Michael Douglas never even took off his wedding ring.
That’s how confident the actor was that he and Catherine Zeta-Joneswould reconcile after problems prompted them to start primarily living apart in 2012, Douglas based at their Manhattan residence and his wife remaining at their estate in Bedford, N.Y.
“Onwards and upwards,” he told E! News in upbeat fashion in October 2013, two months after he and Zeta-Jones revealed they had taken “time apart to evaluate and work on their marriage.” He elaborated on The Tonight Show days later, “Sometimes people take a little bit of a break, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the end. I’m very hopeful.”
Maybe that positive attitude was the key—to their eventual reunion and for their overall well-being after the couple were hit with a perfect storm of troubles before their timeout.
In May 2010, Cameron Douglas, Douglas’ son from his first marriage, was sentenced to five years in prison on drug charges. The Oscar-winning actor and producer was present for his son’s sentencing, which he later called “adequate” for the crime—as well as possibly a life saver, because it forced Cameron to get clean.
Douglas—reminiscent of the guilt his own father, screen legend Kirk Douglas, felt over the breakup of his first marriage when Michael was young—admitted on Today that he too had put career before family. “I’ve also confessed the fact that I was in rehab 20 years ago. So we had that issue, and as far as his mother was concerned, she was a very young mother when she had Cameron, and her skills were limited to such an extent. The other part, of course, is genes. I lost a brother [Eric Douglas] with an overdose four years ago. I have another brother who has been on the program for years.”
The Fatal Attraction star wrote to the judge in a note asking for leniency, “I have some idea of the pressure of finding your own identity with a famous father…I do believe out of this adversity he will be a positive citizen. I don’t want to see him break.”
Eerily, soon Michael Douglas would be fighting for his own survival.
In the summer of 2010, the actor was diagnosed with what turned out to be stage-four tongue cancer—a revelation he was reluctant to make at the time, so he initially had his publicist say throat cancer. He also may not have wanted to say anything at all, but he was about to go to Europe to promote Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps when he got the news.
“There’s no way we can cancel the tour and say we don’t feel well,” Douglas later said on the U.K. talk show This Morning. “I said, ‘You’ve just got to come out and just tell them I’ve got cancer and that’s it.'”
He immediately embarked on a course of radiation and chemotherapy and he expressed nothing but optimism publicly, but his treatment did postpone production on the years-in-the-making Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra (which, eventually, Douglas would win an Emmy and a Golden Globe for and find increasingly creative ways to thank co-star Matt Damon). Douglas has since jovially said that the cancer diagnosis gave him an extra year to sharpen his piano skills and perfect Liberace’s cadence and mannerisms.
“When Michael was diagnosed with cancer I really thought, ‘You are going to have to wipe me off the floor,'” Zeta-Jones later opened up to Stella magazine. “This happens to people all the time, but it’s still a huge shock when the cards start to fall and you realize, ‘My God, it really is happening to us.'”
“I thought I didn’t have the tools to cope,” the Oscar winner continued. “But it’s amazing where the strength comes from—from family and friends, from strangers supporting us.”
As for Douglas, what the public was hearing was reminiscent of his actual attitude.
“He’s a very matter-of-fact person,” Zeta-Jones, who met her husband in 1999 at the Deauville Film Festival and married him in 2000 at New York’s Plaza Hotel, continued. “Once he was diagnosed he was like, ‘Okay, what do I do?’ He basically wanted that thing out of his body so he just blitzed the [sucker]. It was very intensive… but he still retained his sense of humor.”
That being said, chemo and radiation zapped his energy and he lost 40 pounds.
Zeta-Jones told Stella, “He was very open with the children. No secrets—they went and saw him having treatment. Together we all coped with everything. It did make us closer. But I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
On the red carpet the Golden Globes in January 2011, where he was greeted with a standing ovation when he appeared as a presenter (“there’s got to be an easier way to get a standing ovation,” he quipped), Douglas told E! News that he was cancer-free.
The following month, Zeta-Jones was at Buckingham Palace to receive a Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal—a CBE—from Prince Charles.
Soon after, however, it was the Chicago star who needed time to heal. She checked into a facility to be treated for bipolar disorder, her revelation that she lived with the condition a major moment at the time for the public conversation about mental health, and the ongoing quest to erase the stigma attached to mental illness.
“After dealing with the stress of the past year, Catherine made the decision to check in to a mental health facility for a brief stay to treat her Bipolar II Disorder,” her rep stated that April.
“This is a disorder that affects millions of people, and I am one of them,” Zeta-Jones later told People. “If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it,” she said. “There is no need to suffer silently and there is no shame in seeking help.”
She further told InStyle in 2012, “I’m not the kind of person who likes to shout out my personal issues from the rooftops. But with my bipolar becoming public, I hope fellow sufferers will know it’s completely controllable. I hope I can help remove any stigma attached to it.”
Referring to Douglas’ cancer battle, Zeta-Jones told Stella, “When you get sideswiped like that, it’s an obvious trigger for your balance to be a little bit off—not sleeping, worry, stress. It’s a classic trigger.”
Meanwhile, Zeta-Jones and Douglas started spending more and more time apart, which was made easier by respectively busy schedules and owning multiple homes. Zeta-Jones returned to treatment to monitor her bipolar disorder in April 2013, her rep explaining that she was committed to “periodic care in order to manage her health in an optimum manner.” She spent about a month there.
