When he first started he became the hot new actor in the TV series, "The Streets of San Francisco." But he put that aside for a while to become a producer. His first venture, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," proved to be pure platinum, and he followed with three more hits.
Still, he never quit acting. And in that field he has always been willing to accept the more chancy roles like the unsympathetic characters in "Wall Street," "Fatal Attraction" and "Wonder Boys."
But his latest part is perhaps the biggest risk of all. He plays the flamboyant, gay showman Liberace in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra," premiering Sunday.
The film -- based on the book by Liberace's former lover, Scott Thorson -- is directed by Steven Soderbergh and co-stars Matt Damon as Thorson.
"As an actor you're always trying to reach out and stretch and trying to do different things," Douglas said, "so I was pleased and nervous whether I could pull it off and be happy with the results."
But pulling it off was only half the battle for Douglas. He had his own wars to wage when he was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer of the tongue.
"That's the worst level you can have," he said, seated on a banquette in a lobby lounge of a hotel here.
"There was a while there -- the odds aren't good -- it comes out of left field.
"The difficult time between that and my oldest son being incarcerated now, he's in prison (on a drug charge). Dealing with those issues was a tough time, but you move on."
Though he doesn't mention it, his second wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has sought medical help twice in as many years.
Characteristically, Douglas said he's managed to cope by just forging ahead. "I think people just inherently have tenacity or a stamina and an ability to identify that there is no choice but to move on," he said.
He's cancer-free now and has projects lined up for the next three years, the busiest timetable he's ever seen.
"I guess the one good thing about getting older is you can say, 'Well, Michael, you've always pulled it out before," Douglas said.
"Behind the Candelabra" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
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