer is random. It strikes where it will. What are Michael Douglas’s chances? Bottom line, if you smoke a lot, and drink a lot, you’ll pay for it sooner or later. Not necessarily with a cancer diagnosis though, it’s less quantifiable than that. We all know teetotal non-smokers who live the healthiest of lifestyles and still die from it but if your lifestyle is of a certain type, you increase your chances. And let’s face it; Michael and Catherine have been the heaviest of smokers in their time.”
ASH (Action on Smoking and Health, the American anti-smoking and non-smokers’ rights organisation) came down on Catherine like a ton of bricks when she was pictured smoking during pregnancy and after the birth of her children, Dylan, now 10, and Carys, seven. The witch-hunt became so invasive that the Douglases were forced to launch legal action.
“That campaign against them was horrific,” says one girlfriend of Catherine’s in Swansea. “C-Z said she felt very persecuted. It was all a bit Nazi-ish. She and Michael were expected to be moral pillars of society. All she wanted was a fag and a drink now and again. Normal.
“Part of the attraction between them was that they recognised themselves in each other. They had similar attitudes and habits. They did think for a while that they could carry on hammering it, burning the candle at both ends. We all find out sooner or later that we can’t do that stuff for ever, that the party scene catches up with you.
“They don’t ask for sympathy, they are just a loving couple, getting on with it. They’re a bit rock and roll but they keep themselves to themselves. Michael’s having his treatment in New York, so they are living there in the apartment most of the time but otherwise they just hang out at home in Bermuda with the kids whenever they can. I just hope everyone leaves them alone now, so that C-Z can get Michael well again.”
“If you both smoke and drink, you take the greatest of risks with your health,” says a leading Californian cancer specialist. “It’s not hard to see why. If you set fire to alcohol, it burns. If you drink and smoke, you light a bonfire in your throat. Spirits and cigarettes taste nice, sure, but are perhaps the most lethal combination of all.”
There have been comparisons over the years of the lives of the Douglas dynasty to the most colourful episodes of Dallas. Strong men, stronger women. Always a drama, ever a crisis. They are used to that. Play the game at such a level, that’s how it is.
They are fundamentally a loving family and always have been. They will now pull together, closing ranks, and do whatever it takes to get Michael well again. He’ll come through it too. He has dealt with his addictive personality, sex, alcohol, and is used to the best rehab, the best therapy. He had facial lesions removed five years ago so he’s as comfortable as one can be with surgical procedures.
He has faced as courageously as any father could the trial and subsequent imprisonment of his 31-year-old drug-dealing son Cameron, a sometime actor who appeared with his father, grandfather and grandmother in the 2003 film It Runs In the Family.
Cancer is terrifying, sure but the Douglases can deal with it. As Michael begins a gruelling two-month course of combined radiotherapy and chemotherapy, deferring invasive surgery for the moment, his doctors insist that there is every reason to be optimistic. Let’s pray they’re on the money.
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