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The troubled Douglas clan

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IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY: Kirk (left) and Michael Douglas did not share an easy relationship. But now father and son have put behind them the bitter fights.

Divorce, father issues, drinking, rehab, prison, a family suicide - the Douglas dynasty has been through serious suffering. But all that was supposed to be in the past. After his stroke in 1996, the once-irascible screen legend Kirk Douglas was reborn a far more peaceable man, who rediscovered his religious roots and renewed his vows to his wife of 50 years. His Oscar-winning son, Michael, meanwhile, had entered into a fairy tale second act with Catherine Zeta-Jones. Having admitted to being a less-than-perfect dad to his first son, Cameron - who last year was sentenced to prison for drugrelated charges - Michael was relishing the role of Mr Mom. But the perfect mise en scène was ruptured with the news that Michael has been diagnosed with stage four throat cancer.

It is the latest tragedy to strike a family that has been through biblical-level highs and lows, and that boasts the most unique father-son sagas in Hollywood history. Michael summed it up best when he said in 2006, "I had Spartacus as my father. " The relationship between him and "Kirk, " as one friend said he referred to his dad, was defined by years of Oedipal horn-locking and a childhood in which Michael was much closer to his stepfather, who raised him with his mother. The worst of it came when Michael, at 29, produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and did not cast his father as the lead, asylum troublemaker McMurphy (a role Kirk had played on Broadway), and gave it to a young Jack Nicholson. The film won five Oscars in 1975.

Kirk, who has been nominated for three Best Acting Oscars, but never won, took it hard. Even in a 2005 HBO documentary about the men, he bristles when Cuckoo's Nest is brought up. When Michael asks him what he could have done differently, Kirk says with forceful determination (his ability to speak impaired by stroke): "What could you have done? You were the producer! You could have said, 'No. My father must play that part!'"

In the 1970s, as Michael began taking acting seriously, his father "never helped him get a job, " said one of Michael's friends. "I'm not saying Kirk wasn't loving, but Michael's achievements were all his own. Before Kirk had a stroke, he was a vigorous guy. He probably saw every actor as a competitor. "

"Kirk set a very high standard and image for his sons, " Lee Grant, director of the HBO documentary, said. "He was a tough Jew, his father was a ragman. He was tossed around himself, he went out and became a star, and he was intense. Well, that same intensity was at home. And he had these boys who tried to live up to their father's magic and volatility and intensity. "

As an actor, Michael possessed his father's charisma, and his career began following suit as he turned in solid performances in films such as The China Syndrome (1979), Romancing the Stone (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Wall Street (1987). But he also inherited his father's foibles. Like Kirk, Michael was known as a chronic womaniser, and neither's first marriage lasted - Michael's is still haunting him: His ex-wife Diandra has sued him for half his earnings of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, due to release this month. Fatherhood was another challenge. "My priorities were similar to my father's : Career first. " Michael said in April.

If Kirk's second act began when he survived a terrible helicopter accident and later had a stroke, Michael's began when he saw a screening of The Mask of Zorro in 1998. He arranged for a date with the film's starlet, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Before the night was over, he told her that he was going to father her children. And so began the Cinderella story of Michael and Catherine, who, "likes being in the Douglas dynasty, " said one publicist. "They seem very affectionate with each other. And he's doing such interesting work. He seems genuinely at peace. "

Part of the peace has come from reconciling with his father, with whom Michael is now very close. The two co-starred, along with Cameron, in the 2003 film It Runs in the Family. And in the HBO documentary, at one point father and son kiss on the lips and each says, "I forgive you. " As Michael has been dealing with cancer, Kirk is cheering him on, sending him bawdy emails. "I tell a lot of dirty jokes, " Kirk said. "I try to make it fun. "

Michael's appeal as an actor has always been his relatable flaws, which, like his father, he has always been candid about. Even in Fatal Attraction, audiences rooted for the horrible, cheating husband he played. And Gordon Gekko, the merciless tycoon in Wall Street, went on to become a cult icon. In Wall Street 2, co-screenwriter Stephen Schiff said, his performance "contains an extraordinary amount of emotion. A lot of pain. "

"There's a lot of feeling that's been twisted, and that he suffered from actual family interactions, " he said, "He's a guy who's been through a lot and he brings it all to this performance. This is not a cocky, young guy performance. This is someone who's lived through ups and downs. "

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