Poor relations: the trials of the superstar sibling

The death of Eric Douglas underlined the pressure that fame can exert on the siblings of stars. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Corinne Sweet
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The Independent Culture

It's a tale as old as the Hollywood Hills: black sheep of famous family envies successful sibling, can't make the grade, turns to drink and drugs and eventually dies a tragically early and lonely death. When Eric Douglas' body was found rotting in his New York apartment earlier this week, it seemed a sad, but inevitable, end for the 46-year-old brother of superstar, Michael Douglas.

It's a tale as old as the Hollywood Hills: black sheep of famous family envies successful sibling, can't make the grade, turns to drink and drugs and eventually dies a tragically early and lonely death. When Eric Douglas' body was found rotting in his New York apartment earlier this week, it seemed a sad, but inevitable, end for the 46-year-old brother of superstar, Michael Douglas.

Not only was Eric the half brother of Michael, he was also the youngest of four sons born to the legendary, Kirk Douglas. He once described his famous father, brother and himself as "Oscar winner, Oscar winner and social embarrassment". Indeed, his career followed the all too familiar Hollywood trajectory from hopeful well-connected starlet to failed addicted casualty.

Treading the boards like his father and elder brother before him, Eric studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), and later appeared in Delta Force 3, The Killing Game and Tales from the Crypt. However, his film career fizzled out in the 1990s and he turned to making his living as a stand-up comedian touring the US. Three years ago he poked fun dangerously at Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael's glitzy wife, as she sat in the audience with her husband in Chicago: "Michael's Jewish and she's Scottish - together they're the world's cheapest couple", he sniped. Embarrassed, Catherine, 34, yelled "I'm Welsh".

This kind of crack reveals how Eric was burning up with envy at not only his brother's financial success - Michael hauls in about $17m (£9m) per annum - but also at his catching such a beautiful, young wife and being able to father a son, Dylan, now two, in his fifties.

Eric's addiction to drink and prescribed and illegal drugs, and his criminal career, gained ground throughout his acting life. His mother, Anne Buydens, was also a drug addict and alcoholic, with a history of abuse and outrageous behaviour. Did he learn addictive behaviours from his own mother? It's possible there was a genetic predisposition, mixed with his experience of having an addicted mum. However, his lack of contact and affection from his father would probably contributed to his problems too.

And Michael has been no stranger to addiction - remember his sexually addictive behaviour which destroyed his first marriage and drove him into rehab? Both Eric and Michael suffered that classic Hollywood son-of-impossibly-famous-and-unattainable-father syndrome, which probably affected them both on the self-esteem stakes.

Countless children of the famous have described feeling rejected by and neglected through their parents' fame - think Carrie Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds, and her book about a painful childhood, Postcards from the Edge. Michael clearly fought to equal his dad and, to some extent, got there from Wall Street on. However, Eric was not only suffering the double whammy of trying to compete against a successful father and brother, but I believe he also took on the role of black sheep for the family as a whole to survive.

Most families have what psychologist's describe as a family system, whereby people take on specific roles. Being the youngest, Eric was the free spirit, the one people expected least from, and also probably the irresponsible "baby" of the family. The tragedy lies in his need to ape his elders, ultimately unsuccessfully, and not be his true self. Eric probably felt a mixture of love and hate for his brother, wanting to be like him, yet rejecting what he stood for. The internal conflicts must have made him full of self-loathing and self-criticism and fuelled his destructive behaviour.

Eric and Michael also embody "splitting" behaviour typical of families. One person becomes a saint, so the other becomes a devil; or, as in Eric's case, one is a failure because the other is a success. It's a way of marking out a difference, a way of saying "I'm not the same, I'm me". But it is also a way of rebelling against the family system which demands unrelenting success in the limelight (think of the Osbournes).

Some celebrity siblings seem to come to terms with being "less than" in fame terms. This is partly down to personality. Some people are simply more suited to living a quieter life. They are happy to be in the background, while their sibling takes on the world. Again, this is a form of "splitting", where both siblings are happy to take up different, but mutually supportive roles.

It also comes down to how much they felt loved as children and how connected and supported they were by wider networks of family, carers and friends. Typically, children of celebrities feel they have to compete with their parents' lust for fame. Their parents are often unformed and needy themselves and behave narcissistically in family life. However, children of famous people who make sure there is plenty of love, care and attention available for them, will probably come through it relatively sane and intact.

Indeed, turning their backs on fame and fortune can be the sanest thing to do for children and siblings of celebrities. Stepping out from fames' shadow and doing something worthwhile or living a life less ordinary can be an act of courage and integrity It can also be deeply fulfiling and the best way to overcome addiction in the long term. The saddest thing for Eric Douglas is that he was unable or unwilling to step off the addictive treadmill long enough to risk become his true, unremarkable self.

Mark Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson's elder brother is what most families would consider a top-class rugby player, with a fairly regular place in the Newcastle Falcons first team, where he plays at centre or, sometimes, at fly-half ­ replacing his injured brother. Larger than Jonny but more erratic ­ he was recently carried off on a stretcher with a neck injury of his own.

Eric Roberts

Julia Roberts' brother was on the path to stardom himself before Julia stole his limelight. Since then, the once-Oscar-nominated actor has fought drug-addiction and had a serious car crash, and works in the less glamorous studios of Hollywood.

He and Julia have been estranged for years now, and no longer talk; but, he says, "I still love her."

Mike McGear

The younger brother of Paul McCartney, McGear, 60, is a Merseyside-based photographer and musician who was briefly a star with the Scaffold in the 1960s.

"I changed my name to McGear because Beatlemania got so big that you could not be yourself. But I've never felt overshadowed by our kid. I'm taller than him for a start."

Geoff Dwight

Elton John's half-brother lives in a small terraced house in Ruthin, Wales ­ or, sometimes, in his garden shed, where he makes harps. Other enthusiasms are self-sufficiency, Hinduism and cannabis ­ but not Elton's music. He has not spoken to Elton for many years: "He has his life, and I have mine."

Antonia Kidman

Followed Nicole, her elder sister, into drama school, but has remained in Sydney, where she presents programmes on such subjects as parenting and showbiz. Has also made a yoga video.

She seems content with being in Nicole's shadow: "It's what you want for yourself and what makes you happy."

Randy Fowler

Kevin Spacey's estranged brother ­ currently threatening to publish a "tell-all" book about their traumatic childhood ­ is a grocery clerk and former musician who has been known to work as a Rod Stewart impersonator. Spacey claimed in 1999 that he saw his brother "all the time", but Fowler insisted: "I haven't spoken to him for years ­ yet another lie."

Neil Connery

A retired plasterer and occasional actor, Neil is the spitting image of his brother Sean, and enjoys the resemblance. In 1967, he starred in the Bond spoof Operation Kid Brother. Around the same time he reportedly wandered the streets of Edinburgh dressed as James Bond and turned his home into a Sean Connery museum.

Kate Hurley

Model and film star Liz grew up jealous of her pretty younger sister Kate, now a screenwriter's agent who normally shuns the spotlight; she remains so. When Kate had the first of her two children, Liz was "furious that I was having children because her ambition was that we should have them at the same time. She's got an absolute horror that I might love a baby more than her."

Corinne Sweet is an author and psychologist