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Bermudian matriarch of a Hollywood dynasty

The one-time wife of one member of Hollywood royalty, the mother of another and the mother-in-law of a third, in 1992 Bermuda-born actress Diana Douglas published a characteristically elegant memoir called In The Wings.

The title was a play on the theatrical term for where actors wait at the side of the stage watching the action unfold until it’s time for them to enter a scene.

It was, of course, an allusion to the fact she lived her life largely in the oversized shadows of former husband, Kirk Douglas, and son, the two-time Oscar winner and sometime Bermuda resident Michael Douglas.

She was being overly modest, as was her habit.

By the time she died at the age of 92 in California on Friday, Diana Douglas could hardly be considered an unseen, off-stage character in either Bermuda’s story or the saga of one of Hollywood’s most storied dynasties.

Her tale is now a familiar one, almost the stuff of one of the Hollywood melodramas she appeared in at the outset of her career.

Possessed of a luminous beauty, an understated but palpable charisma and a questing intelligence, in the pre-Second World War era this free-spirited but fiercely driven young woman differed in almost every particular from Bermudians of her background and social standing.

Her father, the accomplished if professionally eccentric Colonel Tom Dill, had been commanding officer of the Bermuda Militia Artillery during the First World War and served as the Island’s Attorney General for 18 years.

The last of six children [older brother, Bayard, was a founding partner of the Hamilton law firm which bears the family name], Diana was born after her father had returned from fighting in France [“I was an afterthought – a war baby”].

While he had left the Western Front behind him, Col Dill had not abandoned the habits of army life. Given to waking his family up with a morning bugle call and running the household with military discipline, his youngest daughter grew up to be less a rebel than a genuine non-conformist – instinctively drawn to acting and the arts.

She eventually worried her parents into sending her to New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts [“to get this damn foolishness out of your system,” sputtered her father].

There she met Kirk Douglas, already less an aspiring actor than a building force of nature. She was initially wary of the charismatic and headstrong son of Russian Jewish immigrants [“he didn’t have the best reputation with women,” she recalled of their drama school days – a portent of things to come during their married life]. But in the time-honoured show business tradition, they became romantically involved when cast opposite one another in a student production.

The couple married in 1943 while he was serving with the US Navy during the Second World War and she was under contract to Warner Brothers in California. Son Michael was born in 1944 followed by Joel in 1947.

Diana Douglas’s memoir, an unvarnished and revealing self-portrait as compared to the polite fiction which passes for so many show business reminiscences, chronicles the tumultuous eight-year union with typical candour and directness. Imbued with an almost elemental vitality, hugely ambitious and independent to the point of bloody-mindedness, Kirk Douglas’s marriage waned even as his star irresistibly ascended.

Diana Douglas and he parted ways just as he was cementing his newfound stature within the film industry. As a leading man, producer and entertainment industry power player, the granite-chinned Douglas went on to become as much of a show business monument as the Hollywood Sign.

Improbably enough even by Hollywood standards, Michael Douglas’s career arc later followed the self-same trajectory as his father’s. He established himself as not only one of the world’s top box-office draws but also the driving force behind such intelligent and provocative movie fare as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The China Syndrome.

And it might be tempting to conclude Diana Douglas did indeed retreat into the wings in the ongoing family drama sometime between divorcing Kirk Douglas and making a new life with American producer, author and screenwriter Bill Darrid, to whom she was married from 1957 until his death 1992. Certainly her personal happiness was complete. In stark contrast to Kirk Douglas’s occasional Bull In Search Of A China Shop persona, the gentle and urbane Bill Darrid was once described as “a soft-spoken, unassuming voice in the often steely world of entertainment”.

But the fact is she never really did exit the stage. Indeed, she managed to salvage an unlikely but enduring friendship with her ex-husband and they worked hard to create a new, extended family dynamic for the sake of their children.

“When Kirk and I were divorced, the kids were five and two and I moved to New York,” she said. “We lived in an apartment for six years then and I remarried a producer on Broadway, and he had a very good relationship with my sons. Then when we moved out to California, we were friendly both with Kirk and Anne. So, it’s worked out quite well.

“I’ve always enjoyed Kirk’s sense of humour, even when I was angriest at him. He could always make me laugh, somehow, which annoyed the hell out of me. But then I think we both decided too, when the time of divorce came, that we had to maintain a certain amount of civility because of the children.

