Michael Douglas served a long and unusually varied apprenticeship in Hollywood before he became a major box-office star — and Oscar-winning actor — in the 1980s.
Douglas appeared in a series of unsuccessful small films in the late 1960s and early 1970s that failed to move him out of the shadow of superstar dad Kirk Douglas.
Most people have never heard of “Hail, Hero!” (1969) or “Adam at 6 A.M.” (1970) let alone seen those long-forgotten critical and box-office flops.
Douglas moved on to the TV cop show “Streets of San Francisco” where he learned a lot working as the partner to veteran actor Karl Malden.
Douglas got a big boost in the Hollywood community when his dad gave him the film rights to the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — Kirk had starred in an early 1960s Broadway adaptation of the material but couldn’t get it financed as a movie and passed it on to his son.
Michael not only raised the money to put “Cuckoo’s Nest” on the screen, it became a monstrous box-office hit and won the Oscar for best picture of 1975. Douglas didn’t appear in the film, but its success put him in a position to work as an actor again.
Wisely, Douglas decided to work his way back into feature films by playing the “girl” role in two thrillers in which he supported female leads — “Coma” with Genevieve Bujold in 1978 and “The China Syndrome” starring Jane Fonda in 1979.
Most people have seen the Fonda hit about a near meltdown in a California nuclear power plant, but “Coma” was only a minor hit 32 years ago and deserves to be rediscovered on video.
The obituaries for Michael Crichton (above) in 2008 stressed his position as one of the most popular novelists of our time. That he was, with an unbroken string of highly entertaining and often very provocative thrillers.
I happen to be equally fond of two movies Crichton directed in quick succession four decades ago that seem to have fallen off most people’s radar: the brisk and very scary “Coma” and the magnificently designed and photographed historical caper film, “The Great Train Robbery” (1979).
Crichton eased Douglas’s way to big screen stardom. The actor’s performance as Bujold’s boyfriend in “Coma” displayed the slightly offbeat mix of charisma and moral ambiguity that would power most of the actor’s subsequent star vehicles.
“Coma” was adapted from a Robin Cook novel about a diabolical conspiracy within a Boston hospital involving the murder of healthy patients in order to harvest their organs for sale to wealthy international clients.
The movie was part of a wave of 1970s paranoid thrillers, but Crichton brought humanity and humor to an otherwise grim genre.
“Coma” was one of the rare 1970s thrillers centered on a female character and Crichton seemed unusually sensitive to the woman’s position within a male-dominated hospital (the writer-director earned his medical degree from Harvard before he turned to fiction with the 1970 best-seller “The Andromeda Strain”).
If there had been more Hollywood opportunities for actresses in the late 1970s — the decade was largely dominated by male star vehicles and “buddy” dramas and comedies — Bujold could have become a major star rather than a fine character actress.
Crichton continued to direct the occasional film in the 1980s, but he gave up that sideline in 1989 after directing the disastrous “Physical Evidence.” A project that was intended to be a sequel to the 1985 hit “Jagged Edge” — with Glenn Close and Robert Loggia reprising their roles as a San Francisco defense attorney and her crusty investigator — wound up as a barely released Burt Reynolds-Theresa Russell bomb.