on his playboy past and staying sober
Michael Caine is a tall, erect, slim man, immaculate in a dark suit, dark shirt and expensive black shoes, with mild, hooded eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses. He looks in good shape. He eats as if he intends to live for ever: gluten-free bread, no sugar, no salt. “I’ve lost pounds and pounds of weight. I’m a very health-type person.”
Michael has a reputation for being a lovely man – and a lovely man he is. Talking of his wife of 44 years, Shakira, which he does often and with palpable tenderness, he remarks that she is one of the few people he has met who have no nasty side whatsoever. “We’ve all got a bit of a nasty bit, especially me. I have a temper. But I never lose it. I haven’t lost my temper in years – it’s too bad. I could kill someone.”
But not today. The woman from the film company who is managing his schedule; the lady who is doing his grooming in preparation for a photograph; the waitress who brings over his toasted sandwich – all are swept up in his aura of bonhomie.
At the age of 84, after more than 130 films, Michael says he is now retired. “I don’t,” he points out, “have to work to pay the rent.” But acting is a habit he finds hard to break.
This month sees the release of his latest film, Going in Style, an
American heist comedy, which co-stars Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin. It’s a remake of a 1979 hit and centres on three old friends who find themselves on hard times and unable to provide for their families. So they decide to plan a bank heist for one last major score.
It’s quite a departure from his most recent film, Youth, in which he played a retired composer and director reflecting on his life while holidaying at an alpine resort in the Swiss Alps. Michael struck a perfect balance
Shakira calmed me. She’s my righthand man.
between melancholia and stoicism in the face of advancing years in Youth, and the actor – who has twice won Best Supporting Actor Oscars (for Hannah and Her Sisters and The
Cider House Rules) believes it was the best performance of his career.
So how did he become involved in a geriatric heist film?
“I think they [the producers] lied and phoned one of us and said they had the other two, when they hadn’t, and that’s how they got us all. It’s a common trick. So when they tell you that, you think: ‘Oh blimey, I’ll do that.’ And then the others said the same thing too.
“Also, they do give you a script as well and I thought the script was funny. But what was more important about the script was that it was touching, which I liked.”
It also met the brief that Michael has for all his movies: co-stars he admires, and an agreeable location to which he can take Shakira. “I go nowhere without my wife. Nowhere.”
Michael first saw his wife in a 1971 coffee commercial and through a friend in the advertising industry he managed to track down the woman he considered to be “the most beautiful… I had ever seen”. The pair married in Las Vegas two years later.
The actor, who admits he was a hard drinking, heavy smoking, stressed-out star when he met her, credits Shakira with transforming his life. “She calmed me down. She’s my right-hand man, my confidante. I tell her everything. I was famous when I met her, but I couldn’t have got this far without her.”
Shakira has undoubtedly been a stabilising influence, but as to whether Michael would have got to where he is today – at 84, still a sought-after star – without her is debatable. This is the person who, after all, has overcome a stint in the Korean War, survived a life-threatening brain infection, and rose from a working class upbringing in The Great Depression to become the man who has brought us some of film’s most iconic performances.
Michael’s mother was a charlady and his father a porter at a fish market, which meant that while the family was poor, they were never hungry. Michael says his father used to steal fish from the market all the time, so he grew up on the stuff. “By the time I was 15 I never wanted to see fish again. I still don’t eat a lot of it.”
His early childhood was spent in a flat in Camberwell, south London, until the family was bombed out during the Blitz. They relocated to a prefab at the Elephant and Castle, a nearby road junction. He remembers many years ago going back to look around and bumping into Charlie Chaplin, who grew up in the same neighbourhood, doing the same thing.
You do not need to go long in a conversation with Michael before the question of his working-class upbringing – the question of class in general – raises its head, in all its mixture of pride, sentimentality and just the faintest hint of belligerence.
