Peter Bart: Remembering Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas & ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Saul Zaentz, left, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Michael Douglas at the 1976 Oscars AP/Shutterstock

Michael Douglas reminisced just last Friday about the father/son kinship and occasional rivalry shared with Kirk Douglas, which came to a head over the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Michael made his remarks at the closing event of the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival, during an onstage conversation with me.

Kirk Douglas, who died today at age 103, had owned rights to the Cuckoo’s Nest play (based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel) and had hoped to get it financed as a movie, playing the role that later went to Jack Nicholson, Michael recalled. At the time Michael was a successful television actor in Streets of San Francisco but aspired to become a feature star and producer. He thus asked his father for his rights to the play, only to be turned down. Kirk told him firmly that no one wanted to make the movie, that he would be wasting his time.

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas in 1975 Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

As it turned out, Michael was finally able to persuade his father to surrender the rights, and proceeded to find funding for a movie adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest, with credit as its producer. When he told his father that he had set it up, however, Kirk insisted adamantly that he play the leading role and was indignant to hear that, in Michael’s mind, someone younger should be cast – namely Nicholson.

In recalling the story, Michael observed that, while Kirk was pleased by his son’s success, the casting incident nonetheless put a strain on their relationship, especially when Cuckoo’s Nest, after it was released in 1975, starting winning its share of Oscars.

The father-son bond recovered in time and remained strong over the years, and Michael was often at Kirk’s side in the last two weeks as he was in and out of the hospital.

Michael Douglas On Kirk Douglas: “To The World He Was A Legend…To Me And My Brothers He Was Simply Dad”

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