Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin?

Michael “Greed is Good” Douglas, the bunny boiling adulterer from Fatal Attraction? Portrayer of so many guys in the grey areas you look up “flawed hero” in the dictionary and there’s his picture? Starring as the sainted Founding Father on the American hundred dollar bill??

A reviewer might be forgiven for saying, “Go fly a kite.”

Unless we are talking about electricity. And that’s where Franklin and Douglas begin to merge. One harnessed electricity in the skies. The other on the screen.

Take a closer look through those bifocals Franklin invented. There are more similarities than differences.

Both of these men are on the money; Franklin on the Yankee C-note; Douglas as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.

Both have enjoyed long and distinguished careers. Douglas has won Oscars for producing (the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and acting (the 1987 hit Wall Street); plus Golden Globes and Emmy awards. As for Franklin, who died in 1890 at 84? He never won an Oscar, but he did help create the nation that awards them.

Michael Douglas
Photos: Getty Images (San Fransisco, Wall Street); Canadian Press (Cuckoo’s Nest)


Here is where both men really intersect: each demonstrated that they could charm, delight and draw raves for their work well into their 70s, as Franklin did in France and Douglas did on The Kominsky Method.

Douglas, who turns 80 in September, is doing it again in AppleTV+’s sweeping, eight-part, historical epic Franklin (its finale episode airs May 17, while the show will continue to stream on the service). The limited-run series looks at Benjamin Franklin’s later years in France where, without any diplomatic experience, the printer, publisher, inventor and elder statesman convinced (some would say seduced) the French monarchy to back the American revolutionaries against the British monarchy in their war of independence.

“He really was a Renaissance man in all senses,” says Douglas, who earlier this year joked with reporters that he was at a career crossroads himself and was itching to try new things.

“I’ve never done period. So I wanted to see how I looked in tights.”

Speaking one-on-one with Zoomer over a Zoom call, Douglas looks relaxed and casually well-groomed in a shirt that matches his white hair. Yes, he’s damn proud of Franklin, calling it the best production he’s ever been associated with. He also admits, however, that a marathon, 160-plus day shoot on foreign soil is a big ask at his – or any actor’s – age.

After things finally wrapped up in France in November of 2022, he promised himself to take 2023 off, no matter how many Benjamins were thrown his way. As followers on his Instagram posts have seen, his exotic travels have been strictly limited to family jaunts of late, including an extended trip to India with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, 54, and youngest son Dylan Douglas.


Michael Douglas
Douglas and family during their vacation in India. Photo: michaelkirkdouglas/instagram


“Now we’re well into 2024 and I have no desire to go back to work right now,” he says, adding, “It’s going to take a lot to find something to make me go back…”


Becoming Benjamin Franklin


So what made him want to tackle Franklin in the first place? It helped that it was pitched to him by somebody he trusted and admired: Richard Plepler, former head of HBO. The executive producer saw Douglas win an Emmy playing entertainer Liberace in 2013’s Behind the Candelabra. After that glittery transformation, thought Plepler, Benjamin Franklin will be a cinch.

Douglas had Liberace right down to the mink PJ’s, though some first-hand insight helped. Back when Douglas’ famous movie star father, Kirk Douglas, used to live in Palm Springs, the flamboyant pianist used to drive by in his gold-flecked Rolls Royce and toot the horn.

“You couldn’t miss his car,” says Douglas.

For that role, the actor had to endure two hours of makeup each shooting day, a time-consuming process that did not sit well with Douglas, the Oscar-winning producer. He could not bear to have the large, international Franklin cast and crew sitting around for hours every day, over an eight-episode series, while he got powdered and padded.

“I’m a very prompt kind of person and I hate that kind of thing,” said Douglas.

Nonetheless, all manner of prosthetics and wigs were tested. “We went back and forth on appliances,” he says.

Big waste of time.

So the scary decision, as Douglas calls it, was made: let’s make Benjamin Franklin look a lot like Michael Douglas.

Does it work? Like a lightning rod.

While digital effects can make Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones look 50 years younger, or turn actors into Marvel superheroes, there were other compelling reasons to depict Franklin as basically Michael Douglas with long hair. For one, their respective ages overlapped almost precisely in the seventy-something range. But also, as Douglas believes, persona is more important than prosthetics.

Michael Douglas
L to R: Engraved portrait of American politician, scientist, and philosopher Benjamin Franklin. (Stock Montage/Getty Images); Michael Douglas depicted as the Founding Father in Franklin. (Apple TV+)


“They’re going to want to buy into the persona coming through at least,” says the actor. “They’re also going to want to be comfortable with somebody they know. They’re not going to be happy with an actor who is looking like Ben Franklin for eight hours, you know?”

The decision had to be liberating for Douglas. He knew his way under this guy’s skin. He had a shared understanding of the seductive power of fame. He was now freer to do what he does best – follow a character into the dark corners.

“I’ver never been attracted to true heroes,” he says. “I always like people to have a little dark side to them, because it just seems like a reality.”

