Michael Caine Reflects On His 'Hollywood' Career

The Elephant to Hollywood
The Elephant to Hollywood
By Michael Caine
Hardcover, 320 pages
Henry Holt and Co.
List price: $28

When actor Michael Caine was in his late 50s, he thought his movie career was basically over.

The star of films like Alfie, The Italian Job, Educating Rita and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had received a script in the mail from a producer. Caine thought the leading role was too small, so he promptly returned the script.

"He sent the script back to me with a letter saying, 'I didn't want you to read the part of the lover. I wanted you to read the father.' And suddenly I realized that my romantic days in movies were over," Caine says. "And that is the time really, if you're a movie star, you sort of give up or become a character actor."

After the incident, Caine took two years off from show business, spending time in Miami, where he owns a restaurant, and generally just enjoying himself. Then one day, he ran into his friend Jack Nicholson.

"He came to me one day with a movie called Blood and Wine, which I made with him, and although the movie wasn't a big box-office hit or anything, it was with me. ... [T]he actual act of working with Jack, who's such a wonderful actor and man, ... restored my faith in the business," Caine recalls. "It gave me another 20 years of career, not as a character actor, but as a leading actor."

Caine's memoir, The Elephant to Hollywood, recounts the highs and lows of a career that has now spanned more than five decades. (The title refers to the part of London — called Elephant and Castle — where Caine grew up.) In it, he candidly talks about his journey from South London to the screen, detailing his battles with stage fright and his jaunts around the world once the films Zulu and Alfie catapulted him onto the international stage. He also details how early in his career, he worked hard to make audiences realize that he and Alfie, a hopelessly promiscuous bachelor, were not one and the same.

"People would say 'You're really like Alfie,' and I'd say 'No. ... There's a major difference between Alfie and me," he recounts, laughing. "I was going with women he'd never go near. It's the quality of life. You always have to look for the quality of life. ... Alfie was a man who would have sex anytime, anywhere with anybody. That was not me at all — never in a million years. I was a romantic, put it that way."

Caine has appeared in more than 100 films. He has received two Oscars, for Hannah and Her Sisters and for The Cider House Rules. In 1992, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2000, he was knighted.

Michael Caine i i

Michael Caine has been nominated for an Academy Award for either lead actor or for a supporting role in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s. Terry O'Neill hide caption

itoggle caption Terry O'Neill
Michael Caine

Michael Caine has been nominated for an Academy Award for either lead actor or for a supporting role in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s.

Terry O'Neill

Interview Highlights

On first coming to Hollywood and meeting John Wayne

"It was quite weird. I came to do a picture with Shirley MacLaine and she wasn't there. She was working on another picture and she was just finishing up. She couldn't get there for two weeks. So until we officially had the party welcoming me to Hollywood, I was in this very luxurious suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel and no one talked to me. No one came. They just paid the bills and that was it. So I used to sit in the lobby looking for movie stars. [That's] where I met John Wayne for the first time and we became friends — not close friends, we hardly moved in the same circles, but we became very deep acquaintances. And he was very kind to me and gave me all sorts of advice like, 'Talk low, talk slow and don't say too much' [and] 'Don't wear suede shoes.' I said 'Why can't I wear suede shoes?' and [John Wayne] said 'You'll be in the toilet, taking a pee and a guy will recognize you and he'll turn and say 'Michael Caine' and he will have peed all over your shoes Michael.' So I said 'All right, I won't wear suede shoes.'"

On Olivier, Jude Law, Sleuth and the class question

"[Laurence Olivier] was the greatest actor in the world: stage, screen, everything. He was incredible. ... In actual fact, in real life, Larry was a lord. Before we started the film, he wrote me a little letter, a very nice letter, saying 'It has occurred to me, as I am a lord, you may be wondering how to address me when we meet. When we do meet, Michael, from the moment we shake hands, I will be Larry forevermore,' which was lovely. He put me out of any sort of worry socially — but the idea that he had to do it is extraordinary and explains a very difficult thing, [which is] the class system in England. Because later, I did a remake of Sleuth playing Larry's part and Jude Law played the young seducer. ... But the idea that I'd write a letter to Jude saying 'You may be wondering how to address me when we first meet' — it shows how the class system changed over the number of years between those two movies."

Excerpt: 'The Elephant To Hollywood'

The Elephant to Hollywood
The Elephant to Hollywood
By Michael Caine
Hardcover, 320 pages
Henry Holt and Co.
List price: $28

Oscar Nights

I am often asked which of my films has come closest to my own ideal of performance and I always answer, Educating Rita. To me, Educating Rita is the most perfect performance I could give of a character who was as far away from me as you could possibly get and of all the films I have ever been in, I think it may be the one I am most proud of.