Douglas then made all sorts of headlines that June when he said in an interview with The Guardian his cancer could have been caused by a certain strain of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that men can contract through oral sex.
“I did worry if the stress caused by my son’s incarceration didn’t help trigger it,” he continued. “But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it.” In all seriousness, however, Douglas was doing a public service by raising awareness of the risks associated with HPV, which was his intention.
With everything going on, the couple didn’t confirm until August 2013 that they were taking a break—but even then, Douglas insisted it wasn’t a separation or a break-up. “My wife and I are fine,” he said weeks later, per USA Today, calling their situation “temporary.”
“Her issues and his cancer have been very stressful for the pair of them,” a source told E! News at the time. “Their friends are shocked. None of them ever thought Michael would leave her.” Another source added, “It’s not bipolar episodes that have driven them apart, it’s just happened naturally. They like different things. He likes the city, he only moved [to Bedford] for her, as she loves horses and playing golf.”
That being said, a third source said they were “definitely still a couple” and there was no “obvious reason to get divorced,” since they had the means to give each other plenty of space while still co-parenting son Dylan and daughter Carys.
That October Douglas finally revealed that he had actually had tongue cancer, and that it was his doctor who advised him to call it throat cancer—because there was a chance he’d have to undergo disfiguring surgery on his tongue and it could affect career prospects.
Luckily by 2013, “with my type of cancer, if you’re clean after two years, there’s a 95 percent chance it’s not coming back,” Douglas said.
By Hollywood standards, there seemingly was a 95 percent chance of his marriage not coming back either; but lo and behold, that December he and Zeta-Jones were spotted for the first time in months with their kids, wedding rings on. They took Dylan and Carys to the Super Bowl in February and in April 2014 they were back on the red carpet as a couple.
They appeared together at the International Federation of Head and Neck Oncologic Societies 5th World Congress that July.
“I’m very happy to be here this morning with my husband,” said Zeta-Jones, who also shared a Sept. 25 birthday with Douglas, who’s 25 years her senior. “I mean that literally. I’m very happy to be here with my husband.”
Recalling Douglas’ struggle, she said, “I was a mess. I’ll be quite frank, I was a mess. When I’m married to a man who has such a conviction for life…he fights to make the wrongs right. For the first time he was fighting for his life.”
Douglas told the audience, “Generally when I’m on a stage at a prestige event like this I’m accepting some kind of an award.” But “[I’m] grateful not to walk out of here with another prognosis.”
“In all seriousness and in every sense of the word,” he added, “I’m very fortunate to be here today.”
Grateful for their second chance in every sense of the world, the couple even sold their old Bedford home, the one where Zeta-Jones weathered their split, and purchased a new one—a 19th-century colonial mansion with eight bedrooms and 13.5 bathrooms that cost them $11.25 million.
Reconciliations are possible “if both of you are willing, you know,” to put in the work, Douglas said on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2015. “It can’t be a one-way street. I’m crazy about her…I think every couple has their difficult times. The only problem is, as you well know, we’re all in the public eye and it tends to get a little more exposed than most. But we’re back, stronger than ever.”
Or as he described it to Event magazine that summer, “We had a little bump in the road. The problem in this business is that everything is so public. I love Catherine as much, more than I ever have. And hopefully the feeling’s mutual.
“We worked things out—if both people want to work something out and make it better, you can do it. You can’t do it if it’s just one person.”
And he was just so damn happy to be alive.
Chemo and radiation were “like the seven circles of hell,” but eventually his situation “got better. Then it even got good.”
“From a point where you think you may never work again, or speak again, I got probably one of the best parts I’ve ever had,” he recalled, referring to Behind the Candelabra. “It played a key part in this renaissance that’s happened for me…I was ecstatic. It feels like a rebirth after you go through cancer and you come out of it. You feel like you’re a child.
“You see priorities differently. You have a much deeper appreciation of marriage, of your children—you see everything a little bit clearer, and a little brighter.”
In February 2016, he told ET that his favorite showbiz moment to date was meeting his wife in Deauville. His wife, meanwhile, said, “I think giving birth to two of my kids, and him being the first one to hold them was pretty amazing.”
Douglas, who right now is starring in the Netflix comedy series The Kominsky Method, has since become a grandfather and has yet to cease embracing every opportunity to expand his horizons.
Cameron was released from prison in 2016 after seven years—which was early, after a judge tacked four and a half additional years onto his five-year sentence in 2011 for having drugs in prison.
He and Viviane Thibes welcomed a daughter, Lua Izzy, last December. Earlier this month, Cameron joined his dad, stepmom and his 101-year-old grandfather Kirk Douglas in Hollywood as Michael was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame.
“My family never gave up on me, not for one second,” Cameron told Britain’s Press Association in February. “Catherine is a scrapper, she’s someone who came from Wales and clawed her way up to the very top through sheer talent and determination. She never gives up on anything and she didn’t quit on me. The love of my family got me through my darkest days.”
Speaking of determination, Zeta-Jones played Olivia de Havilland in Feud: Bette and Joan last year and next she stars in Queen America, a dark comedy about the pageant world, which premieres tonight on Facebook Watch—making for a double celebration along with her and Douglas’ 18th wedding anniversary.
“I think understanding, listening, being friends, all helps,” she told ET last year, revealing a few secrets about how they made it to 17 years at the time. Douglas added, “I think mutual respect. I admire Catherine so much and in so many ways—as a mother, as an actress, and now as a business woman.”
Being able to deal with change is important—and optimism obviously doesn’t hurt.