Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro: Grumpy old men

Hollywood legends Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro are getting on a bit – and they don't like it. But being on screen together for the first time eases the pain, they tell Gill Pringle

Waiting in turn to talk with two of Hollywood's most celebrated veteran actors, there's a moment of unintentional hilarity when a very young journalist enthusiastically asks Michael Douglas, 69, and Robert De Niro, 70, to name the "best thing about growing old".

It's a fair question given that the two actors are co-starring in Last Vegas, a comedy about four best friends, now senior citizens, who escape retirement to throw a Las Vegas bachelor party for the one remaining singleton among them. However, a potent silence ensues, De Niro grimly looking at the floor while Douglas grimaces, solemnly wringing his hands.

"Nothing," Douglas eventually replies, cracking a smile. "It's very depressing, so you can make a comedy about it, and get it all out. But it's very hard to find anything positive about getting old. Nothing, really. Fortunately I've got younger kids," he says, referring to his children Dylan, 13, and Carys, 10, with estranged wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, "so it's wonderful to be able to share information with them, spend time with younger kids."

"When they want to listen to you," chortles grandfather and father-of-six De Niro, himself a late-in-life father, his youngest child born via surrogate two years ago, named Helen Grace for his second wife, Grace Hightower. Wed in 1997, the couple also have a 15-year-old son, Elliot. His first marriage to actress Diahnne Abbott produced son Raphael, 37, a successful New York estate agent, as well as adopting Abbott's daughter Drena, 42, from a previous relationship, while his long-term relationship with former model Toukie Smith resulted in twins, Julian and Aaron, now 18.

"As you get older you have this natural desire to make things better, if you can, before you're gone. But, beyond that, I don't see much benefits [to ageing]," concludes Douglas.

Nobody is excluded from the cruelty of age, not even a Hollywood superstar like De Niro. "It's a given, there's nothing you can do about it, so you may as well make fun of it. It's interesting when you walk down the street and you see younger people and they ignore you - their peripheral vision sees that you're one or two generations older than they are, so they're not interested. Otherwise, the grey hair... you become a part of another class of person," he says.

"Second class!" chimes Douglas, adding, "I don't see any advantages other than you're more comfortable with yourself; you don't have to prove anything; you accept who you are. Both of us have younger children and it's nice to have the time to spend with them. Even as we're all around 70, I think we're going to see longer and longer life-spans - and, with the digital age, he'll look like Raging Bull still! Inside, you feel like the child within you. I don't think there's a lot that changes, although the exterior changes a lot. That expression, youth is wasted on the young, is very true."

"Hopefully this film will find its audience because there are a lot of baby boomers out there," says De Niro. "You see it all over those TV commercials for medications, where you have the nice music playing while they give you all the down sides - you might die from it, you might this, you might that, but there are so many of these because they're appealing to the vast baby boomer population. When you're younger, you hear people talk about how it went by so fast but when you get there, you look back and find out its true. The kids grew up so fast, where did the years go? Now they're in college... its just true."

With Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline in 'Last Vegas' With Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline in 'Last Vegas' Described by Variety "as creaky as an arthritic hip", Last Vegas is a senior variation on The Hangover, equally with its own laugh-out-loud moments, finding mirth in the relentless tide of age as well as the nostalgia factor of the cast - co-starring fellow old-timers Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline - none of whom, remarkably, have ever shared the screen before.

Winning Oscars for Raging Bull and The Godfather: Part II, De Niro has carved out a serious reputation for loners and tough guys in Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Cape Fear, although the past decade has seen him tackle more comedy - with varying success - starring in Analyze This and the Meet the Fockers franchise. "We're all very lucky and do very well as actors. You don't have much choice as you get older," he says bleakly. "So you better just go with the ride and enjoy it. That's it."

Later on, Douglas - who plays a spray-tanned, highlighted lothario looking to settle down with a woman half his age - confides how his cancer diagnosis was the biggest wake-up call of his life. "I take things much less seriously," he says. "Serious is when they tell you you've got cancer. Cancer is serious, but then the rest of it is not. I'm much more conscious of time. I know what year this is and I can adequately count how many years I think I have of good health. I'm watching the clock a little bit."

De Niro agrees. "I don't like to waste time. If I have a day off and I'm on a location somewhere, I'll take a trip and see something because I never know if I'll get back there again, especially as you get older. I like to travel and do things, and share it with my children, let them see things that I have the advantage of going to. The time is now, not next year," says the actor, who struggles with the myriad demands of parenting children whose ages range between 40 and two.

While much has been written about a supposed reconciliation between Zeta-Jones and Douglas, his positive affirmations have been vague at best - although today he's apparently in the mood to talk about love. "My idea of love has changed, because when I was 25 I was probably leading with down here," he says mischievously, pointing at his trousers. "Now love is probably much more in my head."

Still sporting his wedding ring on the day we meet in New York, he's been separated from Zeta-Jones since August. The status of the couple's 13-year marriage is the subject of almost daily scrutiny, with some tabloids reporting that he is trying to smooth troubled waters by visiting the family apartment each morning to make pancakes for his kids.

"You can't take love for granted, you've got to protect it, you've got to nurture it and take care of it. When you're younger, you just take it for granted," he says somewhat wistfully.

Thirty-two years old when he wed 19-year-old Diandra Luker, he was a largely absentee father to the couple's son Cameron, now 35 and currently serving a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges. The couple's divorce resulted in one of the biggest settlements of the day, with Luker receiving $45 million in 2000.

Today, Douglas offers this surprising piece of marital advice: "I think you should wait. Everybody has their own careers, their own ambitions. I think you should work on your own career, try and get some financial security and independence," says the actor who earned a Best Actor Academy Award for Wall Street in 1987, as well as a Best Picture Oscar for co-producing 1975's hit movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

"Women are now very comfortable to have babies into their late 30s. You can be a father in your 50s. I'm not saying it's for everybody, and I think people have to get their own life secure before they take on the responsibility of a partner and children. I guess there are some women who like older men, but it's a smaller group," he quips, poking fun at the 25-year-age gap in his own marriage to Zeta-Jones.

De Niro warms to the theme: "The only thing I would say is that if you get married, it's easier probably not to have children if you're going to split up - it makes life simpler later on in life."

Ask if either of them have retirement plans, and this, apparently, is more amusing than anything they've heard in a while. "No. What are you going to do?" De Niro asks Douglas with that famous shrug.

"Retiring gives the impression that you're relieved that your job is over," suggests Douglas, second-generation Hollywood royalty, the son of actors Kirk Douglas and Diana Love Dill. "We love our jobs. It's so much fun, to make believe - you go different places; people are happy to see you; you get into good restaurants. Hopefully, I can get a table at one of Bobby's restaurants," he smiles in reference to De Niro's expanding restaurant empire which includes shares in high-end sushi chain Nobu, together with his famed New York eaterie TriBeCa Grill and Locanda Verde, located in The Greenwich Hotel, in which he has also invested.

Fine dining is clearly something both men enjoy in their later years, and while neither of them enjoyed actually filming in Las Vegas, the food made a better impression. "For me, the worst experience is just the amount of people and the crowds. The best is the food - it's probably one of the best cities in the world for eating very, very well," says Douglas.

"I agree," says De Niro. "When I did Casino, there were a couple of good restaurants, but not the way there is today. It's really changed."

'Last Vegas' opens on 3 January

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