Michael Caine: 'I was a loser until I started playing losers'
Oscar-winning Hollywood legend, Michael Caine, discusses ageing and losing out on Bond in an interview with his biggest fan – Jonathan Ross
"Never meet your heroes” is the saying, but I’ve always embraced the opportunity. Of course they’re never quite as you imagine them to be, not least because in your head they stay the same age as when you first fell in love with their work.
For me David Bowie will always be Aladdin Sane . Sylvester Stallone is the young Rocky. And Michael Caine is trapped as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, a smart but cynical working-class hero equally at home in the kitchen and the bedroom. Michael is now 85, and reliant on a stick to walk while recovering from a broken ankle, but he’s still unmistakably the same man who battled against Zulus and masterminded The Italian Job.
We meet in the cosy, unflashy elegance of his Chelsea home to talk about his life and career, which have been shaped, in the main, by two people – his mum Ellen and his wife of 45 years, Shakira. Though Caine avows a dislike for wallowing in nostalgia – “If you keep looking back, you’ll fall over” – such reminiscence inevitably evokes the richest tales. Even if you’ve heard some before, they still bear repetition.
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Caine’s prodigious output – he’s made more than 125 films – stems, he’ll tell you, from a recognition at an early age of the need to put food on the table and money in the meter. Despite being very comfortably off, it’s a work ethic that prevails, with two films and a TV series awaiting his return to full mobility. You can take the boy out of south London, etc…
“When the war broke out, I remember my father getting into an Army bus to go away. I was six and my brother Stanley was three. We waved Dad goodbye. My mum, with tears in her eyes, looked at us and said: ‘Now your father’s gone, you’ve got to look after me.’ She made men of us both in that one sentence. And so I grew up forever looking after everybody. If any of my family is in trouble, I’ve taken care of it.”
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Of course in later years it was Caine who needed a bit of looking after. High on the acclaim that Hollywood success brought him, but a bit low on the pressures that partnered that fame, Caine had developed a bottle-a-day (sometimes two) habit – the first vodka livener taken with breakfast. Enter Shakira, who cleaned him up and gave his life new purpose. “I fell in love with her in about eight minutes. It took her two hours to fall in love with me.” He laughs but then, a bit more earnestly, adds, “She saved my life, really.”
She’s rarely absent from his side – either here in their Chelsea flat, where they spend a couple of days a week, or at their country home in Surrey. They clearly still adore each other and are devoted to their grandchildren: twins, a boy and a girl, aged eight, and a grandson of nine.
“We don’t need anybody else except the family,” says Caine. “We’re very happy in our own company. And we all of us, no matter how nice and loving and lovely we are, all have a slightly bad side. Shakira is the only person I ever met who didn’t have a bad side. There’s no bad side. It’s all good.”
And then there’s a showbiz family, too, whose memory he cherishes. He shared a flat off the King’s Road with Terence Stamp; he also briefly lived with composer John Barry. “I was the first person to hear Goldfinger, because John spent all night writing it, and I thought, ‘Is he ever going to stop playing that bloody piano?’ ”
Plus there’s the Hollywood branch of that family; the likes of Frank Sinatra – whose daughter Nancy he once dated – Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier and of course John Wayne, whose “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too f***ing much” advice to the rookie Caine was complemented by “Don’t wear suede shoes”
When the impressionable Caine asked why, Wayne retorted, “Because you’re going to become famous. You’ll be in the gents’ toilet taking a p*** and the guy next door is going to recognise you and he’s going to turn and say: ‘You’re Michael Caine.’ And he’s going to p*** all over them. So don’t wear suede shoes.”
These days Caine enjoys spending time in his garden – he grows his own potatoes – and catching up on sport on TV, which he will watch while nibbling on oat biscuits and sliced apple; even at 85 he’s scrupulous about eating well. What he also did while incapacitated by his ankle break was write a new book, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, which is part-life manual, part-Memory Lane tour.
Early on in the book he refers to the difficulties that “women and people of colour” have had in his industry. He writes: “It has taken me many decades to understand the battles – not just for the roles, but for dignity and basic decency – that women have been fighting in the movies and many other industries for years, and I’m still learning.”
That bit of qualification is interesting, so I ask him about the #MeToo movement and what he witnessed while working in Hollywood.
“In Hollywood we were all aware of the casting couch. It was almost a joke. We knew it existed. But my view of the casting couch was that a young lady went to do an audition, the producer said, ‘Well, you’ve got the part if you do this,’ she said, ‘I’m not doing that,’ and he said, ‘Well, you haven’t got the part,’ and she left. I thought it was terribly unfair that a talented actress might not get a part because she wouldn’t do something sexual with the producer. But it happened, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was a nobody in Hollywood. I didn’t have the power of the big producers. But I never thought there were any actual physical attacks."
