Michael Caine: A Life Large Enough For An Encore
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
We have a guest out at NPR West now. He's one of the greatest actors in the world. Along with Jack Nicholson, he's the only actor to have been nominated for an Oscar in every decade since the 1960s. But, as he says in his new book...
Mr. MICHAEL CAINE (Actor): Eighteen years ago, I thought that my career as an actor was over. So I wrote my autobiography, "What's It All About," to round off my professional life. And that, as far as I was concerned, was that. Fortunately, and not for the first time in my life, I was wrong - very wrong. The best was yet to come, which, when I look back at my life - the crazy 1960s, the stars and the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood - is really saying something.
SIMON: That's Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, of course most notably and fondly known as Sir Michael Caine. He is the office boy who made good, went on to appear in I don't know how many films. Our research department says 113. Sir Michael?
Mr. CAINE: That's because when I was a young actor I was in a lot of film doing one day work and two days' work, and they've included all those titles, which I don't even remember. I think I've played the lead in about 75 movies.
SIMON: My gosh. Well, we were able to say that they run the gamut from "Alfie" to "Zulu," from A to Z.
Mr. CAINE: They do indeed.
SIMON: Sir Michael Caine's new autobiography is called "The Elephant to Hollywood." So, we said he's in NPR West. You're from an area of London called Elephant and Castle.
Mr. CAINE: Yeah. That's where the title comes from. The area is named after a pub called the Elephant and Castle. It's a very tough, rough area. And the pub, actually, when it opened a couple of hundred years ago, was named after a mistress of King Charles II, the Spanish mistress. Her name was the Infanta de Castile. And when they opened the pub, they called it the Infanta de Castile, but the Cockneys couldn't say it so it became the Elephant and Castle.
And that - the title of the book is "The Elephant to Hollywood," which was the journey that I took.
SIMON: When did you first hear laughter on stage?
Mr. CAINE: I was about 10 years old. It was this gold pantomime and I remember I was playing Baron Fitznoodle, who was the father of the ugly sisters in "Cinderella." And I walked on and got a great big laugh and I thought that was fantastic, until I looked down and found that my flies were open. And so I always check my flies. I even check my flies on radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CAINE: That's how - I checked them just before I came in here.
SIMON: Yeah, we...
Mr. CAINE: Theyre okay, by the way...
SIMON: Yeah. And what did set off in you, do you think, hearing that?
Mr. CAINE: What happened to me, there was a Reverend Butterworth, who was a Methodist minister who used to clean up all the juvenile delinquents off the street and take them into his club called Club Land. And in Club Land there was an amateur dramatic society, which I joined - I must admit, the only reason I joined it is because I couldn't get to kiss any girls - I was chasing girls all the time - and so I thought if I join the amateur dramatic society, there might be some love scenes.
And there was a particular girl and I thought I might get to kiss Amy. I never did get to kiss Amy but I did get to kiss Elizabeth Taylor, so it was all right, a lot later.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: You are kind enough to list a couple of the wisest things you've learned about acting over the years. For example, like playing a drunk.
Mr. CAINE: This is a very valuable lesson to me as an actor. I was a very young actor. I was in repertory and I had to come in drunk in this scene. And I came in drunk and the producer said, just a minute. He said, what are you doing? I said, I'm drunk in this scene, sir. He said, I know you're drunk in this scene; what are you doing? I said, well, sir, I'm playing a drunk. He said, no, you're not. He said you're playing an actor trying to talk slurred and walk crooked. He said a drunk, Michael, is a man who is trying to walk straight and speak properly. Go back out and come in and do it again.
And it's extremely difficult to do. What he's saying is you mustn't see the acting. You mustn't see an actor walking crooked. You must see a drunk trying to walk straight, which is what you do. He was a wonderful producer. He taught me these things which had never left me.
SIMON: Did your life change when you saw a coffee commercial one day?
Mr. CAINE: Oh my God, yeah. That was the greatest day of my life and, you know, like all great days of your life, you don't realize it. What happened was is I had my best friend - his name was Paul. We were both single and we were out, obviously, six days in the discotheques, right, girls, dancing and everything. I said to Paul, I said we'll do something we've not done before. We'll stay in and we'll watching television.
And a commercial came on for coffee and this girl was in it with these maracas. And I fell in love with this girl instantly - absolutely instantly. And then I got all excited. And I said, oh, I said, we're going to Brazil tomorrow to find her. And then I went - I said, well, let's go out and have a drink. So, I went down to discotheque and we're sitting there, Paul and me, and a guy came in we knew.
He said, no girls tonight? I said, no. I said, I'm love with a girl I saw on the television. I'm going to Brazil to find her tomorrow.
