Michael Caine

Michael Caine in The Dark Knight

Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight”

He’s survived war and grinding poverty. He’s also been a genuine superstar, a cultural icon of “swinging London” on the same level as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and he remains one of the world’s best-known and most respected actors – except that you’ll rarely catch him acting. No wonder he’s so convincing playing men who appear to have seen it all.

Michael Caine was born in impoverished South East London in 1933 at the height of the depression. Maurice Micklewhite, Jr. was his unglamorous birth name, one of many cards stacked against the young man, which also included ill health. (Michael’s trademark heavy eyelids are a result of just one of his illnesses.) Like so many sickly children, young Maurice read a great deal, attended a lot of movies, and started to dream of acting.

Prior to World War II, however, the English class system made it essentially impossible for a member of the lower classes, particularly a cockney, to get the kind of Shakespearian theatrical training that was the traditional approach to an acting career in the U.K. Postwar England, however, was a simmering cauldron of social change and, via a youth program, the teenage Maurice was able to pursue both his interest in acting and his love of movies. At age 18, he was able to get an entry-level job at England’s best-known production company, J. Arthur Rank.

That ended when Maurice was called up to serve His Majesty’s army, which included stints as an infantryman in Germany and wartime Korea. Returning to England in 1953, Maurice Micklewhite had become Michael Scott for acting purposes, though paying jobs were rare. Poverty was still a fact of life, and it resulted in the dissolution of Michael’s first marriage. After a period of depression, Michael bounced back and started to get more work. When another actor named “Michael Scott” turned up, his agent suggested a new name. As the story goes, Michael looked up and saw a poster for “The Caine Mutiny” starring his hero, Humphrey Bogart, and that was it. (In later years, Michael quipped that if he’d been looking in the other direction, his name would have been “Michael One-Hundred-and-One-Dalmatians.”)

Over the next several years, Michael continued to work (mostly on the stage) along with an entire new generation of British actors from lower class backgrounds, including Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Terrence Stamp. Still, times were tough and Michael was severely disappointed when he was turned down for the (non-singing) role of the villainous Bill Sykes in the London production of the musical “Oliver!” That disappointment, however, turned out to be a stroke of tremendous good fortune when Michael bumped into blacklisted American director Cy Endfield, who was in England putting together a period military epic with actor-producer Stanley Baker.

Noting Michael’s delicate appearance, Endfield – not being immersed in England’s class-consciousness – saw that Michael would fit in the role of the upper class Lieutenant Gronville Bromhead in his upcoming 1964 blockbuster, “Zulu.” Though hearing those soft, upper crust tones coming from Michael Caine’s mouth is a shock to modern fans, the performance was first-rate and he nearly stole the picture. From there, it was a short leap to the spy thriller, “The Ipcress File,” as bespectacled, downscale spy, petty criminal, and occasional gourmet, Harry Palmer. Using his own voice, he established the harder edged, working class Michael Caine persona that would make him an international heartthrob. Still, the success of the spy film and its two sequels was dwarfed by the worldwide reaction to Caine’s Oscar-nominated performance as a callous super-stud in the 1966 classic, “Alfie.” The 1969 caper comedy, “The Italian Job,” was also a hit around the world and remains hugely popular in England nearly 40 years later.

In 1971, Michael stepped into producing with the ultra-tough, pioneering hitman picture, “Get Carter.” His good work habits, however, were counterbalanced by some less than ideal personal habits. He was persuaded to give up chain-smoking by a chance encounter with actor Tony Curtis, and in an even more compelling way, he was persuaded to step out of the vodka bottle, and into marriage, by Shakira Baksh, an outrageously beautiful woman Michael had fallen for instantly for after seeing her in a coffee commercial. Shakira Caine joined Michael onscreen just once, in John Huston’s 1974 adventure classic, “The Man Who Would Be King,” in which she played an Afghan princess betrothed not to Michael, but to his on- and off-screen buddy, Sean Connery. Nevertheless, they were able to buck the show-biz odds and have remained married ever since. Miracles do happen.

Michael’s onscreen career was not pure bliss, however. Certainly, he appeared in a number of successes, ranging from horror to light comedy, including Brian De Palma’s bloody/sexy “Dressed to Kill” in 1980, 1983’s “Educating Rita” (a strong personal favorite of Michael’s), Woody Allen’s 1986 “Hannah and Her Sisters” for which he won his first Oscar, and the 1988 farce, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Steve Martin. On the other hand, he also appeared in a large number of widely mocked productions, including two unfortunate sequels: 1979’s “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” and 1986’s “Jaws: the Revenge.” (It might have been an especially painful choice on Michael’s part; he was too busy filming it abroad to accept his “Hannah” Oscar). And then there was the 1981 directorial debut of Oliver Stone, “The Hand,” a horror flick best remembered for a hilarious SCTV parody, “My Bloody Hand!” Having been desperately poor for so long, Michael, was simply having a hard time turning down roles. And money was still an issue in his life – like so many celebrities, high taxes had caused him to leave his beloved England for sunny Southern California.

