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b. March, 18, 1933, London

“I’ll always be around because I’m a skilled professional actor. Whether or not I’ve any talent is beside the point.”
– Michael Caine

Sir Michael Caine, one of the most durable actors in British and American cinema, has been hustling for work since his early teens. A remarkably resilient and indefatigably productive performer, he has appeared in more than 180 films since the start of his career. Now the recently turned 89-year-old is finally slowing down, although still not stopping altogether, though it’s clear the bulk of his career is behind him. But Caine keeps working, despite the problems of advancing age, seeking out new fields of endeavour, most notably in writing the best-selling book Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life in 2018.

Born March 14, 1933, in London as Maurice Joseph Micklewhite to Ellen Frances Marie (Burchell), a cleaning woman, and Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, who worked in a fish market, Caine had a decidedly rough upbringing. Leaving school at age 15, he drifted through a series of menial jobs before impulsively joining the Army, fighting in Korea during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Caine subsequently began to work in local theatre productions, first as an assistant stage manager and then gradually gravitating to film and television work.

Caine’s first recorded appearance was as a waiter in Harold Clayton’s Morning Departure, an early BBC television drama shot live with a multi-camera setup from Alexandra Palace in London in 1946. Numerous extra and supporting parts followed in a wide range of theatre and television projects until he landed a small role in Julian Amyes’ A Hill in Korea (aka Hell in Korea), a 1956 war drama starring Stanley Baker, Ronald Lewis, and Robert Shaw. Later that same year, Caine took on a bit part as the “third knight” in the British television series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot; he appeared in the episode “The Magic Sword,” billed under the name Michael Scott.

More work followed as an unnamed German solider in Hammer Films’ Steel Bayonet (1957), directed by Michael Carreras (“It Stabs to the Guts of War!” screamed the film’s poster), and a brief turn in Nigel Patrick’s forgotten dark comedy How to Murder a Rich Uncle (1957), supporting Nigel Patrick, Charles Coburn, and Wendy Hiller. Around the same time, he completed a series of television “prestige dramas” for BBC Sunday Night Theatre, including The Lark (1956), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1957), The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1958), and The Frog (1958). Caine was particularly effective as a young boxer on his way up in Requiem for a Heavyweight, scripted by Rod Serling, playing opposite Sean Connery’s Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, an aging fighter on the way down who is forced to continue in the ring despite his age and infirmities.

At this point in this nascent career, Caine took anything that was offered to him, gaining valuable experience and contacts along the way. He played a supporting bit part as a parched soldier in Lewis Gilbert’s World War II drama Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), attracting the director’s attention with his striking blond hair and commanding 6’1” height (many biographies list his height as 6’2”, but Caine disputes the extra inch) and his rapidly increasing screen presence. Gilbert was instrumental in rocketing Caine to international stardom the following decade in Caine’s breakthrough movie Alfie (1966). However, until then he continued to grind away in bit parts in movies and television programs, including a brief turn as a soldier in the American TV series Navy Log in the episode “The Field” (1958) and even work for the notorious Danziger Brothers in their teleseries The Vise in the episode “The Sucker Game” (also 1958).

Alfie

More small roles continued in André De Toth’s The Two Headed Spy (1958), starring Jack Hawkins; Alvin Rakoff’s sex worker drama Room 43 (aka Passport to Shame, 1958), top lining Diana Dors, Eddie Constantine, and Herbert Lom; the British television series Dixon of Dock Green (three episodes between 1957 and 1959), including one role in the episode “A Penn’orth of Allsorts” as an Indian peddler; and a traffic policeman who offers directions to star Edward Judd in Val Guest’s masterful The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961). By now, Caine had dropped his birth name for the much more muscular Michael Caine (inspired, of course, by The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial) at the behest of his agent, and 1962 saw Caine playing a nice supporting role as the accidental murderer of a middle-aged shopkeeper in the episode “Solo for Sparrow” of the popular series The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. Caine next turned up as a desk sergeant in Cliff Owen’s Peter Sellers comedy The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), but his days as a support and bit player were about to recede into the past.

