Michael Douglas never even took off his wedding ring.
That's how confident the actor was that he and Catherine Zeta-Jones would reconcile after problems prompted them to start 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 with first wife Diandra Luker, was sentenced to five years in prison on drug charges. The Oscar-winning actor and producer was present for his son's initial sentencing, which he later called "adequate" for the crime—as well as possibly a life saver, because it forced Cameron to get clean.
Reminiscent of the guilt his own father, late screen legend Kirk Douglas, in his later years expressed over the breakup of his first marriage when Michael was about 7, Douglas 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," he said. "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 Steven Soderbergh's 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 the flamboyant entertainer'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," continued Zeta-Jones, who was 28 when she met her husband in 1999 at the Deauville Film Festival and married him in 2000 at New York's Plaza Hotel. "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 sapped 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 warmly 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 the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) medal 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 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 less-talked-about risks for men 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, who are now 21 and 18.
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. "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. Which, according to Zeta-Jones, was entirely by design after seeing her in Zorro.
"Michael was there promoting A Perfect Murder, and he asked to meet me," she recalled to the New Yorker in April. "I remember I walked through the door of the hotel when I arrived, and he walked right past me with his golf bag on his shoulder. I went, 'OK, guess he really wants to meet me, he just walked right past me.' He knew Antonio [Banderas, her Zorro co-star] and Melanie [Griffith, Banderas' wife at the time] for many years, and he joined us all for drinks and dinner. That night we found out we have the same birthday."
And, famously, Douglas told Zeta-Jones—who was born on Sept. 25 just as he was, only 25 years later—right then and there that he was going to be the father of her children.
"And I went, 'All right. I've read a lot about you. I've seen a lot about you. I heard a lot about you. Good night,'" she continued, "And I went to bed and got up at 5 a.m. I went to London, changed planes, went to Aberdeen, got on a ferry across to the Isle of Mull. And there was a big bouquet of flowers saying 'I'm sorry if I scared you. Love, Michael Douglas.' He always says whoever was the florist who got those flowers to the Isle of Mull saved his life. I will say if somebody says they're going to father your children when you've just met them, it is a little scary. Unfortunately he was right, again."
In fact, Zeta-Jones told ET in 2016 that, while she couldn't pinpoint her favorite career moment, her all-time high was "giving birth to two of my kids, and him being the first one to hold them was pretty amazing."
Meanwhile, Cameron Douglas 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.
"My family never gave up on me, not for one second," Cameron told Britain's Press Association in February 2018. "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."
That November, three generations of Douglases gathered as Michael was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Along the way, the Wall Street star became a grandfather when Cameron and partner Viviane Thibes welcomed daughter, Lua Izzy in December 2017. Their son Ryder was born in December 2020. (Which perhaps took the edge off of being mistaken for Carys' grandfather when she graduated from high school, Douglas admitting on The Kelly Clarkson Show in June, "It's a little rough when you're going out the doors and the other parents are saying, 'Oh congratulations...you must be so proud of your granddaughter.'")
And speaking of never giving up, a few weeks after their 17th wedding anniversary, Zeta-Jones and Douglas shared a few secrets about how they'd made it that far at the premiere of her Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother, in which she played real-life Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco.
"I think understanding, listening, being friends, all helps," Zeta-Jones told ET. Douglas, by her side, 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 businesswoman."
Mutual respect is definitely key—and trust doesn't hurt, either.
"Relationships are really—you've got to work at them," Zeta-Jones told E! News in January 2018 during the TCA Winter Press Tour. "We're living in a world where everything can be so"—she snapped her fingers—"instantly gone. It's here and it's gone! And I'm just really proud of this wonderful 17-year-old marriage. And we're a very close family, and my kids are really close, so it's...I'm smiling. That's all that matters, right?"
More work is required at some times than others. A week before his wife spoke to E! News, Douglas talked to Deadline to, in his words, "get ahead" of allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment that he knew were imminently going to be made public. A former employee of his production company subsequently accused him of masturbating in front of her, using ribald language and then blackballing her from the industry several decades prior—all of which he denied.
"I'd confess to anything I thought I was responsible for," he told Deadline. "And it was most certainly not masturbating in front of this woman."
The story fizzled and months went by before Zeta-Jones felt ready to address the allegations against her husband. When she finally did, she said she and their children had been "profoundly devastated."
"This woman came out of nowhere and accused my husband," she told London's Sunday Times in November 2018. "I had a very big conversation with him, with the kids in the room, and said, 'Do you understand if more comes out …' and posed it as somewhat of a rhetorical question."
Zeta-Jones, who as one of many actresses to win an Oscar for a Harvey Weinstein-produced film had to reckon with her past associations as the #MeToo movement gained steam, said Douglas reassured her and the kids by "telling us that there is no story here and that time will tell. And, of course, it did. There was nothing to back it up at all. For any accusation that comes out that isn't backed up, that knocks the movement back 20 years."
And she's shown a few times over that she isn't the type to cut and run when the going gets tough.
"God knows we've had ups and downs in our marriage, but I don't throw the towel in very quickly on anything," she told the Sunday Times. "I'm not that person."
It also doesn't sound as though that even crossed her mind.
"First of all, we're best friends. We're literally best friends," Zeta-Jones told E! News during the Queen America junket in 2018. They also relish being nice to other people, even those who aren't so nice to them, and "we have a mantra," she added. "We have to remind ourselves," she mimed pointing to another person, "you're my best friend, my lover, my partner, this is where we should be spending our time, being kind."
Hollywood is still all in on its relationship with Douglas, too, and when he won a Golden Globe for lead actor in a comedy series for Netflix's The Kominsky Method in 2019, he made sure to thank his "extraordinary, wonderful wife, Catherine," whom "I love so much."
Three consecutive Emmy nominations for acting followed, plus two Best Comedy Series nods as a producer. And though he didn't hear his name called on those nights, Douglas is already a winner before he walks inside.
"I always like to see my husband nominated on the red carpet," Zeta-Jones told Karamo on E! Live From the Red Carpet in September. "I've become a very proud wife."
(Originally published Nov. 18, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)