I'm proud of it, too, because taking the part wasn't immediately the most obvious thing for me to do — for a start it involved turning down a film costarring Sally Field, who had just won an Oscar for Norma Rae, in favor of playing opposite Julie Walters, who had never appeared in a film at all. But the director was Lewis Gilbert, director of Alfie, and the screenplay was by Willy Russell, who had adapted it from his own novel and play and he had opened the play out so that the backstory of the two characters is played out on-screen. The story was also very close to my heart, because although it was a comedy, it was the story of the late flowering of a woman who has had few opportunities in life, and it carries a strong message about class and education. It's rare, too, to find something in cinema that is deeply written enough for the characters to change each other the way Frank Bryant and Rita do: they have a profound effect on each other. And when I look back at my own films, the ones that stand out for me in terms of character development like this are all films that began in the theater: Alfie, Sleuth, California Suite and Deathtrap.

While I could appreciate the strengths of the script, taking on the character of an overweight, alcoholic professor was a real challenge for me. To help get into the role, I grew a shaggy beard and put on about thirty pounds and called on every nuance of alcoholic behavior I could recall. It would have been easy to play the part the way Rex Harrison played Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady — but I saw Dr. Frank Bryant as far less attractive and more vulnerable than that and went back to Emil Jannings's performance as the ugly professor who nurses an unrequited love for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel for inspiration. I became so immersed in the part and what I imagined to be the "type" that I felt as if I had known academics all my life.

Julie Walters was brilliant. Of course she had already done a lot of television and had played Rita in the West End stage play, but it was her first ever movie, although you would never have known it — she was a completely instinctive film actress. Like John Huston, Lewis Gilbert was a hands-off director and believed in letting the actors get on with it. A measured man, he was nevertheless obviously pleased at the way the filming was going and one day he said to me — just as he had fifteen years before with Alfie, that he thought both Julie and I would be nominated for an Academy Award for our roles in the movie. And just as he had been fifteen years previously with Alfie, he was right.

For Alfie, I had had the misfortune to be up against my friend the great actor Paul Scofield who had been nominated in the Best Actor category for his role as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. I had seen his performance and thought it was brilliant and realized I had no chance of winning with Alfie so I didn't turn up. The next time I was nominated was for Sleuth in 1973, again for Best Actor, but my costar Laurence Olivier was also nominated for his role in Sleuth, so we had cut our own chances in half from the start. On that occasion I decided to go to the ceremony anyway because I had never been and I thought it might be fun. Big mistake. For a start, in a moment of madness I'd agreed to host a quarter of the ceremony, with Carol Burnett, Charlton Heston and Rock Hudson doing the other three quarters.

Presenting the Oscars was the most nerve-racking job I have ever done in show business. It's very much a live show: they have comedy writers waiting in the wings and as you come off between presentations they hand you an appropriate gag to tell. As if that wasn't bad enough, it was destined to get even more stressful when it got to the Best Actor nominations. Marlon Brando won it for The Godfather, but — as we all knew he would — he refused to accept it and sent a Native American girl called Sacheen Littlefeather on his behalf, to read a fifteen-page speech protesting the treatment of Native Americans by the film and television industry. The producer of the show had told her beforehand that she would be slung off if she spoke for more than forty-five seconds so she restricted herself to a short speech—which got quite a few boos—and read Brando's letter to the press afterwards. I think that any gesture in a good cause is admirable, but it turned out that the young lady's name was in fact Marie Cruz, that she was an actress whose mother was Caucasian, and that three months after the Oscar ceremony she posed for Playboy magazine. Of course it doesn't invalidate the cause, and Sacheen Littlefeather continues to work as an activist today, but it does show you, yet again, that Hollywood is never quite what you think it is!

Littlefeather's performance that night certainly caused consternation backstage. I was standing there with everyone else while it was going on, waiting for the finale, which was to be John Wayne leading the entire cast in singing "You Oughta Be in Pictures." By the time we got on, everything was a bit chaotic: no one knew the words and John Wayne couldn't sing in tune anyway. I was so embarrassed that I started to edge towards the back of the stage. I had been talking to Clint Eastwood, who had just been presenting an award, and he felt the same so he edged back with me. The problem is that we both edged back so far we fell off. It wasn't far, and neither of us was hurt, but we both became hysterical with laughter and couldn't finish the song.

From An Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine. Published this month by Henry Holy and Company, LLC. Copyright 2010 by Michael Caine. All rights reserved.

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