To Hell and Back: The Secrets of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas' Enduring Love

The long-married Oscar winners are celebrating dual milestone birthdays on Sept. 25, five years after weathering what Douglas jocularly called a "bump in the road"

By Natalie Finn Sep 25, 2019 4:00 PMTags
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael DouglasRebecca Smeyne/Getty Images

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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"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. 

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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.

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"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."

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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." 

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"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.

Courtesy: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for GREY GOOSE

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. 

Lionel Hahn/Abacausa/startraksphoto.com

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."

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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."

Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

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 has since become a grandfather and has yet to cease embracing every opportunity to expand his horizons.

Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

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, in December 2017. Last November, Cameron joined his dad, stepmom and his then-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 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."

Fred Duval/FilmMagic

Speaking of determination, Zeta-Jones played Olivia de Havilland in Feud: Bette and Joan and then starred in Queen America, a dark comedy about the pageant world that premiere on Facebook Watch last Nov. 18—which was also her and Douglas' 18th wedding anniversary.

"I think understanding, listening, being friends, all helps," she told ET a few weeks after her 17th anniversary, revealing a few secrets about how they made it at the premiere of the Lifetime movie she starred in, Cocaine Godmother, The Griselda Blanco Story. 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 business woman."

Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

Mutual respect is definitely key—and trust doesn't hurt, either.

"Relationships are really—you've got to work at them," the Oscar winner 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."

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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. "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 association with him 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 proved 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 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 last year. They 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."

Eric Jamison/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Hollywood is still all in on its relationship with Douglas, too, and earlier this year he won a Golden Globe for lead actor in a comedy series for The Kominsky Method on Netflix, which returns for a second season Oct. 25. He made sure to thank his "extraordinary, wonderful wife, Catherine, who's here with me tonight, I love so much."

The couple, who share a Sept. 25 birthday and this year dual milestones—50 for her and 75 for him—were also in fine form at the Emmys this past weekend. Douglas lost to Barry star Bill Hader but had the honor of presenting Outstanding Drama Series, after which he closed the whole show.

And really, he had already won before he even stepped foot on the red carpet. "We're off to the Emmys," Zeta-Jones said in a video she shot in the car on the way. "But I'm off with this fabulous nominee." She captioned it, "Congrats to my hubby on his nomination tonight. Love you so."

(Originally published Nov. 18, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)