​Michael Douglas goes back to where he began


Michael Douglas with Tracy Smith at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., which Douglas helped build when he was merely an aspiring actor.

CBS News

You wouldn't know it from his movie performances, but the path from stagestruck-but-fearful young actor to mature superstar wasn't always easy for Michael Douglas. Tracy Smith caught up with him at a place full of memories for a series of heartfelt Questions-and-Answers:

The views from the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut are incomparable, especially when you look back.

Since 1964, this place -- 120 miles northeast of New York City -- has been a stage, a school or a home to nearly everyone who's anyone in American theatre. Playwright Edward Albee worked here; so did August Wilson.

And many a star's came out, too: Woody . . . Dustin . . . Al Pacino, before "The Godfather" . . . Elizabeth Moss, before "Mad Men" . . . Jeremy Piven, before "Entourage" . . . Meryl Streep, before, well, everything.

Sixty-nine-year-old Michael Douglas first came to the Center in 1966, at a time when he'd had "very, very little" acting experience.

"And I was not a natural," he told Smith. "I had terrible stage fright. Oh, in my university productions, I used to have a wastebasket right off the stage. And I would get sick every time, just before I would go on the stage.

"It was a struggle. I used to wonder a lot of times why I was even trying to do it, because it was not something that came natural to me."

He said, "It took a long time to get over that."

He lived here during summers off from college in California. His first job at the O'Neill was not on a stage, but on a work crew.

Michael's father, Kirk Douglas, who was by then a Hollywood legend, didn't think much of his son's acting ambitions. He wanted him to go to law school.

Michael recalled his father' reaction when he first saw him act: "He said, 'Michael, you were terrible. You were terrible! I didn't know what to tell you.' And I was."

"That must have been crushing," said Smith.

"Eh, a little bit. If he had said something much more different than that, then I would've known that he was lying!"

Smith asked, "So was part of coming here, saying, 'I'm going to do this on my own'?"

"Part of this was the opportunity -- in terms of having summer jobs -- to come here, and help build this place. This is the first year the O'Neill was starting. And in return for my free labor, I might get a small part in a production."

Michael Douglas (with sword) in "Bedford Forrest." O'Neill Theater Center

So he helped dig out the enormous pit that became the O'Neill Center's Amphitheatre. "I remember there were a lot of wheelbarrows full of dirt, to create all of these different levels here," Douglas said.

And in return, he got a small part in the 1966 production of "Bedford Forrest."

Michael Douglas would, of course, go on to much bigger things (with a few bumps along the way).

The same is true of the place that helped launch him.

In the early 1960s, the O'Neill site was an abandoned eyesore. It belonged to the town of Waterford, and the plan was to burn the old buildings down as practice for the fire department. But a local visionary stepped in to save them.

George White was a young Yale Drama School grad who lived nearby. He never really thought much of the old place . . . until inspiration struck.

White was sailing out on Long Island Sound with his wife, Betsy, one day back in 1962. He looked up and saw those old buildings on a hill above the beach . . . and he had himself an idea.

Smith asked White, "What made you look up and say, 'Theatre'?"

"The barn," he replied. "It's like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland; 'Let's put on a show in a barn!'

"And it's a great barn!"

The rest is American theatre history: White turned the barn and other buildings into what amounted to a permanent theatre camp, and named it for a man who grew up nearby, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill.

It became a place where the most promising writers and composers could see their brand-new plays and musicals fleshed out by up-and-coming actors . . . and the formula worked.

For example: composer Lin-Manuel Miranda used his time at the O'Neill to perfect his Tony Award-winning musical, "In the Heights."