It Runs in the Family (2007): Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas Team in Family Melodrama

Kirk Douglas and his son Michael Douglas have been trying for decades to find a film project in which to work together. “This is my father’s 86th film, made in his 86th year, and it’s the first time we’ve ever actually worked together as actors,” says Michael.

Both men have enjoyed remarkable careers, but they had long wanted to do something together, something they could share as father and son in a business they both understand well.

There had been several possibilities for collaboration, but, for one reason or another, it never happened. Either it wasn’t the right project. Or it didn’t work out logistically due to conflicting schedules. Or the finance was missing and the project fell through. Time passed, and in the meantime, Kirk suffered a stroke as a result of a helicopter accident, which left his speech impaired.

Then came the tragedy of September 11th. Like the rest of the world, the Douglases were deeply affected by the event and its aftermath. In an age where things move faster and faster with people taking less and less time to stop and think about what’s important, the notion of family quickly became significant as everyone struggled to come to terms with what had happened.

Michael was set to start production on The In-Laws, in October 2001, but the picture was postponed. At around the same time, a young screenwriter, Jesse Wigutow, sent a writing sample to Michael. The script was It Runs in the Family. It was the story of one particular family–as well as the universal story of all families. “My goal was to portray this family in a realistic light, a family that’s unforgiving but one in which you sense the love and connection beneath it all,” says Wigutow. “You see typical family issues, how those issues are manifested in their interaction with each other, and how those issues are passed on through three generations.”

Michael’s character, Alex, is a man trying to make sense of his life. He is the son of a demanding father, and he himself is father to two different and challenging sons. Besides, his long-enduring marriage is showing signs of strain. “The guy’s having a midlife crisis,” Michael notes with a smile. “He’s not really achieving as much as his dad would like, not living up to his father’s standards.” Living in his father’s shadow, Alex hasn’t been true to himself. With his family members swirling around him, Alex is the film’s anchor, a link to the past and the future in the Gromberg family quilt.

Michael recalls: “I was in New York with my family on September 11th, and the events that happened made us all feel much closer to each other. We realized how important each day had become.” Michael decided that if he and Kirk were ever going to do a film together, this was the time. “If it had gotten too late to make a film together, I just wouldn’t have felt complete,” he says. Michael thus put the project on the fast track and climbed aboard as the film’s producer.

Michael is incredibly grateful for the experience of working with his legendary dad. He found himself inspired in the process. “My father is as dynamic and strong a persona on screen as anybody,” he says. “He’s identified by that strength and grit. But what struck me about him while we were filming, both as a person and actor, is how he has managed to adjust and adapt through all the adversity he’s faced. He has rekindled his spiritual life. His sense of humor has increased dramatically. And there’s a relaxation about him. It was joyful for me to see a man at peace with himself.”

Over the past two decades, Kirk had grown much closer to his Jewish roots than ever before. Born in New York, in 1916, Kirk, like most actors of his generation, had to assimilate quickly into American culture and Hollywood. Like Tony Curtis (ne Bernard Schwartz) and other Jewish actors, Kirk had to change his real name–Issur Danielovich Demsky–into a catchier, anglicized movie star name.

Getting It Runs in the Family made was a labor of love for Michael. When asked what he’d like audiences to take from it, he says, “I hope they laugh a whole lot. I hope they cry. Family makes you nuts. You’re tied together by blood, but you want to strangle them half the time–and defend and support them the other half. Hopefully, a lot of families will see themselves reflected in our picture.”

For his part, discussing the origins of their work together, Kirk Douglas tells a humorous story about a conversation between him and Michael. “Michael brought a script to me and we were discussing it, and then I had my stroke. I was depressed, and Michael said, ‘Look, dad, don’t worry. You’ll work with a speech therapist and then we’ll do a movie.’ I said, ‘Michael, why don’t you work with my speech therapist When you speak like I speak, we’ll do the movie,” he laughs.

“I always knew my son was a good actor,” says Kirk, “but It Runs in the Family gave me a chance to see what he was like as a producer. This time was different, because Michael was the boss, and I’m used to being the boss. I’ve produced a number of pictures, but I can tell you my son took care of business and was always on time. He set a very high standard for us all.”