Zulu

In Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964), Caine at last had a part of some size and dimension as Lt. Gonville Bromhead. Based on the real-life Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 and shot mostly on location in South Africa, Zulu is a deeply racist and anti-imperialist film depicting the battle between 150 British soldiers and 4,000 Zulu warriors. Zulu’s resolutely colonialist narrative framework, complete with a voiceover narration by Richard Burton, make it a brutal and jingoistic war saga that is effective as a piece of energetic action filmmaking, but the film’s message is unmistakable, and the audience is firmly on the side of the British colonial forces all the way. Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, and Nigel Green co-starred in the film, which was also the first time that Caine was listed on a film poster for the movie – albeit in last place and in smaller type.

Caine has often told the story of how extremely nervous he was during his Zulu screen test. He had originally auditioned for the part of Henry Hook, a Cockney supporting role that Caine felt more suited for. But his screen test was so disappointing that the role went to Caine’s friend James Booth. Caine was about to leave the audition site when Endfield called him back and offered him the part of the upper crust Lt. Bromhead simply because the crew was leaving for South Africa the next day and Caine looked the part of a superior officer. Caine deems it a pivotal moment in his career and, indeed, it was. For this role, he was paid the princely sum of $4,000.

Zulu was a massive hit, playing in first- and second-run cinemas in Britain for the next decade before going to television. It ultimately became one of the highest grossing films in British history. Today, the film’s implicit imperialism and racism make Zulu hard to stomach for more enlightened viewers, particularly as it was shot in South Africa under apartheid and manifestly upholds the white colonial master narrative first celebrated by Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard. But as a rousing piece of war cinema, it’s effective kinetic filmmaking.

After supporting Christopher Plummer’s Hamlet in the role of Horatio in Philip Saville’s BBC TV production Hamlet at Elsinore (1964), Caine was poised to make the leap into genuine front-rank stardom. Producer Harry Saltzman cast Caine in one of the finest and most offbeat roles of his career: the secret agent Harry Palmer in Sidney Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965), one of the most intelligent spy thrillers and pictorially arresting films ever made. Saltzman had partnered with Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli on the James Bond series of films, starting with Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962), kicking off a franchise that continues to this day and included Caine’s friend and colleague Connery as Bond. Yet Saltzman wanted to do something more cerebral and found inspiration in Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File, which he set to work bringing to the screen.

Caine clicked in the role of Harry Palmer, a cool, methodical, and highly intelligent spy for the British government, complemented by ex-flat mate John Barry’s sinuously minimal music score and director Furie’s outré visual compositions, often shooting through objects in the foreground to give added depth to even the simplest scenes. The film was an international hit, and Caine was truly launched as a “name-above-the-title” star – something that only intensified with the release of Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) the following year, in which Caine played a swinging London lothario who seduces and abandons women without compunction.

Although Alfie was an even bigger hit than Ipcress, it hasn’t dated as well; Alfie is such a cad that even though the film wants the audience to sympathize with him, it becomes almost impossible because of his utterly callous behaviour. Throughout the film, Caine’s character continually breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly, and as a bravura piece of acting, it’s an undeniable tour de force. But the audience ultimately feels more for the women he exploits, and Alfie’s self-pity seems both forced and unconvincing.