What separated him from his mates on the street, he says, was intelligence; a love of books, inculcated by Mr Watson, his English teacher at Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, who got him reading Kipling and Thomas Hardy at the age of 12; and the happy accident of looking in one day at a drama class at his local youth club and noticing it was full of girls. “I was about 14 and I thought, ‘I’d like to kiss a beautiful girl, and I’ve had no luck personally, so if I join up I’ll be in a play and we’ll have a love scene and
I’ll get to kiss her.’”
Michael says he did not become an actor to become rich and famous or a movie star – “because, obviously that was ridiculous and out of the question for someone like me. I became an actor
because I loved it, with the hope of scraping a living and not working in a factory – which I would have done.”
The joke about Michael is that when the Queen knighted him in 2001 she managed to knock the chip off his shoulder. But a little bit has always remained. At one point in the conversation, he brings up a review of The Quiet American, where the critic said Michael was “miscast” in the role of a reporter for The Times (based on the book’s author Graham Greene). “And you go, wait a minute... I didn’t have a cockney accent; I spoke quite intelligently. I’m not the hunchback of Notre Dame; I’m not a midget; I’m not nine feet tall and look silly. What’s so special about a Times reporter that I was unable to portray him?
“But what he was saying was... Who does he think he is? It worked out that I got nominated for an Oscar for it, so I must have got something right.”
His first major film role was in Zulu (1964), in which he was cast as an upper-class officer. He insists he only got the job because the director, Cy Endfield, was American. “I swear to you, no English director, even if he’d been a communist, would have cast me as an officer – not one.”
But it was playing the part of an unreconstructed cockney in Alfie, in 1966, that made Michael an international star. To view it now is a reminder of how gifted an actor the young Michael Caine was; the emotional depth he brings to the role.
Watching it, I tell him, I was struck by a curious thing: Alfie’s posture. When he is seen walking, his arms are by his side, not swinging; it is a detail, so subtle you might miss it, that seems to reinforce his sense of containment, of bottled emotions.
Michael nods. “The basic thing in acting is you don’t make the gesture until you mean it – and don’t fidget. I only do what people do. I never went to a drama school; my acting lessons were watching people on the Tube and on buses. It’s body language.”>>
“Powerful people never make gestures, because they don’t have to attract your attention – they’ve already got it. I’m standing there talking to Her Majesty the Queen – she didn’t have to make a bloody gesture to get your attention. And they speak slower because you’re not going to stop listening. The lower and the poorer people are, the faster they speak, because no one listens.
“In Zulu, because I was playing an officer, I copied Prince Philip, walking with my hands behind my back. And when Paramount saw the first rushes they sent a telegram saying, ‘Fire actor playing Bromhead – doesn’t know what to do with hands.’”
Caine was part of an emerging generation of working-class actors – Tom Courtenay, Terence Stamp, Albert Finney – all beneficiaries of the seismic cultural change that gripped Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was already 31 when he acted in Zulu, and had spent the best part of 10 years working in repertory, with the occasional walk-on part in a film.
For years he would turn up regularly at a café in the West End where all the out-of-work actors would gather, around the corner from a casting agency where you could pick up a day’s film work for between 12 and 15 guineas a day – enough “to pay the rent, have a drink, get pissed and buy dinner”. He quickly became a quintessential 1960s figure, hanging out with the cool crowd of film and music. But it was Zulu that made him a phenomenon.
We all know what Michael Caine sounds like – Bogart aside, there is probably no more imitated actor in history. In person, the cockney accent is more rounded, softened by the years, with the faintest midAtlantic inflection, picked up in his time living in Hollywood. Yet talking of the 1960s, the accent, the vernacular – “booze, birds, discos” – curiously reasserts itself, as if he is transported back there, unvarnished.
This was the thing, he goes on: “Everybody I met in the 1960s became famous.” His closest friends during this period were the nightclubowners Johnny Gold and Oscar Lerman, the photographer Terry O’Neill, and the tailor Doug Hayward. Roger Moore was the one actor who was a close friend. “We became a very tight-knit group of 12 or 14. Some of us died. My agent died, my press agent died, Oscar died.” He thinks on this. “There are very few of us left now, about six out of 14.”