By the 90s, however, Michael was for the most part avoiding egregious bombs, and was even able to move back to England and engage in the time-honored movie star tradition of owning restaurants. After playing opposite a foam rubber cast of players as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and reprising the role of Harry Palmer in two television movies in the mid-90s, he realized he had at last made more than enough money to do everything he wanted to do. Michael announced his retirement. Of course, by “retirement,” Michael didn’t mean he’s no longer acting. He uses the word to point out that he only works on movies he really wants to work on. He still likes money, but the dramatic challenge is now the main motivator, and small roles in small films are not out of the question.

And so, Michael appeared as desperate theatrical agent in the 1998 comedy, “Little Voice,” and won his second supporting actor Oscar as a philanthropic New England abortionist in “Cider House Rules.” He also paid tribute to his past by appearing in the unsuccessful 2000 Sylvester Stallone remake of “Get Carter,” and by putting on his Harry Palmer horn rims one more time to poke fun at his swinging spy heyday in 2002’s“Austin Powers in Goldmember.” 2002 was also the year he appeared in a very different kind of espionage tale. “The Quiet American” was a highly political film with a strong point of view that was difficult to release in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it was one he felt quite strongly about and an undoubted artistic triumph for him as performer in a leading role. It was a perfect, Oscar-nominated capper to a long career as a leading man.

More recently, Sir Michael has mostly let younger actors deal with leading roles, and has gone in for quirkier supporting roles, playing an aging hippie with a taste for conspiracy theories and fart jokes in “Children of Men” and the lovably ironic butler Alfred Pennyworth in both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” He played a larger role in a remake of a hit from 1972. Rewritten by an old friend, Harold Pinter, the 2007 version of “Sleuth,” a sort of mystery duet, had Caine playing the role originally performed by Sir Laurence Olivier, while Jude Law, who previously starred in a remake of “Alfie,” stepped into Michael’s shoes one more time.

And then there’s this “Sir Michael” business. In reality, he is Sir Maurice Micklewhite, Jr., CBE. Michael has never legally changed his name, and when he was named a “Commander of the British Empire” in 2000, he chose to be knighted under his birth name in recognition of his late father. You see, Michael’s come a long way, but in all that time, he’s never denied who he was. As a father of two daughters, the writer of two autobiographies (among other books), as well as a restaurateur, serious soccer enthusiast, and possibly the world’s oldest fan of “chillout” electronica (he’s commercially released his own mix CD), Michael Caine has always been 100% himself. And, in a job that requires you to pretend to be people you aren’t, doing things that you would never do, being completely yourself is the most valuable trait there is – and the very essence of cool.

Bullz-Eye.com Features

The Caine File
There’s really too much to choose from in Michael’s career but we discuss ten of Sir Michael’s most intriguing performances in The Caine File.

The Caine File header

Michael on the Screen

If we had to choose just one role as the quintessential Michael Caine performance, pardon our lack of originality in suggesting that it may be “Alfie.” Aside from being, we think, the first film in which an actor “breaks the fourth wall” and addresses the audience directly, the genius of this performance goes well beyond the challenge of being the first actor to break a previously rock-solid cinematic convention. A womanizer who never takes responsibility for the results of his actions, Michael Caine’s Alfie may have a weak conscience, but he has feelings and a certain amount of empathy, and Michael never lets us forget it. It’s also a very funny performance and the humor continues, even as the story edges closer to tragedy. Alfie isn’t just a walking libido, sans guilt – he’s a misanthrope who can’t allow himself to be alone, ever. That’s pretty tragic, but it’s also comical.

Michael Caine Video Clips

Roy Budd: “Get Carter” Theme
An early music video featuring a performance of the unforgettable theme music from “Get Carter” and segments from the opening credit sequence. A terrific piece of film from director Mike Hodges that demonstrates Michael Caine’s ability to communicate a character without dialogue of any kind.

“What the F*** Are You Doing in My Office?!”
Michael Caine gets really, really angry in a crucial moment from the black comedy thriller “A Shock to the System” – EXTREMELY unsafe for work.

Michael Says

On acting:
“To disappear your complete self into a character is quite difficult. I’ve tried it 85 times, and I’ve succeeded two or three times.”

On his approach to work:
“Be like a duck, my mother used to tell me. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”

On the realities of “the business”:
“You get paid the same for a bad film as you do for a good one.”

On the differences between working in England and America:
“In England I was a Cockney actor. In America, I was an actor.”

On “Jaws: The Revenge”:
“I have never seen the film, but by all accounts it was terrible. However I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

On aging:
“….You read, ‘He died at 74, he had a good life.’ You think, ‘Bloody hell, I’ve only got 18 months to go.’ And another strange thing about aging – as you get older, it gets faster, and you see people you haven’t seen in what you think is five years, but it turns out to be 25 years. You say, ‘I made that film ten years ago,’ and they correct me: ‘Thirty, Michael. Thirty.’”