Tellingly, despite the success of Ipcress, Caine was not the first choice for Alfie. Both Anthony Newley and Terence Stamp turned the role down, and oddly enough Caine spent several hours trying unsuccessfully to talk Stamp, with whom he shared a flat at the time, into taking on the role. Yet for Caine, Alfie was a major career achievement: “To be a movie star, you have to carry a movie. And to carry a movie where you play the title role is the supreme example. The third thing, for a British actor, is to do it in America. The fourth is to get nominated for an [Academy Award for Best Picture]. That picture did all four things for me.”1

On the strength of Ipcress and Alfie, two widely disparate films, Caine was vaulted “overnight” – after nearly two decades of hard work – into the top ranks of international film stars. One day, while sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel lounge, Caine was approached by John Wayne, who had arrived by helicopter and came straight over to meet the young actor. “You’re gonna be a big star,” Wayne said. “But let me give you some advice. Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.” Astonished that Wayne recognized him, Caine began chatting with The Duke, and the two became lifelong friends. When Wayne was dying of cancer in 1979, Caine was a regular visitor to the hospital.

Wayne’s prediction proved accurate: Being immediately bankable, Caine was rushed into many films very quickly, although not all of them were of the highest quality. First up was Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box (1966), a dark comedy about two brothers at the end of a long line for a massive inheritance, if one of them can survive to collect it. Despite a stellar cast, including Ralph Richardson, John Mills, and Peter Sellers, the film is strained and tries all too desperately to be amusing. Next came Ronald Neame’s Gambit (1966), a heist comedy with Shirley MacLaine that suffered from Universal’s typically studio-bound production; nevertheless, it was a commercial success. In 1966, Caine was rushed into another Harry Palmer spy thriller, Guy Hamilton’s Funeral in Berlin, but this proved a pale shadow of The Ipcress File. Although none of these films really pushed the envelope, they did Caine’s career no harm. His price was going up as well; for Gambit, he was paid $250,000.

In 1967, Caine was deeply miscast in Hurry Sundown as racist Southern landowner Henry Warren, who – with his wife Julie (Jane Fonda) – tries to sell some of his Georgia homestead to a northern manufacturing firm and enlists the aid of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to push the deal through, despite opposition from his African American neighbours. The New York Times described the film, a typically overblown Otto Preminger production boasting a cast that included Faye Dunaway, Diahann Carroll, Burgess Meredith, John Philip Law, and many others, as “an offence to intelligence,” with Caine commenting to columnist Rex Reed that the famously dyspeptic Preminger was “only happy when everybody else is miserable.”2 While shooting the film on location in Louisiana from June to August 1966, and the cast and crew were targeted by the KKK for its then explosive subject matter. For his work on the film, Caine received $20,000 per week.

Matters didn’t improve with the third and thus far weakest entry in the Harry Palmer series (although worse was yet to come), Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967), or with Vittorio De Sica’s failed multi-episode Woman Times Seven (1967), starring Shirley MacLaine in a series of seven tired “sex comedy” vignettes. Bryan Forbes’ relentlessly kinky thriller Deadfall (1967), with Caine as a high stakes cat burglar enmeshed in a romantic triangle, also failed to attract much attention from critics or audiences. Guy Green’s enigmatic mystery film The Magus (1968), based on a novel by John Fowles, was equally unimpressive, with Caine later admitting that it was one of his least favourite films. André De Toth’s Play Dirty (1969) was another routine war film that came and went without notice. With Caine top lining as the starring attraction in all these movies, their lack of success, either commercially or critically, became deeply problematic for the actor. He later professed not to care about this, saying “you get paid the same for a bad film as you do for a good one”3, yet it was clear his career was in the doldrums. In short, Caine needed a hit.

Career help finally arrived with Peter Collinson’s raucous heist comedy The Italian Job (1969), which teamed Caine with no less than Noel Coward and made full use of Caine’s cool brand of comedy and action star charisma. The film became an instant cult hit and was remade by F. Gary Gray in 2003 under the same title. Caine’s next film, Guy Hamilton’s all-star Battle of Britain (1969), was a sizable World War II epic, with Caine heading a cast that included Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, and numerous others in a satisfyingly patriotic paean to Britain’s heroic war exploits.