It Runs in the Family is not the first time the two generations came in contact as producers. “Michael surpassed me a long time ago, says Kirk. I bought the rights to the book One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, starred in the theatrical Broadway version, and for ten years tried to get it made as a movie. Michael loved the book, and when I was about to give up the option, he asked if he could try making the film. He ended up making a movie–with jack Nicholson in the starring role–that won all the major Oscars that year. I don’t think I taught him much as a producer. He did it on his own. He was very young at the time and succeeded in doing something I was not able to do.”

As they continued developing It Runs in the Family, it became apparent that Mitchell was a perfect role for Kirk. Once writer Wigutow had adapted the role a bit and made Mitchell a stroke survivor, Kirk felt right at home. It was a perfect blend of drama and comedy for Kirk, who’s known for his sharp sense of humor. “I am the only actor who could play this character, because I am a father who had a stroke. I have the market covered. Whenever they need an old man with a stroke they will have to come to me,” Kirk notes.

Since It Runs in the Family portrays a volatile relationship between father and son, the filmmakers wondered whether audiences might confuse fact with fiction when it came to the Douglases themselves. “People will try and read things into the film that bear no relationship to our family offscreen,” says Kirk. “In life, I get along a lot better with Michael than Mitchell does with Alex. My own father never gave me a pat on the back, but I always made a point to pat Michael’s back when he needed it. If he needed a kick in the butt, I also gave him one, but I found it important to give him support when it was deserved.”

Kirk is effusive in his praise for his son’s abilities as an actor: “I was surprised by the energy that came forth from him. He was always in character. I’ve worked with Lawrence Olivier, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster. But Michael is one of the best. I’m very thrilled that I finally got to act with my son.

Like the Grombergs onscreen, the Douglas family also has a third generation. “Not only did It Runs in the Family have a wonderful part for my father,” says Michael, “but the role of Alex’s son, Asher, seemed tailormade for my own 24yearold son, Cameron.” But Michael insisted that Cameron spend a few months studying with an acting coach, and he actually had to screen test for the picture. Cameron gave up his late-night job and devoted himself to working with acting teacher Michael Howard.

Up until then, despite his familial background, Cameron had only entertained vaguely the possibility of acting. “I did plays in school but wasn’t the world’s greatest actor,” Cameron admits. “I was more interested in music. I played a small part in a friend’s independent film and had begun taking classes when my Dad approached me with this idea.”

“I had no personal knowledge of the Douglas family before Michael decided to produce the script,” says Wigutow. “But I had a random connection with Cameron. We both grew up in New York and shared some mutual friends.” Both Kirk and Michael, like Mitchell and Alex, have been successful in the same business. And Cameron, like his character, enjoys success as a DJ in New York’s hottest dance clubs.

There are three Gromberg generations represented in the film, but there are four Douglases. The fourth member is Diana Douglas, Kirk’s former wife and Michael’s mother, who was cast as Mitchell’s wife, Evelyn. Diana has had a long career in the theatre and television, and Michael thought she would be perfect as the nurturing wife. With three family members already cast, it also seemed right for the script, making it even more of a family affair.

“Mitchell is a bully, but Evelyn gives as good as she gets,” says Diana. “She has a good sense of humor and is intelligent and strong.” Kirk and Diana divorced fifty years ago, but have remained friends. If director Fred Schepisi had any worries about their relationship, it was shortly dispelled. “Kirk and I worked together on The Indian Fighter, and it was much easier working with him this time. He was much more open and took direction better,” Diana says. “Having worked together in the past made it easier, like shorthand.

As for working with Michael, Diana thought it was fantastic: “Michael is a very good producer. I was fascinated to watch his complete command of the set. His eyes were everywhere, he was checking on the sound, the lights, the makeup. He was on the ball!” Diana was also proud of her grandson, even though he was a debutant. “For the first shot, we were all around the dinner table at the Seder, and when Cameron came into the scene, he was just like an old pro. He was right at home immediately.”

Diana thinks the film is incredibly entertaining, but she also thinks it sends an important message. “I think families are very important, particularly in this nuclear age. It’s important even for a dysfunctional family to keep reaching out, respect everyone’s individuality, be forgiving.”