Did you ever work with Harvey Weinstein?
I did three pictures with him. Harvey was a single character in himself. But there is one great thing, if it can be described like that, about Harvey and his behaviour. It’s that actresses are safe now. No producer would dare to do anything sexually, because he knows he’s going to wind up in court, which is exactly where Harvey is.
You had a tough upbringing, yet you think many of today’s youngsters have it harder…
Oh yes, I think it’s much more difficult now. There seems to be a confusion among young people. “How are we supposed to do it? What are we supposed to do?” I watch interviews on television with young people, and I am stunned at the number of times someone who’s asked what they want to do with their life replies: “I want to be rich and famous."
So you sense a kind of aimlessness?
Yes. There seems to be a slight aimlessness. One of the most important things I say in the book, for a youngster, is that I didn’t set out to become rich and famous. I was a cockney actor, I wasn’t good looking, I had a cockney accent, I’d never been to Rada, I’d never heard of Rada, and I set out not to become a movie star, not to become rich, not to become famous, because I knew that was impossible. You couldn’t do that. What I set out to do was to become the best possible actor I could become, believing that I would never make any money, that I would never be famous. And it didn’t matter, because I did what I wanted to do.
You were the most iconic working class star of your generation. Is class an issue in acting now?
Yes. You can see from all the brilliant young actors – Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne. None of them are working-class people. But what I think has happened is that workingclass actors have found a very good living in television. There are great parts with thousands of pounds, in TV, and I think they all wound up there instead of trying to go into movies.
In the book you talk about losing friends, which is inevitable as you get older…
Yes. They’ve started bowling in our lane.
You write movingly of the death in 2008 of your friend, tailor Doug Hayward, who had dementia. You famously take on pretty much any role but when, years later, you were offered the part of someone with dementia, you didn’t accept it. Why was that?
I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it, no. As an actor, if I’m going to play someone with dementia, I have to keep thinking back to someone I know who had dementia. And the only person I knew was Dougie. I saw it every day, I saw it coming. Dementia is like watching someone disappearing over the horizon for two years. They get smaller every day. It finally happened when I went to Dougie’s place on Mount Street. He was watching television. I said, “Hi, Doug. How are you today?” And he just looked at me and said, “Hello,” and went on watching telly. And I realised he didn’t know who I was. It was so sad to see. I mean, he was 61, 62.
But if you had accepted the role, you’d probably have done a great job of it.
Well yes, I had become so knowledgeable about it. But I realised emotionally I couldn’t do it. All day, for two months, thinking about the worst side of Doug, which killed him.
You were close friends with two of the great Bonds, Sean Connery and Roger Moore, but you never got a crack…
I was always much more ordinary. Bond was a glamorous, imaginative creation. I’ve always played real people.
Losers, to some extent.
Oh, yes. Because I was a loser. Until I started playing losers, I never became a success!
Alfie, of course, was a loser.
Oh, yes – a huge loser. I mean, the last line he says, “What’s it all about?” He genuinely doesn’t know what the story is. He’s a real loser. But Sean and Roger were always larger than life.
So who should play Bond next?
I’d like to see Idris Elba play it. I’ll tell you why. With the wedding of Harry and Meghan, it changed things slightly. Everybody seemed very happy and proud of it, and people of colour who I’ve talked to since about it are all rather happy that it happened.
You and your generation helped break down the class barrier, but there’s still clearly a race barrier.
Yes. And this is one of the ways to do it, because a working-class boy like me, or Sean, or Roger, we became film stars, you know? And here you have this character, which has only ever been played by white men, if you give it to a black man, they’ll say, “Oh, we’ve arrived.” Idris would be great.
You made many great movies, but also many that weren’t as well received…
I never turned any movie down – that’s why I made so much crap! Where I was lucky was I would make three or four really crap pictures, and then suddenly I’d get a big hit, which saved my arse.
How do you avoid taking bad reviews personally?
Practice! [He laughs.]
You took your mum with you to Hollywood – did she like it there?
She was a bit of a Mrs Malaprop sometimes. When I first brought her to Hollywood it was in February. So it was freezing cold here, and it was like 80 degrees in Hollywood. And as we drove through Beverly Hills to my house, she was looking at all the houses – of course everything was in flower, roses and everything – and I said, “What do you think of Beverly Hills, Mum?” She said, “Oh, it’s lovely,” she said, “All that hysteria growing up the walls.” And I thought, “That’s absolutely true!” She nailed it.
With that, time’s up – just the photographs to do in the basement car park. As Caine edges his way tentatively over to stand before the waiting photographer, something quite remarkable happens. He puts down his stick, and seems to gain a few inches in height, as his shoulders and back stiffen. He transforms himself from the sweet, thoughtful older gentleman he is in real life to the version we know on screen. He’s older, wiser, but still every inch the movie star. Still one of my heroes.