This return to form was consolidated by his electric turn in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971), in which Caine plays a professional mob hitman who returns to his hometown to see his family only to find his brother dead. The film is remarkably violent, even by today’s standards, and Caine strides through it with convincing brutality, dispensing rough “justice” to the killers. There’s a real edge to Caine’s performance here, and one can sense the deeply held anger under the actor’s superficially placid surface. The following year, Caine appeared in Hodges’ quirky comedy Pulp (1972), a sort of noir homage about a failed pulp writer. Its rather eclectic cast included Mickey Rooney, blacklist victim Lionel Stander, and noir icon Lizabeth Scott. The film did little business at the box office but became a cult favourite and is an agreeably eccentric entry in Caine’s career.

Get Carter

Caine’s next career move, however, was to choose not to accept a role. Alfred Hitchcock wanted Caine for his “comeback” film Frenzy (1972), centring on a necktie murderer of women. Many regarded the film to be a return to form for the director, but Caine turned it down flat. “He offered me a part of a sadist who murdered women and I won’t play that. I have a sort of moral thing and I refused to play it and he never spoke to me again. It was a film based on a real killer who cut women to smithereens. I said, ‘I can’t play this, I don’t want to play it’”4. When Caine later bumped into Hitchcock at Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood, the director refused to acknowledge his existence.

Rather than working for Hitchcock, Caine instead teamed with Sir Laurence Olivier in the film version of Anthony Shaffer’s hit Broadway mystery play Sleuth (1972), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. A “two hander” set in a luxurious mansion, Sleuth pits Caine, the interloper who wants to steal Olivier’s wife from him, against an actor who could certainly hold his own on the screen. In the early to mid 1970s, Caine continued with a brace of middling projects; Don Siegel’s surprisingly disappointing drama The Black Windmill (1974); Ralph Nelson’s anti-apartheid thriller The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), in which Caine co-starred with Sidney Poitier as two men on the run from South African policeman Nicol Williamson, with some excellent action sequences but rather large plot holes; and Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), an interesting and understated romantic drama.

Things picked up considerably with John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), which teamed Caine with his old friend Connery in a period action film as two ex-soldiers in 1880s India who declare themselves “kings” of a remote province, resulting in a rousing action adventure with wit, humour, and a good deal of pathos. The film is also notable for the last screen appearance of Caine’s new wife, Shakira, a former Miss Guyana whom Caine first spotted in a Maxwell House coffee commercial and, after a brief courtship, married in 1973. Shakira Baksh, as she was then known, appeared in bit parts in such films as Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Gerard Thomas’s Carry On Again Doctor (1969), the British TV series UFO (1970-71), and Freddie Francis’s abysmal horror comedy Son of Dracula (1973). For The Man Who Would Be King, Shakira was pressed into service at the last minute by director Huston, who thought that – because of her innately regal bearing – she was more at home in the role of an Indian princess.

And yet the roles after this seemed to thin out. Mark Rydell’s heist comedy Harry and Walter Go To New York (1976), Ivan Passer’s glitzy rom-com Silver Bears (1977), which teamed Caine with Cybill Shepherd, and most notoriously Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster film The Swarm (1978), in which a horde of killer bees attack the United States, are all best forgotten. Caine seemed to be treading water in Herbert Ross’s film version of Neil Simon’s California Suite (1978), Richard Fleischer’s exoticist adventure drama Ashanti (1979), and Irwin Allen’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), a sequel to Ronald Neame’s 1972 original film. At this point in his career, it seemed that Caine was willing to take on any film at all as long as it proved profitable to him. As he put it, “first of all, I choose the great roles, and if none of these come, I choose the mediocre ones, and if they don’t come, I choose the ones that pay the rent.”5