His friendship with Terence Stamp ended with the decade. Terence became a vegetarian and later went to India, where he became a disciple of the guru Rajneesh. “There was nothing in common any longer. There wasn’t a row or anything; he wanted a different world and different friends and he went off and got them.” He shrugs.
Michael himself was quite capable, as he puts it, of “putting the vodka away. But I was never, ever pissed in any circumstance of employment. I’ve always been a complete and utter professional.” He cut back on drinking when he married Shakira in 1973.
“She didn’t say, ‘You’ve got to stop drinking,’ but being with her made me want to stay sober and be alive.” He laughs. “And of course she was very
I thank God. He took care of me and I survived.
anxious for me to stay alive.” He now only drinks wine with dinner.
But he was never going to go off the rails. He points to two experiences during his national service that he suggests were the making of him. The first was in Korea, when he found himself in combat for the first time. “I was positive I was going to die and I tested myself for cowardice, because you never know if you’re going to run away when the enemy comes. And I didn’t. I was okay. I didn’t run.”
The second was when he returned from Korea, having contracted cerebral malaria. “Me and my platoon guys all had it. When we got home a man called Colonel Solomons from the American army came from New York, and he was so pleased because he could use us as an experiment.” He laughs. “They strapped us to a bed for 11 days, with calming injections so we wouldn’t go nuts. I nearly died.
“So with that and Korea, I wasn’t about to start drinking myself to death, because I had survived. Do you understand what I’m saying? It was the same with dope – I never did any drugs. I was never self-destructive, because other people had tried to destroy me. I thank God. He took care of me and I survived.”
He remembers as a child, during the war, being evacuated to Norfolk, where two people took an interest in him. One was the headmistress of the local primary school, who took him under her wing, gave him private lessons and taught him how to play poker
(“I was eight…”).
The other was Mr English, a wealthy timber merchant who owned the local manor house, and for whom Michael’s mother worked for a while as a cook. Mr English would invite him upstairs from the kitchen and talk about what he wanted to do with his life – he offered to pay for a scholarship for Michael’s schooling – but what stuck in Michael’s mind was the splendour of the house. “That made a tremendous impression on me. That’s what I wanted.”
He was always very American in his attitude to wealth, he says. “In America, if a man sees someone in a Rolls-Royce, he says, ‘I’ll get one of those.’ In England, we say, ‘We’ll get him out of there and burn that bloody thing as soon as we can.’” No surprise, perhaps, that a Rolls was the first car he bought, in 1964, after his first big payday for The Ipcress File. “And I couldn’t even drive.” (These days he spends a lot of time with his driver, “because I don’t drive any more”.)
When you’ve had nothing and you get something, I suggest, it takes a long time to get past the fear that you might lose it again. “Oh yeah. For a long time it was like that. But once I started to work properly my motivation was just to be the best actor I could possibly be.
“As I’ve gone through life I’ve had no sense of competition with other actors. My competition has always been me. How am I going to get this better? How am I going to find a part that stretches me?”
And, at 84, he is far from done. There’s no doubt he could have afforded to retire decades ago, so why does he still bother? “The movies retire you, you don’t retire from the movies.”
LEFT, FROM TOP: Michael in the 1964 movie Zulu, his first major film role. With Julie Walters in Educating Rita (1983). A scene from The Cider House Rules (1999). In 2015 he starred in Youth.
RIGHT: Sir Michael and Lady Shakira Caine at an event in London last September. After 44 years of marriage the couple are still devoted to each other.
BELOW LEFT: Michael’s earnings from The Ipcress File enabled him to buy a RollsRoyce as his first car, even though he couldn’t drive at the time. BELOW RIGHT: Michael and Shakira on their wedding day in January 1973.
ABOVE: The film Going in Style, which stars Michael, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, will be in New Zealand cinemas this month. BELOW: The actor with his Oscar for The Cider House Rules and with Shakira after receiving a knighthood in 2000.