BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas says his main philanthropic cause - nuclear disarmament - is not exactly the kind of “touchy-feely” issue that celebrities and their fans covet, and it can be awfully frustrating when it comes to progress.
It’s one, however, he has stuck with for years as a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 1998, and for that persistence he will be recognized on Tuesday night with the Danny Kaye Humanitarian Peace Award from the U.S. fund for UNICEF, the U.N. branch for children.
“I was born in 1944, one year before the first bomb went off, and I hope in my lifetime to see the elimination of the weapons,” Douglas told Reuters ahead of UNICEF’s Beverly Hills ball, with childhood friend Dena Kaye, the only daughter of the late comic actor and UNICEF’s first ambassador, by his side.
That he is being honored with the Danny Kaye award is especially meaningful, he said, because he knew Kaye as a child, admired his impact on children and can still recite rhymes from his films. He said Kaye “did more for the United Nations and for UNICEF than anyone I can think of.”
It will be the 69-year-old actor’s second honor this week after winning a Golden Globe on Sunday for his acclaimed portrayal of the exuberant pianist Liberace in the HBO drama “Behind the Candelabra,” a role that made many in Hollywood see the famously virile Douglas in a new light.
The recognition for his work both on and off screen comes in the wake of his successful treatment for stage IV cancer that made him so weak, as he said in his acceptance speech Sunday, that the Liberace biopic had to be put on hold.
And although he recognizes that he “is the cancer poster boy right now,” supporting cancer charities is not his main focus.
He decided long ago, he said, that to deal with the overwhelming demand for him to show up for charity, that he would principally work with the elimination of nuclear weapons and small arms at the United Nations, a cause that can move at a glacial pace.
“Sure, it’s painful,” said Douglas. “We were gearing up just a few years ago for the START talks with President Obama and the Russians and there was a reduction in warheads.”
“But things have gotten cool now again between Russia and the U.S. and it has slowed down. I think it will happen again. We will have an increased reduction.”
The guiding principles of Douglas’ philanthropic work are rooted in the Cold War and how actors like Kaye - who died in 1987 and would have been 101 this week - and his own father Kirk Douglas navigated the channels of exchange where Western leaders could not.
Kaye, the star of films like 1947’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” had “a childlike joie de vivre and was a wonderful host,” Douglas remembers from when he was invited to the Kaye house for the famous Asian meals that Kaye himself cooked.
“He was the greatest spokesman you could possibly have, because especially during the Cold War, the one thing that the East knew were the movie stars,” Douglas said.
Dena Kaye called Douglas “like my father, a 100-percenter, gives 100 percent, doesn’t give his name without giving himself.”
Douglas believes Hollywood’s celebrities are doing a good job these days with philanthropic and humanitarian causes and cites the work of Angelina Jolie with refugees as a noteworthy example. Most talent agencies these days have specialized departments to match their clients up with philanthropic projects, a necessity for the modern-day movie star, he said.
While Kaye did film roles for children and humanitarian work for children, Douglas says there is no such connection in his onscreen/offscreen work, even though he started looking at the nuclear issue in the 1979 film he produced and starred in, “The China Syndrome.” Many of his roles have been men of dubious morals, like the ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” for which Douglas won an Oscar in 1988.
“I always go with what the best movie is,” he said, adding that it is about “how good the material is, and my role comes secondarily.”
To that end, on Monday Douglas came out with another unconventional career choice, this time playing scientist Hank Pym in Marvel superhero film “Ant-Man,” due for release in 2015.
“Sometimes - like (when) they didn’t see you for Liberace - you’ve got to shake them up a little bit and have some fun,” Douglas said of surprising both studios and audiences with his decision to do a superhero film.
And he’ll keep plugging away at disarmament, but he did acknowledge that he plans to do some more work advocating for more lenient sentencing for non-violent drug criminals “just because of my situation with my son.”
His son, Cameron, is in federal prison serving a 10-year sentence for drug dealing, a situation Douglas criticized when he won an Emmy for his Liberace role last year.
Editing by Eric Kelsey and Eric Walsh