Yet the list of films Caine turned down was quite long, and included Ted Kotcheff’s Switching Channels (1988), an underrated comedy about the television news business. Caine turned it down so he could appear in Joseph Sargent’s Jaws: The Revenge (1987), of which he later said, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”6 Caine had previously tested for the lead in David Lean’s epic film Dr. Zhivago (1965) opposite Julie Christie, but upon viewing the results, surprisingly and successfully lobbied for Omar Sharif to get the role. Caine also turned down a lead role in Ken Russell’s typically over-the-top Women in Love (1969) because he refused to do nude scenes, and he quite intelligently passed on the leading role in the popular British television series Z Cars early in his career in 1962 because he didn’t want to get typecast as a TV actor. He passed on Sidney Lumet’s gritty film The Hill (1965), where would have worked with Connery, and chose to do Alfie instead. Much later, he turned down a large supporting role in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which was also a smart decision; with Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet in the leads, who was going to watch anyone else?

As the 1980s dawned, Caine seemed to be making one good film to every three or four problematic projects, although even in his lesser films, the actor’s innate professionalism shone through. As an interesting sidelight, Caine created an hour-long video with the BBC on the craft of acting in 1978, an invaluable look into the actor’s method of working, with Caine teaching a master class to a group of young actors. But then it was back to work. Michael Ritchie’s The Island (1980), based on the best-selling page-turner by Jaws author Peter Benchley, was a workmanlike tale of murder and pirate intrigue. However, in Brian De Palma’s brutal murder mystery Dressed to Kill (1980) – a film that was as controversial as it was popular with critics and audiences – Caine turned in a memorable performance as crossdressing serial killer Dr. Robert Elliott. Despite the film’s Grand Guignol violence, what most viewers remember about the film is a bravura sequence in which Angie Dickinson wanders through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, flirting surreptitiously with a strange man, shortly before she is murdered.

In Oliver Stone’s film The Hand (1981), one of the few straight-up horror films Caine has ever made, he delivered a compellingly tortured performance as comic book artist Jonathan Lansdale, whose drawing hand is lopped off in a car accident. No longer able to draw and reduced to teaching art in a rundown community college, Lansdale becomes fixated on the idea that the severed hand is following him and soon becomes mentally deranged as the bodies pile up. Although the film collapses around him, Caine is consistently excellent in the role, alternately furious and yet resigned to his fate, and delivers a carefully modulated performance. By this point in his career, he was making a million dollars a film. He used most of his salary from this project to build a new garage for his home.

The Hand

Dressed to Kill

Next up was Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982), based on the play by Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin. In the film, Caine plays an older playwright who has run out of ideas and plans to steal the work of one of his students. The film did well, but Caine’s next project, Lewis Gilbert’s Educating Rita (1983) became the most successful film Caine had done in quite a while. Reunited with director Gilbert, Caine played alcoholic college professor Dr. Frank Bryant, whose life is redeemed when he starts to tutor hairdresser Susan “Rita” White (a superb Julie Walters), eventually reclaiming his dignity in the process. The film is an exceptional blend of comedy and pathos and ends on a rather unresolved note, rather than wrapping up all the narrative threads in an artificial fashion. Educating Rita was nominated for three Academy Awards (Caine for Best Actor; Walters for Best Actress; and Best Adapted Screenplay) and won three of its six BAFTA nominations (director Gilbert for Best Film; Caine for Best Actor; Walters for Best Actress) as well as two of its four Golden Globe nominations for Caine and Walters. 

Educating Rita

Rita was quickly followed by Beyond the Limit (aka The Honorary Consul, based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene), a political melodrama set in an unnamed South American country. The film found favour with British audiences but was ignored by viewers in the United States, even with the co-starring presence of Richard Gere. Both Educating Rita and Beyond the Limit were relatively smaller productions and, in both cases, it was difficult to raise financing. Caine was continuing his practice of doing one film for himself and several to keep the lights on, and in so doing found some of his richest material as an actor. Still, Caine’s next few films hardly deserved his considerable talents.

