Michael Caine has been looking back, and on the whole he likes the view. Regrets? He’s had few.
The 85-year-old star of movies such as Alfie (1966), Get Carter (1971) and The Dark Knight (2008) – among many, many others – reminisces fondly in Blowing The Bloody Doors Off, whose title adapts a line from his 1969 heist caper The Italian Job. Published late last year, it’s part memoir, part advice manual for aspiring actors and anyone else nursing an elusive dream of success.
Most of the advice is resolutely old-fashioned. Learn your lines. Work hard. Be nice to people. And be lucky. Caine knows he has been extremely fortunate.
“The luck I’ve had, you couldn’t make it up,” Caine says during a recent interview in his riverside London apartment, with a panoramic view up and down the Thames River. “I mean, even once I was a success, I made a lot of flop movies. But I only made three at a time before I had a hit.”
In print and in person, Caine describes his success as a sequence of lucky breaks. His first big movie break, as a British Army officer in Zulu in 1964, was followed by a role as a world-weary spy in The Ipcress File (1965). On the back of that came his breakthrough as a callous man-about-town in Alfie. That film made blond, bespectacled Caine a symbol of Swinging London, brought him American fame, and earned him the first of six Academy Award nominations. (The image above is a still from Alfie with Caine and one of his many female co-stars in the movie, Jane Asher.)
He went on to win two Oscars – for Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (1999). Later came a stint as butler and mentor Alfred in three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Along the way, Caine became an icon, and his signature glasses and Cockney accent spawned a thousand imitators.
The Butter Factory
Caine says his optimistic outlook is rooted in his hardscrabble early years. Born Maurice Micklewhite into a working-class London family, he was a child during the London Blitz of WWII and later, as a teenage conscript, was sent to fight in the Korean War.
“I have found it pretty easy to be happy since then,” he notes in the book. “Once you’ve been on manoeuvres in Korea, everything else seems like quite a lot of fun.”
When he returned to London and a dead-end job in a butter factory, Caine resolved to be an actor, although he had little idea how to go about it.
“I was nobody from nowhere who knew nothing about anything,” he says. His drive to succeed came from “desperation – the determination to become something other than a factory worker”.
“My father was an example of what I was and how lucky I was to have been born all those years later,” he says.
“My father was an extremely clever, intelligent man but completely uneducated and a complete waste of a brain – and that’s what was happening to me, and I could see that.”
Answering a classified ad led to small parts in a provincial repertory company. Then came work on the London stage, television parts, movie roles and global stardom.
If he has a secret, he says, it’s that he kept going when others gave up.
“If someone rejected me, I never worried about it,” he says. “I tried again, because my only alternative was working back in the butter factory.
“But also, timing played a massive part in my career.”
Learning From Flops
Caine was starting out just as a new generation of British writers was emerging – playwrights like John Osborne and Harold Pinter, telling stories about working-class life.
“Suddenly every working-class boy who was going to work said: ‘Sod this. I’m going to do something I want to do and do it my way,”’ he recalls. “And that’s the way the 1960s started.”
The 1960s made Caine a star, and he wasn’t alone. Suddenly, he writes in the book, “everybody I knew seemed to become a household name.”
Caine enjoyed fame, when it came, but also worked extremely hard, at one point making 12 films in four years.
The result is a resume of more than 100 features, of varying quality. Caine is cheerful about the low points, films like schlocky shark sequel Jaws: The Revenge (1987) or The Swarm (1978), a disaster movie in both senses of the word where Caine and his co-stars learned another lesson: Never work with bees.
“None of us realised it was a disaster till about halfway through, when the bees turned up,” Caine says. “We were doing a scene and they all s*** on us.
“I learned from them – also earned from them,” he says of his critical duds. “I got the same money for the flops as I did from the successes.”
He’ll Keep Going
When leading-man parts dried up, Caine retired – briefly. The last two decades have brought some of the most rewarding parts of his career, including his six films with Nolan, whom Caine calls “a brilliant director … the new David Lean”, referring to the British director of such grand classics as The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965).
These days, Caine is contentedly unretired, balancing work and time with his family: Shakira, his wife of 45 years; his two daughters; and his three grandchildren aged nine and 10, with whom he is “besotted”.
“I have such great times with them,” Caine says. “What astonishes me are the things they know. It’s like talking to a 20-year-old.”
Of his recent films, he’s proudest of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (2015), in which he plays an ageing orchestra conductor.
“I don’t play the leads in movies now – I’m too bloody old to be getting up every morning at half past six,” he says.
“I just take little character parts and have a bit of fun.
“You don’t give up movies – they give up you. And while I get these parts, I’ll keep doing them.” – AP