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Just your ordinary working dad

After taking time off for his family, Michael Douglas returns in `The Sentinel.'

April 20, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

MICHAEL Douglas has been missing in action from the big screen for the last thee years. The reason for the absence wasn't because he was licking his wounds from the poor reception for his last movie, the ill-advised remake of the comedy "The In-Laws." The 61-year-old Oscar-winning actor-producer has been happily playing the role of dad to his two children with second wife Catherine Zeta-Jones: 5-year-old son Dylan and 3-year-old daughter Carys.

"I lucked out," Douglas said over the phone from Bermuda, where he had spent the afternoon flying a kite with his son. "I just lucked out. You clearly change your priorities one day. I got a lovely wife and a second time around. I never thought I would start another family. I can't find much reason to go to work in place of spending time with them. It is all selfish; it is just a joy, like today."

Even though Douglas lost his son's kite. "I was so careful," he said. "I kept telling him, 'Don't lose the handle' -- and of course, I lost the handle. The kite went up and the handle got caught up in a palm tree."

Douglas, who has a 27-year-old son from his first marriage, said he always encourages people to get their careers going before they have children. "Ambition is a healthy drive to have," he said. "Generally, in our business, you can't really balance your family and your career. One takes priority and that's OK. But I think you have to know that."

During his self-imposed hiatus, Douglas' production company was developing projects for the actor and he was evaluating scripts that were being sent to him. When he was ready to return to work, he chose the political thriller "The Sentinel," which opens Friday.

"It was a book that we optioned in [its prepublished] galley form," Douglas said.

Douglas plays Peter Garrison, a seasoned Secret Service agent who had saved President Reagan's life by jumping in front of the barrage of bullets during the assassination attempt in 1981. Years later, Garrison has the prime assignment of guarding the first lady (Kim Basinger) -- with whom, it happens, he is having an affair.

In the midst of his daily routine, a fellow agent (played by the film's director, Clark Johnson) is murdered shortly after telling Garrison he has secret information to share. The secret is that one of the agents assigned to the presidential detail is involved in a plot to assassinate the president (David Rasche) -- the first time there is a traitor in the Secret Service's 141-year history. Through a series of circumstances, Garrison discovers he's being framed as the traitor.

Kiefer Sutherland plays a hard-nosed investigative agent -- think of a less ruthless Jack Bauer -- who believes Garrison had an affair with his wife; Eva Longoria of "Desperate Housewives" sheds her designer dresses for more conservative fare as an ambitious young agent assigned to Sutherland.

Screenwriter and co-producer George Nolfi says little is left of the Gerald Petievich novel on which the film is based -- primarily Garrison's affair with the first lady.

"What I wanted to do with the book was transform it into something very realistic," Nolfi said. "The entire second half of the movie is completely invented and the characters were largely transformed or invented."

NOLFI was assigned to write the screenplay before the tragedy of 9/11. He almost pulled out of the project after the attacks. "The idea of writing a political thriller where the president's life is put at risk right on the heels of what was a very grand-scale attempt to not only kill Americans but to kill the president was difficult," he said. "It took a while for that to heal enough for me to think it was appropriate to do."

He was also determined not to let the script give any ideas to terrorists.

"I think the scenario we ended up using is extremely realistic," Nolfi said. "If you were able to do what the bad guys do in the movie, you could come close to killing the president. But there were other scenarios I wouldn't write."

The role of Garrison, Nolfi believes, is perfect for Douglas. "You want to see certain actors do certain things," he said. "This is something I even said in my first meeting with Michael. As an audience member, I want to see Michael Douglas in a suit and a tie in the corridors of power because he just fits there so well."

Director Johnson ("S.W.A.T.," "The Shield," "The Wire") found that Douglas "directs himself. The guy is a stone-cold pro. He's been doing this a long time. He knows exactly what he's doing."

"Sentinel" was shot in just 50 days.

"With 'S.W.A.T.' I had 80 days," Johnson said. "So there were the usual problems inherent with making an $80-million film for $40 million. It's hurry, hurry, hurry. You try to get the action movie and that kind of big-bang excitement when you really don't have any time."

Douglas will be seen again come summer as Kate Hudson's father in the comedy "You, Me & Dupree." He's also about to start a new film, "The King of California."

But on the phone, the actor seemed more eager to talk about his plans for the family for the following day -- Good Friday. "Friday is Kite Day here," he said. "I've got a lot of family down here and we have a kite party. There are kite parties all over the place. You stand up on a hill and you see hundreds and hundreds of kites all up and down the island. It's stunning."

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