Terence Young’s The Jigsaw Man (1983) is loosely based on the life of real-life traitor/spy Kim Philby, a double agent who secretly worked for the Soviet Union while pretending to be a loyal member of British Intelligence. With Caine as the thinly disguised Philip Kimberly and re-teamed with Sir Laurence Olivier as his British handler, the film was beset by financing problems, and both Caine and Olivier walked off the film until emergency funding could be obtained. The resulting film limps to its conclusion in a sadly perfunctory manner. Of Stanley Donen’s exploitational “sex comedy” Blame It on Rio (1984), the less said the better, although Demi Moore in an early role manages to escape the damage relatively unscathed. Dick Clement’s supposed farce Water (1985) is equally disappointing.

John Frankenheimer’s The Holcroft Covenant (1985) about a jet-setting search for missing Nazi millions was another misfire, with Caine replacing actor James Caan at the last minute. As Caine remembered, “I had to finish Water on the preceding Friday night and whiz off to Berlin to start filming on the following Monday morning. It all happened so quickly, that I didn’t even have time for a wardrobe fitting and wore my own clothes in the movie. Even more to the point, I didn’t have time to read the script properly and, only too late, did I realize that I couldn’t understand the plot, so God help the poor audience who would eventually see it.”7

Caine quickly rebounded with an Academy Award-winning turn in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), an ensemble comedy of star-crossed love affairs with a truly star-studded cast including Caine, Allen, Max von Sydow, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Dianne Wiest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black, John Turturro, and many more. Everyone is in love with somebody else in this cheerfully complicated comedy of errors, with Caine’s character, Elliot, pursuing Hershey’s Lee despite still being married to Farrow’s Hannah. With obvious debts to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three (Best Original Screenplay for Allen; Best Supporting Actor for Caine; Best Supporting Actress for Weist), as well as winning two BAFTAs for Allen and a host of other honours. Ironically, Caine wasn’t present at the Oscar ceremony to receive his award because he was filming Jaws: The Revenge on location – something that he deeply regretted.

Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters was followed by another promising project: Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), in which Caine played a supporting role as Denny Mortwell, a pimp who uses a young woman, Simone (Cathy Tyson), to satisfy his clients and pick up some possible blackmail information on the side. The real star of the film is Bob Hoskins as George, who drives Simone from one assignation to another, but Caine breathes real violent life into the relatively small part of Denny. Caine soon returned to churning out one indifferent film after another, including Bob Swaim’s Half Moon Street (1986), Simon Langton’s The Whistle Blower (1986), John Mackenzie’s The Fourth Protocol (1986), Jerry Belson’s Surrender (1987), and Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (1988). Caine is never less than professional in any of these outings, but the material – which ranges from action thriller to comedy – is weak, and the directors involved are efficient traffic cops, nothing more. Even in such a fallow period, Caine is still astonishingly prolific.

This losing streak was broken by Frank Oz’s acerbic comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), a sort of warped “buddy” film with Steve Martin. Caine and Martin were cast as conmen trying to separate an heiress from her money. The two men both have great fun with their roles, which translates to the screen, and the film was a distinct high point during this period of Caine’s career. But this upswing was followed by David Wickes’ Jekyll & Hyde (1990), a distinctly down- market project. Although it was a perfectly solid television movie, for which Caine was nominated for an Emmy, it was still a step down.

But Caine once again bounced back with Jan Egelson’s dark comedy A Shock to the System (1990), charting the homicidal career trajectory of Graham Marshall, who is forced out of his job by a rival and then orchestrates a series of “accidental” deaths to regain his former position. Although the film failed to attract an audience despite good reviews, Caine was fond of the project, remembering “that [it] was a lovely little film, but it was too small for its own good, really. It got lost. It was the sort of film, were it made today that would be great as a film for HBO, or something. But at the time, it just got lost in the system.”8

Matters overall did not improve. In James Orr’s Mr. Destiny (1990), Caine was surprisingly second billed to James Belushi, with predictably indifferent results. Michael Winner’s failed nuclear espionage comedy Bullseye (1990) teamed Caine with old friend Roger Moore, but as was typical for Winner, the film failed to live up to its premise. Peter Bogdanovich’s movie of Michael Frayn’s hit Broadway play Noises Off (1992), about the travails of a small theatre group, had a huge ensemble cast, including Carol Burnett, Denholm Elliott, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and many others, but again failed to attract audience attention. Brian Henson’s The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), with Caine as Scrooge, was a pleasant Yuletide diversion, but surely not a stretch for the actor.