“I know Michael has said since being an adult that he was always very grateful that we never did badmouth each other. Sometimes we probably wanted to. And also, I think that after he got married to [second wife] Anne, who made it very much easier, because she and I cooperated very much in terms of bed times and what they could watch on television, and that kind of thing.”

All the while she maintained close ties with her Bermudian family and encouraged Michael Douglas to do the same.

“I had my first birthday here,” the Wall Street and Fatal Attraction star recalled in one interview, “and until I was 18 I came here a lot during summer and spring breaks.”

And in his introductory remarks to a coffee table book on the Island, he said it was his deep maternal roots here which largely determined he and wife Catherine Zeta Jones’s decision to make Bermuda their primary residence between 2001 and 2009.

“I remember summers in Bermuda as a child and the feeling of peacefulness that the natural environment of the Island provides — the island air and the beautiful light; the pink beaches; the crystal clear blue-green water; the tropical flora,” he said.

“There is also a special feeling of connectedness that comes with being on the Island that was my mother’s childhood home and our family’s home for the past 400 years.”

And with a professional acting career which actually pre-dated her more celebrated ex-husband’s, Diana Douglas never actually left the public eye. As an actress, it’s true she was never a household name [except, of course, in Bermudian houses]. But she was a self-described workhorse rather than a show pony, entirely more comfortable with the relative anonymity of character acting than the mixed blessings of stardom.

She had twice observed the abrupt peaks and valleys of celebrity from close range and been left nonplussed: “There is a terrible hunger in people’s eyes when they look at a star, as if they want to devour him,” she once said. “He ceases to be observed as a human being and has become instead an icon.

“ … There is the coterie that surrounds a star, protecting him from many of the mundane chores that anchor the rest of us to reality, they tell him only what he wants to hear, like a modern day Sun King.

“It is no wonder so many succumb to drugs and drink. What’s amazing is the ones who don’t [like Michael], who, through striving, manage to lead normal and productive lives.”

Her own professional life was hugely productive in an understated and unostentatious way.

The extraordinary longevity of her career – she worked on stage and in television and film almost constantly from 1942 until 2008 – was a testament to her talent and versatility rather than nepotism or her undoubtedly top-drawer connections.

She played in everything from Shakespeare to Shaw, from soap operas to Steve Martin comedies, and possessed that most essential but elusive of qualities required for convincing acting: the ability to complete an emotional circuit with an audience, to elicit a spontaneous and genuine reaction. Her performances rarely failed to convey what one director has called “the poetry of living”, conjuring up the contradictions and cross-currents of a character’s internal life.

Such honesty, such vulnerability, is actually relatively rare in a world of feigned emotions and professional make-believe. But it’s precisely that capacity to forge a genuine intimacy with audiences which distinguishes good acting from bad – and which keeps good, unshowy actors like Diana Douglas working steadily for six decades.

She appeared in countless plays including a number of Broadway productions and more than 20 films including Planes, Trains & Automobiles. On television she had recurring roles in The Waltons, Dynasty and The Paper Chase and appeared in episodes of ER, Kung Fu, The Streets of San Francisco and The West Wing among many other network shows.

And in 1990 Bermuda audiences welcomed one of the Island’s favourite daughters home when she starred in a limited run of Painting Churches, the Pulitzer prize-nominated Off-Broadway drama, at the City Hall Theatre.

“It was good work and we were proud of the production,” she recalled of the show which she also staged with husband Bill Darrid.

After his death, Bill Darrid’s ashes were interred at the Dill family plot in Old Devonshire Church and Diana Douglas paid regular pilgrimages there whenever she was in Bermuda.

“It is a peaceful and beautiful site,” she said in her memoir, “one that invites contemplation. I often sit there and remember the joy that Bill and I shared …

“There are still adventures ahead [but] death is waiting – perhaps sooner, perhaps later. I hope to face it with as much grace as my mother [Ruth Neilson Dill] did. And I am glad that my ashes will be at Devonshire churchyard next to Bill’s and a stone’s throw from her grave.

“It seems fitting. It seems right.”

When the end came last week, she did indeed meet it with the same considerable dignity and courage she demonstrated throughout her life.

And when left us for the wings of life’s stage, Diana Douglas took something life-enhancing and irreplaceable left with her – something so precious that a line from one of her favourite Shakespeare plays, Anthony & Cleopatra, might serve as her epitaph: “Now boast thee, Death, in thy possession lies/A lass unparalleled ...”

Diana Douglas is survived by third husband Donald Webster, who she married in Bermuda 15 years ago, sons Michael and Joel and three grandchildren

— By Tim Hodgson