Michael Caine's second act

A stubble-free Michael Caine.
A stubble-free Michael Caine.

The screen legend tells Adam Dudding why he almost turned his back on film, and how to tell if you have what it takes to be an actor. 

SIR MICHAEL Caine seriously needs a shave. He also has a spot on the end of his nose.

If there was a camera running, he'd have squeezed it and hidden the damage with a dab of make-up, but today's promotion of his second autobiography is all radio and phone interviews, so he's leaving his zit alone. And there's nothing much he can do about the stubble anyway – he needs a decent beard on his face by next month when he'll be in Hawaii playing an aged grandfather.

Wearing his 1960s trademark spectacles in  <i>The Ipcress File</i>.
Wearing his 1960s trademark spectacles in <i>The Ipcress File</i>.

In any case, Caine tells the Sunday Star-Times, he has never been vain, even back in the 60s when his puffy eyelids (legacy of a chronic inflammatory condition), blond eyebrows and unapologetically Cockney accent were suddenly deemed hugely sexy, and he starred in hit films such as Alfie, The Ipcress File and Get Carter.

"My whole life was spent on trying to be a good actor ... I never looked at myself and thought 'ooh you're very handsome, you could be a film star' ... I just developed into, you could say, a very butch-looking man, which held me in good stead for a lot of parts."

Caine is on the phone from the Royal Institute of British Architecture in Portland Place in London, just round the corner from the BBC where he's doing the radio slots. This is the first day plugging The Elephant to Hollywood (he was brought up in South London's Elephant and Castle). He's got a sore throat, and he's only up to the fourth interview of the day, but he still sounds just like a Michael Caine impersonator – all gruff Cockney syllables in that distinctive, and weirdly melodic, nursery-rhyme rhythm.

He's talking about pimples and beards and the waxing and waning of on-screen sexiness because they're central to the implausible claim that opens the memoir: that in the early 1990s, despite achieving movie-legend status with those early hits and later gems like Educating Rita, his Oscar-winning Hannah and Her Sisters, or even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (by way of numerous pieces of rubbish such as Jaws IV), Caine thought his movie career was effectively over.

He was pushing 60 and the only scripts coming his way bore the coffee rings of younger actors.

"You can't get the girl at 58, if she's 20 years old and all that."

So Caine focused on running his chain of restaurants, enjoying his substantial wealth and writing a bit (his 1992 memoir, What's It All About? had been a bestseller).

He writes that his eventual whole-hearted comeback as the older guy who clearly won't get the girl was due to an epiphany while making the 1996 film Blood and Wine with aging roue Jack Nicholson, who explained that there was still fun – and success – to be had. Caine went on to make some more very good films (Little Voice, The Quiet American) as well as some quality trash (Miss Congeniality and an Austin Powers sequel), and win another Oscar for The Cider House Rules. His most recent role, as a geriatric vigilante in Harry Brown, won him warm praise even from those critics who thought the film a piece of sour reactionary tosh.

The notion that a brief lull in the mid-90s constituted a serious personal crisis is hard to swallow, but Caine, now 77, insists it's true.

"It was nothing to do with me. It was the scripts that are sent you, or the scripts that are not sent you. Suddenly it's a change ... You basically have to start playing the character parts."

Without the nudge from Nicholson, Caine "couldn't say" if he would have persisted, but he's now awfully glad he did. His book has a message that's not just for mildly anxious millionaire film legends: "For anybody who's getting older, the lesson is it ain't over till it's over."

Inspirational messages of dubious value aside, The Elephant to Hollywood is an entertaining meander through Caine's life, from a working-class kid christened Maurice Joseph Micklewhite who fell in love with movies after seeing The Lone Ranger in 1937 aged four, to aging Hollywood superstar.

In between come the decade of hard graft (and womanising) in his 20s as a struggling actor doing repertory theatre and walk-on parts, and sudden stardom in his early 30s when a quick string of hits led to a summons from Hollywood. There's an ill-fated marriage at 23 and a far happier one in his mid-30s (to Guyanan model Shakira Baksh) and ruminations on violence in movies and the wickedness of apartheid, plus some top tips for would-be actors. There are also, for little apparent reason, a few recipes.

It's a shamelessly Pollyanna-ish account. Virtually every chapter refers to one or two friends whom Caine describes as his "good", "best", "old" or "one of my closest". (Ignoring the enemies, says Caine, is something his mother taught him: "The minute I make an enemy, they no longer exist – they're dead; they've gone to hell and they stay there and they are never ever mentioned again.")

Many of the best – and weirdest – bits in the book are about Caine's adventures in high society. The author's raised eyebrow almost rescues his anecdotes from being craven name-dropping, but at times it's a close thing...

I'll never forget rapping with Ice-T... and perhaps most memorably of all, having Stevie Wonder himself singing "Happy Birthday" to Quincy [Jones] and me. What a night!

... or ...

I was walking down Piccadilly one day when I bumped into Charlie Watts, of the Rolling Stones... My phone suddenly went and I took the call. "Who was that?" Charlie asked when I'd finished. "Roger Moore," I said. "He's on the way to Buckingham Palace to be knighted..."