In what he admitted was desperation, Caine then agreed to make the Stephen Seagal-directed movie On Deadly Ground (1994), in which Seagal also starred. Caine plays Michael Jennings, the ruthless head of a predatory oil drilling company who wants to make a big strike on untouched Alaskan soil and will stop at nothing to achieve his objective. As Jennings, Caine gives a full throttle performance, particularly in the scene in which he shoots an “eco-friendly” TV spot to offset the public relations damage caused by an explosion on one of his poorly built oil rigs, dropping his snarling persona to deliver a seemingly heartfelt plea to save the planet and then exploding in profanity the second the ad finishes shooting. However, Caine remembered the project with little affection:

“I could see that things were going to be different now. I had reached the period of my life I called the twilight zone. The spotlight of movie stardom was fading, and it all seemed gloomy. Soon the scripts started to dry up completely – even the bad ones – and if there is one thing worse than being offered bad scripts it’s being offered none at all. The danger is, of course, that the wait for a decent movie makes you desperate, and I got desperate to the point that I accepted a picture in Alaska with Steven Seagal, the martial arts expert. The movie was called On Deadly Ground and the title was to prove apt. Although Steven and the rest of the team were great to work with, I had broken one of the cardinal rules of bad movies: if you’re going to do a bad movie, at least do it in a great location.”9

The worst was yet to come. The notorious producer Harry Alan Towers approached Caine with a deal to shoot two more Harry Palmer films – George Mihalka’s Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Douglas Jackson’s Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996) – back-to-back in St. Petersburg, Russia, at Lenfilm Studios. Caine accepted the deal, much to his later regret. Cheaply made, with scripts by Towers himself designed to maximize on Caine’s involvement, both films are so dull that they’re nearly impossible to watch and provide a sad end to a character that had begun screen life so promisingly in The Ipcress File. Caine didn’t mince words describing the experience.

“It was my worst professional experience ever . . . the filming itself was a joke. The final blow came when we were shooting in the Lenfilm studio itself. I wanted to go to the toilet, and they directed me to it. I could smell it 50 yards away and it was the filthiest lavatory I have ever seen. I went outside and relieved myself against the sound stage, which I noticed several other men had done before. ‘So this is where my career has ended,’ I thought to myself: ‘in the toilet. I’m done.’ I picked myself up and took the family off to our place in Miami straight after Christmas.”10

Caine rebounded from even this disaster with a choice project brought to him by his friend Jack Nicholson – namely, Bob Rafelson’s Blood and Wine (1996). The film wasn’t a hit, but it restored Caine’s faith in what he described as an “often nasty business.” Although his career continued to include hits and misses, he scored heavily as a sleazy talent agent who boosts a young singer (Jane Horrocks) to local stardom in Mark Herman’s Little Voice (1998); as Dr. Wilbur Larch in Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules (1999), for which he won his second Academy Award; and as the debauched foreign newspaper correspondent Thomas Fowler in Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002), based on Graham Greene’s novel, for which Caine was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Leading Actor, but sadly didn’t win (for me, one of his finest later roles). In 2000, Queen Elizabeth knighted Caine for his services to British cinema; in honour of his father, he accepted the award with his birth name.