So he said, I've been watching television all evening. He said, I didn't see any beautiful girls on television. I said, she wasn't in a show. I said, she was in a commercial for coffee. He said, we make that commercial. I said, well, I'm going to Brazil to find that girl. He says, shes not in Brazil, Michael. She lives in the Fulham(ph) Road in London. And she's not, shes not Brazilian, she's Indian. Her name's Shakira Baksh. He gave me her number and I called her.
And I called every night for two weeks and she wouldn't go out with me. And on the 10th or 11th - whatever it was - time I found her, evening, one after another, keep getting refused, I said to myself if she doesn't come out with me tonight, I'm never phoning her again. And she said that night she would come. I've had the happiest 40 years of my life with this lady. And if she'd have said no that night, that would've been the end of it.
But anyway, it wasn't and it's been fantastic.
SIMON: You're in a profession that is, I think, famous for the wreck and ruin it can wreak on family life. Have you learned what counts over the years?
Mr. CAINE: Yes. I'm absolutely sure of this. You must have two bathrooms.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CAINE: You cannot have one bathroom. And it don't matter how much you love your wife and everything, 'cause you wind up with no room at all. You just get a little corner and you've got a toothbrush and your paste and a shaving brush and a razor. And you can never get in there. So you must have two bathrooms. You really must. I think it's essential.
SIMON: I made a short list - "Alfie," "Educating Rita," "Zulu," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
Mr. CAINE: "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" was the happiest film I ever made.
SIMON: I thought that.
Mr. CAINE: I was co-starring with Steve Martin, who is the most wonderful guy, Glenne Headly, who's a wonderful actress and a great girl. I was being directed by Miss Piggy - Frank Oz, who's Miss Piggy in The Muppets. And I'd worked with her before, because I did "The Muppets Christmas Carol." And not only that, it was - my favorite place for holiday in the world is the French Riviera, and we shot it on the French Riviera.
And two of my closest friends lived there - Roger Moore and the composer Leslie Bricusse. So I had the best summer and the best time and I never made a happier picture. This was a double whammy because the picture was a big hit and a big success and it was a picture that I loved watching even, and I don't watch my own movies very much.
SIMON: When you took on roles where you had to take on another accent, how easy was that for you as an actor and even emotionally?
Mr. CAINE: Well, I did a Texas accent in "Secondhand Lions." And I had this Texas guy, who's my coach, obviously. He said, do the Texan accent, he said. So I did it. And he said, well, no, it's not quite right, Michael. He said, because you're speaking like an Englishman.
You're sort of doing the Texan, he said, but you're speaking like an Englishman where each word is separate. He said with Texans, the words kind of lean on each other. He said they just leaning on each other. They're just about to fall other and they lean on the next one when it comes. And I always remember that: the words lean on each other, for Texas.
SIMON: Having been an actor, and a wildly successful actor over four decades, what do you learn about life in the theater?
Mr. CAINE: I learned about life before I went into the theater, which is why I've been so happy. I was a soldier.
SIMON: You were in Korea. You fought in Korea.
Mr. CAINE: I was in Korea, yeah. I've noticed all my life I see elderly people who have been close to death in an illness and they're absolutely cured and they say, now I know how to live my life. I've seen death and bang, bang, bang. That happened to me when I was 19. It was a terrible, terrifying thing.
And I live my life like those people decided to do when they were old. So, since I was 19, I've had the most fun possible every single day, even when I had a rough life, in the nine years trying to make it, you know? It was the army which taught me about life, and the theater which taught me how good it could be.
I'm talking as though I'm dying or something. I hope I'm not.
SIMON: No, no, no. You've got a long way to go.
Mr. CAINE: Yeah, no. I've had a medical - I'm all right. That's the great thing about being a movie actor. They're all worried. Every time you get a movie, you get a medical. So you know, you know you're alright for a couple of weeks.
SIMON: You're 77 now, Sir Michael?
Mr. CAINE: Seventy-seven, yeah.
SIMON: And still open for business?
Mr. CAINE: Yeah. You can't see it. This is radio, you see, but I have a beard. I've grown a beard because I'm doing a movie called "Mysterious Island," Jules Verne. And I'm playing - it's great for me. I'm a new grandfather. My first grandson is two - and I'm playing a grandfather for the first time. And I'm in a 3-D movie for the first time. And I've never been in a 3-D movie.
And a lot of it is for my grandchildren. 'Cause I get to ride around on a giant bumblebee, which is fantastic. Can you imagine that? I mean, they're not old enough yet. The twins are one and the oldest one is two, but when they're about three or four, I'm going to show them a movie with me riding around on a bumblebee. And they'll say to all the other kids, can your granddad ride a bumblebee, and they'll say no. They'll say, mine can.
SIMON: Sir Michael, what a pleasure. Thanks so much for all your time.
Mr. CAINE: Thank you, sir.
SIMON: Sir Michael Caine, joining us from NPR West. His autobiography, "The Elephant to Hollywood," is out now.