... or ...

For some reason President Reagan seemed to think I was a friend of his and he greeted me with a hug and asked me how my sons were... as I don't have any sons I never actually found out who he thought I was."

He has an eye, too, for the oddness of Hollywood. A favourite star-spotting location was a little hardware store.

"I was shopping for some nails or something," Caine explains. "I went around the corner and there was Klaus Kinski buying an axe. It was a really scary sight, because Klaus always looks off his rocker. He was weighing axes in his hands – he had two and he was trying to decide which one.

"I was always star-struck in Hollywood by stars that I knew, but I wasn't star-struck by any that came after me ... I met Tom Cruise when he was 16. He came and asked me for advice for how to get on in the movie business. I must have given him good advice, because he did very well."

And that advice was?

"I forget. I probably said what Winston Churchill said – if you're going through hell, keep going. Because every old actor I asked about my career when I was in the dumps said 'give it up'."

Talent-spotting is an unreliable art, but Caine still likes to have a go. He's not terribly excited by the current crop of vampire antiheroes.

"They all look the same ... very slight dark young men with very bright eyes and pale skin. But I'm sure some of them will develop into big stars – the boy [Robert] Pattinson will, I'm sure."

Of course looks do matter, says Caine. His memoir advises wannabe romantic leads to check in the mirror: if you have white showing above the iris of your eye, if your nostrils are visible from straight on, if your forehead is too long or your teeth too gummy, give up now.

Vain or not, he'll do what is necessary to look right for the camera, whether it's squeezing a spot, or deliberately choosing just one eye of the actor you're playing opposite, because skipping between eyes makes you look shifty.

"All I ever worried about is what the actors rather pompously call the 'craft' – how to act, and how to get it right in front of a camera."

More important than looks, says Caine, is charisma, something that can neither be faked nor learnt. He had it. Cruise and Brad Pitt have it. Among the younger generation, he thinks Clive Owen, Matt Damon and Jude Law (who has reprised Caine roles in remakes of Alfie and Sleuth) have it in spades.

Oddly, modesty is part of it. "Think of the big stars – Julia Roberts, Marilyn Monroe – they all had a great sense of humour about themselves. You mustn't be conceited, otherwise you look like you have no room left for [the audience] to love you."

Caine doesn't mind being loved a little. He's hugely proud of his Oscars, his knighthood, the way that everyone always calls him a movie "icon". He's happy to trot out a couple of his best-known lines for my amusement.

"I always liked, 'You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off' [from The Italian Job], because the little boys love saying that to me."

There has never, says Caine, been any connection between his roles and his reality. Even the cheeky, handsome womanising Cockney role of Alfie bore no resemblance to the cheeky womanising handsome Cockney Michael Caine who played him. And these days, "I'm far too dull.

"I'm an old father whose hobbies are cooking and gardening – and I'm a grandfather."

The granddad role Caine is growing his beard for is Mysterious Island, a sequel to the silly Brendan Fraser adventure Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He's looking forward to it, and not just because the shoot is in Hawaii. The beard means "you can't see anything.

"That's the thing when you're a grandfather – you can look like shit and it doesn't matter."

Specs appeal

As Michael Caine's memoir goes on sale, the London spectacles designer who helped decorate Caine's face was in Auckland, publicising the re-issue of frames he designed decades ago. Designs by Oliver Goldsmith, below, ended up on many famous faces in the swinging 60s, from Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon to Peter Sellers and Hank Marvin.

Goldsmith, 67, hosted in New Zealand by opticians Mortimer Hirst, says there is a surprisingly big demand for reproductions of his 500-odd designs, and he is drip-feeding them into the market alongside the firm's newer models. Goldsmith never met Caine but his family company (father and grandfather were both called Oliver too) was in its heyday when he was approached by the producers of Caine's hit spy movies, 1965's The Ipcress File and two sequels, to provide glasses for the working-class spy Harry Palmer.

In his memoir, Caine writes that it was producer Harry Saltzman's idea for the character to wear glasses, after seeing Caine wear his own. Caine was only too happy, figuring linking the role to such a prop would help avoid typecasting: to shrug off Palmer, all he needed to do was take the glasses off.

Goldsmith says his original commission was to make a film prop – glasses that Palmer could use to smuggle a secret across a border. The designer painstakingly created a bespoke pair with unique triangular-profile arms, thick enough to be hollowed out leaving a space for Palmer to insert a rolled-up message on rice paper. Goldsmith was paid handsomely for his work but the glasses were never used. Fortunately, the producers also turned to Goldsmith for the glasses that Caine did wear in the role – a lighter, black-framed plastic model already in stock called Counsellor.

Goldsmith can't remember why he gave it that name but reckons it would have retailed at about 30 in 1966. The Japanese-made reproductions he is now selling cost about $650. The main stipulation was that Palmer/Caine's specs be black but for the sake of any aficionado reading, Goldsmith described the frame as having "library" arms, a "quadra" front (which means each lens is pretty square), and a "pad bridge". So now you know...

The Elephant to Hollywood, by Michael Caine (Hodder/Hachette, $40).

Sunday Star Times