After some more indifferent films (Tim McCanlies’ Second Hand Lions [2003], Norman Jewison’s surprisingly disappointing The Statement [2003], in which Caine played a Nazi war criminal on the run from justice) – Caine had an unexpected visitor to his house who would bring about yet another rebirth in the actor’s long career. One morning director Christopher Nolan appeared, unannounced, at Caine’s front door with the script of Batman Begins (2005) in hand. The two men had never met, but when Nolan introduced himself, Caine immediately recognized him as the creator of Memento (2000) and invited him in for coffee. Nolan offered Caine the role of Alfred, Batman’s butler. At first, Caine was nonplussed – just a butler? But with his usual tenacity, Nolan insisted that Caine read the script on the spot and say either yes or no immediately. The actor retired to his study to read the manuscript while Nolan and Caine’s wife Shakira had more coffee. Caine instantly recognized that the role offered a fantastic chance to reintroduce himself to a whole new audience in a top-of-the-line project and quickly committed to the film.

This experience led to several films with Nolan, including what is perhaps Caine’s last major role as a magician’s assistant in The Prestige (2006), a brilliantly complex film that was a major critical and commercial success. He also rounded out the Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight (2008) – perhaps the greatest comic book film ever made, with a superb performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker, which won Ledger a posthumous Academy Award – and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which if not living up to the standard of the first two instalments nevertheless brought the series to an honourable end. In between, Caine starred in Daniel Barber’s deeply personal revenge thriller Harry Brown (2009) as an elderly pensioner living in a crime-ridden housing project – ironically, one near where Caine spent his youth, before gangs and poverty changed the place from a genteel shabbiness to outright anarchy – and Alfonso Cuarón’s post-apocalyptic drama Children of Men (2006), in which he played a supporting role as Jasper, a pot-smoking hippie who manages to comfortably live outside of a society that has become completely fascist.

The Prestige

Harry Brown

Caine’s roles have since become slighter. He played an adventurous grandfather in Brad Peyton’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), a Jules Verne-ish vehicle for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; a bookend role at the beginning and end of Nolan’s Inception (2010); and the briefly seen Professor Brand in Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Yet his still played the occasional leading role, such as in Paolo Sorrentino’s beautiful film Youth (2015), in which he is orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger, who travels to a health spa with his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) in search of rejuvenation and renewed purpose. In Zach Braff’s much less ambitious Going in Style (2017), Caine plays a geriatric bank robber along with Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Ann-Margret in the amiable-enough farce. Caine’s last complete role to date is that of the irascible, reclusive author Harris Shaw in Lina Roessler’s Best Sellers (2021), in which maverick publisher Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) successfully lures Shaw out of retirement to publish one last novel in a bid to save her company from financial ruin.

Youth

Of course, being Michael Caine, he has three additional projects in various stages of pre-production, although he recently announced that he might be retiring, preferring to write books instead. We’ll see. My guess is that, if he’s able to do so, Caine will continue to seek out new roles, albeit smaller parts where less memorization and physical effort is required. He is financially quite comfortable, owns several restaurants, has a sizable home, is very happily married to Shakira, and clearly does not need to work, but loves to. With some 176 films and counting, despite career dips along the way, has always rebounded. Even after the disastrous Harry Palmer films with Harry Alan Towers, after which Caine felt like retiring from acting to run his restaurants, the urge to create new work has never really left him. Whatever he does next, Caine has already discharged his debt to society brilliantly. Michael Caine is a complete original and a living testament to the endless pursuit of excellence against all odds – a true professional in every sense of the word.

Bibliography

  • Caine, Sir Michael. Michael Caine’s Moving Picture Show. New York: St. Martins, 1989.
  • What’s It All About? New York: Random House, 1992.
  • Acting in Film – an Actor’s Take on Movie Making. New York: Applause Books, 1997.
  • The Elephant to Hollywood. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.
  • Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life. London, Hachette, 2018.
  • Freedland, Michael. Michael Caine. London: Orion, 2000.

Endnotes

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon is currently at work on the second, expanded edition of his book A History of Horror (2010), to be published in 2022. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and elsewhere.

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