Since breaking out in the 1966 classic Alfie, Sir Michael Caine has appeared in more than 100 films, most recently as Alfred in The Dark Knight. In his latest, the indie Is Anybody There?, Caine, 76, plays an aging magician who befriends a death-obsessed kid by reminiscing about his improbable life. Logan Hill asked Caine to reminisce about his own.
You named yourself after Humphrey Bogart’s The Caine Mutiny.
Bogart was my hero, and even though he came from a sort of snobby, aristocratic family—he was a distant relation of Princess Diana—when I was a kid I thought he was a tough guy. The American cinema in general always made stories about working-class people; the British rarely did. Any person with my working-class background would be a villain or a comic cipher, usually badly played, and with a rotten accent. There weren’t a lot of guys in England for me to look up to.
Plenty of people tried to look and talk like Alfie. Who did you want to look like when you were a teenager?
My problem was that I was blond. There were no heroes with blond hair. Robert Taylor and Henry Fonda, they all had dark hair. The only one I found was Van Johnson, who wasn’t too cool. He was a nice, homely American boy. So I created my own image. It worked.
You started acting in the theater. Did you have a mentor?
My experience was such that every older actor I asked for advice would say, “Give it up.” Because of the class thing. Everybody thought I was gay or insane. And I just kept going. People say I’ve “retained” my Cockney accent. I can do any accent, but I wanted other working-class boys to know that they could become actors.
What about when you got to Hollywood?
Right after I got there, I was staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel. I saw John Wayne in the lobby, and I was gawking at him. He said, “What’s your name?” He’d just seen Alfie. Wayne became a friend. He gave me advice, like: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too fucking much,” and “Never wear suede shoes, because one day, Michael, you’ll be taking a piss, and the guy next to you will recognize you, and he’ll turn toward you and say, ‘Michael Caine!’ and piss all over your shoes.” I couldn’t make this shit up.
Was training important?
The Theatre Royal in Stratford imbued in me Stanislavsky, and two principles have stayed with me forever. One is sense memory. If you say, “Cry,” I can do it instantly, because I go straight back to a sense. He also said: “The rehearsal is the work. The performance is the relaxation.” By the time I get on the set, I’m very calm. They say it’s easy for me, but I have busted a gut getting there. You say you’re a method actor, everybody thinks you stand there picking your nose, shuffling about, and mumbling. That’s not what it is.
Who was your first musical influence?
Growing up there was only classical music on BBC Radio. We had to listen to the American Forces Network in Germany, which played pop songs, or the pirate radio boats off the coast. There was all us tough guys hanging around and no music for us, which is how the sixties revolution came around. But my first big influence was Frank Sinatra, then the Beatles. When I was in the theater in Liverpool, we had a café where we’d have lunch. In the evenings it was full of girls, and we were like, “What the hell is this?” It was the Beatles. Later on, I met up with John [Lennon] at Cannes and we had an evening, getting bombed out of our minds on alcohol. The sixties wasn’t drugs, you see. What ended the sixties was drugs.
Who did you hang out with during those swinging days in London?
I was friends with Stan Getz, and Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver! The painter Francis Bacon lived next door. He always tried to get me into his studio to paint me, but he was very gay and I thought, “I’m not going up there.” An actor called David Baron said he was going to write a play, and I said I’d act in it. He called it The Room and he did it under his real name, Harold Pinter. In the sixties, everyone you knew became famous. My flatmate was Terence Stamp. My barber was Vidal Sassoon. David Hockney did the menu in a restaurant I went to. I didn’t know anyone unknown who didn’t become famous.
How did you get to Hollywood?
Shirley MacLaine saw me in The Ipcress File, and she was a big star and had her choice of leading men. She brought me over for Gambit. That started me off in my great life here. There’s some cynical writing about Hollywood, but I found a good core of people who I love dearly. For instance, I did a terrible picture called The Swarm, but Henry Fonda was in it. He was a gardener like me, so we had a lot in common. He had bees, and he used to send you over Hank’s Honey—he wrote that in pen on the labels of used jam jars. The first time I saw Fred Astaire, he was in a supermarket. He did his own shopping.
My first few years there, I often thought I was dreaming. Shirley gave the party to introduce me to Hollywood. I could hear people going, “Who the fuck is he?” But everyone came for Shirley. The first guest was Gloria Swanson. The second was Frank Sinatra—we eventually became close friends. Two days later, Shirley said, “We’re going to dinner at Danny Kaye’s.” He cooked Chinese food and we ate in the kitchen: Shirley and me, Cary Grant, and Prince Philip. I dropped Shirley off that night in the Valley. She said, “My house is just there.” I said, “Shirley, your house is on fire!” She looked at me and said, “Michael, that’s the pool. That’s steam.” I was such a bleeding idiot, such a putz.