Franklin seemed to have an equally unvarnished view of himself.

“I have long been accustomed,” he once wrote, “to receive more blame, as well as more praise, than I deserve. It is the lot of every public man.”

Douglas had one big advantage heading into this project: Ken Burns’ 2022 documentary on the founding father. That is where Douglas learned details about Franklin’s mission to France in the 1880s. These were the critical years when the elder statesman took up residence outside Paris with his grandson Temple (played by young British actor Noah Jupe). Never having been a diplomat, Franklin somehow managed to convince the French monarchy to back the American revolutionaries with money, soldiers, ships, guns and ammunition.

Two generations of Franklins: Noah Jupe and Michael Douglas are grandfather and grandson in the AppleTV+ series. Photo: AppleTV+


How did he do it? Because he was a rock star, says Douglas, albeit more of a Mick Jagger Hall of Fame rock elder – with gout.

Nevertheless, upon his arrival in France, Franklin was mobbed as the “inventor” of electricity by the French citizenry. He and his contemporary, the French philosopher and historian Voltaire, were, says Douglas, “the two leading minds of the world at that particular time.”

What’s more, Franklin felt especially at home among the friskier, flirtier, French. Gout be damned. Bring on the wine, women and song.

“It was all scripted for him,” reflects Douglas. “Everybody knows you. You don’t have to explain yourself. You can sit back a little bit, you know, even though you’re working, because they’re all so happy to be in your presence.

“At the same time,” Douglas adds, “this is all really a role that he is playing.”

The Oscar winner can relate. “You have this added aspect of awe,” he says. “People are surprised when you turn out to be a regular, down to earth kind of guy. Truth be told, we use it to a certain extent. And I think Franklin did so.”

Sums up Douglas, “I enjoyed the ability he had to seduce.”


The Elder Statesman


Meanwhile, Jupe – now 19 but just 17 during production – enjoyed a front row seat to Douglas’ master class. He talks about the “cheekiness” Douglas brought out in Franklin. “I love that about him. It just makes you immediately sort of infatuated about him.”

As Temple, the iconic American’s grandson and diplomat-in-training, Jupe got to get involved in nasty, drunken brawls and attempt to woo the ladies. Douglas had to have been thinking; that used to be me. He makes wistful references to the way Jupe was able, among other things, to soak up the language.

Noah Jupe, right, got a front row seat to watch Michael Douglas work his Hollywood magic in Franklin. Photo: AppleTV+


After all, there is a lot of French spoken in Franklin, which plays at times like some sort of bilingual Canadian immersion dream. It is a grounding, authentic approach Douglas applauds. He thought he was fairly fluent in the language until, surrounded by a largely French cast, he realised he wasn’t.

Tim Van Patten, a former actor who directed cable hits such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, helms all eight episodes. There are scenes of grand banquets and pageantry as well as of surrender on the battlefield, and Van Patten manages to marshall it all, in French and in English, with aplomb.

Douglas is just about the only American in this large and talented international cast. Many of the main players are from France, including actress Ludivine Sagnier, 44, who is indeed divine as Anne Louise Brillon du Jouy; Jeanne Balibar, 56, as never-shy Madame Helvetius; and Thibault de Montalembert, 62, as Comte de Vergennes, the main official Franklin has to win over at the odd court of King Louis XVI.


Forging His Own Path


Douglas was very impressed with his French cast mates and the feeling, apparently, was mutual. They would tell Van Patten: “I look into his eyes, I disappear into his eyes. I see him through my soul.”

The actor, of course, had a pretty good mentor at home while growing up: father Kirk.

Kirk Douglas paid a surprise visit to his son Michael Douglas on the 1969 movie set of Hail, Hero, where the young 24-year-old was first introduced to the big screen in the title role. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images


Some might see Michael Douglas as the original nepo baby, but he truly carved out his own career. Stage work began at the University of California, Santa Barbara; TV movie productions followed. Kirk bluntly panned some of those early performances but, when the fatherly praise came later, it meant something.

Douglas broke through in the 1970s on television in The Streets of San Francisco. His four years on that police series opposite a veteran actor he greatly admired, Karl Malden, established him as a heartthrob and provided a blueprint for how to behave as a professional. Says Douglas today, “I cherished my relationship with Karl Malden and how important it was.”

The 1980s put Douglas on top in Hollywood. He stepped well outside his own, admittedly, “hippie” ideals to play the dark hero of the “Greed is Good” era, Gordon Gekko, in Wall Street (1987). The role won him an Oscar and, some might argue, opened a door to Donald Trump.

Earlier that decade, Douglas was a swashbuckling action and dark comedy star in blockbuster hits such as Romancing the Stone (1984), The Jewel of the Nile (1985) and War of the Roses (1989). Then there were the lusty psychological sex dramas opposite Glenn Close and Sharon Stone respectively: Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992).

Michael Douglas
Photos: Getty Images


Along the way came several Golden Globes and other accolades as well as enough tabloid ink to drown a member of the Royal Family.

