“You don’t retire from the movies,” says Michael Caine bluntly. “The movies retire you. The scripts stop coming, or the money’s not good enough, and then it’s not even worth getting out of bed.”
It’s a rather somber note on which to start. But, thankfully, the 87-year old actor is not speaking from experience. A British film icon with two Academy Awards to his name, Caine is a man in demand to this day, having starred in over 120 films — and counting.
“But if someone asked me if I wanted to live to 100, I’d say no,” the actor continues. “And they’d say: why not? And it’s because I couldn’t afford it. If I had to stop working, I have a very high standard of living, and I couldn’t keep it up. I’d rather die than go back to when I was young, living in a tiny room with nothing but a bed.”
Blimey. Caine sure isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. But, after half a century of being on top — other than Jack Nicholson, Caine is the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s — it is this honesty and openness that has typified his career. He may have changed his name from Maurice Micklewhite in the early 50s, stealing his moniker from the Humphrey Bogart film The Caine Mutiny, but the actor has kept his distinctive working class cockney accent all his life — and can credit much of his success to it.
“When I was young, I wanted to be an actor,” recalls Caine. “I just didn’t know how to do it. I came from a very working class background, where you wouldn’t know about drama schools or anything like that. After finishing National Service, I was working in this butter factory, and this old man says to me, ‘Do you want to do this all your life? A young man like you? Fit and healthy?’”
He didn’t. Instead, after nine years “slogging away in a little theatre out in the country”, Caine landed a West End role alongside Peter O’Toole in The Long and the Short and the Tall. On opening night, a director in the audience spotted him and cast him in 1964’s war epic Zulu.
“I never did theatre again,” reveals Caine. “In fact, I’ve never even been tempted to return to the stage.”
Zulu was Caine’s big break, an ensemble piece which cast the cockney as ‘a very posh officer’. “Cy Endfield, the director, was American,” explains Caine. “And I’m working class Cockney, and England is very class conscious, so I was very lucky that he was American because no English director would have cast me in that part. God bless America, that’s what I say…”
On the subject of the States, some of Caine best films have sprung from Hollywood. This year, he co-starred with Angelina Jolie in fantasy drama Come Away. Last year he took the lead role in comedic satire Dear Dictator. And the year before, he teamed up with fellow octogenarians Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman in heist caper Going in Style.
“I’ve done six movies with Morgan now,” counts Caine. “Although I think they lied on Going in Style. They phoned each 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. But when they tell you that, you think, ‘Oh, blimey, I’ll do that.’”
But it’s a filmmaking trick Caine isn’t wholeheartedly against. In fact, he says that the important of friendship on a film set can’t be underplayed.
“It’s so easy working with these guys. Movies, if you don’t really know or like the other people, are hard. So we’re friends. Good friends. Although because actors are never in the same place more than five minutes, it can be hard. Morgan lives in Mississippi. I live in London, and Alan lives in San Diego — we’re not popping over to each other’s homes for dinner.”
Instead, Caine counts many other artists and musicians among his close friends. Leslie Bricusse, a composer “who owned the discotheque [Caine] lived in when he was younger” is his longest friend, as was the late, great photographer Terry O’Neill. When it comes to actors, Caine seemed to favour Bonds; Roger Moore was a close friend of Caine’s, and Sean Connery still is.
“And I also hang out with my driver, as I don’t drive anymore,” reveals the actor. “All together, I have about ten extremely close male friends, and we have never in 60 years had an argument — about anything.
“We never disagree at all,” he continues, “and none of us have ever really asked anything of each other — but we’ve still all given. It’s not that you don’t do anything for each other, that’s not the key to lasting friendship — it’s that when you see something going wrong you volunteer before you’re asked. That’s the key.”
Want more stories from Hollywood’s past? We spoke to our latest cover star, Willem Dafoe, about his failed roles, striking visage and career controversies…
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