It all had an impact. Douglas made a fortune, then checked in and out of rehab. His 1977 marriage to Diandra Luker bore a son, Cameron, but the union ended in 1995 with a headline-grabbing, multi-million dollar divorce settlement. Douglas married actress Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2000, a partnership that resulted in two more children but also more reports of marital difficulties.

Those storms have passed and Douglas finds himself happy and content, both personally and professionally. He and Zeta-Jones are coming up on their 24th anniversary. “Or is it 23?” Douglas wonders.

Told it will be 24, Douglas shakes his head and laughs.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, seen here last year in Cannes, are happily coming up on their 24th wedding anniversary. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images for Aston Martin


The couple have several homes, including, for the past 20 years or so, a farm in Quebec near Mt. Tremblant, where the family has been spotted on the slopes. They visit in summer as well, not that far a trip from their principal New York residence.

Douglas has an even stronger reason to feel affection and gratitude towards Quebec. It was announced in August of 2010 that he was suffering from throat (confirmed later as tongue) cancer. It was already at stage IV and might not have been detected in time to save his life if not for a surgeon affiliated with Montreal’s Jewish General.

“I was up in Montreal with a friend of mine and he introduced me to his doctor at the time [Dr. Saul Frenkiel] and he found my cancer,” Douglas confirms. This after “nine months of missed diagnosis.”

The next year, his walnut-sized tumour removed, Douglas flew to Montreal for a very successful meet-and-greet fundraiser.


The Next Chapter


It follows that Douglas has been inclined to meditate of late on big picture stuff such as life and death. The Kominsky Method, which ran three seasons on Netflix, was very much about ageing. It was prolific sitcom creator Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) who pitched Douglas on that series about a struggling acting coach and his Hollywood agent pal, played by Alan Arkin.

A 2018 portrait of Alan Arkin, left, and Michael Douglas, who co-starred in The Kominsky Method, about Hollywood veterans facing the indignities of aging. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File/Canadian Press


“Chuck said, ‘I want to do a comedy about getting old,’” recalls Douglas, who told him, “I want to drink that Kool Aid.”

Besides the late, great Arkin, Douglas got to also act with a few other Hollywood pals, including Jane Seymour and Ann-Margret.

He still gets a kick out of the magic of movie-making, even dipping into the blue-screen world of Marvel superheroes as Hank Pym in a couple of the Ant-Man movies. But when told it looks like he could really run an 18th century printing press from his vigorous scenes in the third episode of Franklin, he shrugs it off.

“No, it’s a little spritz on the face for the sweat, like 10 minutes to watch how they do it, a 10 minute rehearsal of how they do it and you do it. You pick up your speed and editing cuts it all together. What, am I giving away the magic tricks?”

The scene, of course, stands in sharp contrast to the challenges facing newspapers today. Franklin, a skilled printer who published The Pennsylvania Gazette and the widely read Poor Richard’s Almanack, knew the power of the press. There are scenes where Franklin demonstrates that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Today, newspapers are either in financial peril or attacked as “Fake News.” Could Franklin have survived in a dis-information age where foreign hackers and bots can blanket truth with a barrage of A.I. blather? Douglas wonders if anyone could.

As someone who was slow to embrace social media, however, his posts offer emotional connections and are often remarkably empathetic.

“I fought it for a long time,” he says, finally conceding to the promotional power of having plenty of followers for marketing purposes.

His posts, however, range from a simple Valentine’s Day shout out to his wife to Douglas trying to choke down, “the biggest oyster I have ever seen.” Other videos bring fans to the Bay of Bengal for lunch with the family in India.

His clearest social media message, however, is one of gratitude. A recent photo (see below) was shared featuring Douglas with his eldest son Cameron, 45. Both men were spiffed up and attending this year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party. Both look healthy and happy and if it seems braggy, consider that Cameron spent seven years in prison for serious drug offences. Michael, at one hearing, blamed himself for being a bad father. The recent photo, a simple act of solidarity, takes on a more poignant meaning.

Photo: michaelkirkdouglas/instagram


“Thank you,” says Douglas when the photo is mentioned. “Yeah, you get appreciative when the good times are there, you know. They don’t happen all the time. There’s no reason they should, but you balance it out.”

Douglas notes that all three of his children are actors, and that all of them “are working, which I’m happy to say, one way or the other.”

For fathers and for founding fathers, life isn’t always easy. Franklin and his son were literally at war with one another. A loyalist to the British King, William Franklin organised attacks against the American forces.

There are reasons Douglas, no doubt, is drawn to playing complicated men, just as there are reasons audiences recognize and are drawn to them in films and television.

Douglas, however, seems content for now to step back from the grey areas. Is he stepping back for good? While he says he has no desire to go back to work right now, he doesn’t close the door to more work in the future.

 “But,” he adds, “as you pointed out, I’m cherishing. This is a good moment for me personally, with my family and all that I’m cherishing at the moment.”

Or, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Lost time is never found again. He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.”


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