Time Capsule: Michael Caine On Michael Caine

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Michael Caine turns 80 today (March 14, if you're reading this on March 14; if you're reading it after March 14, he turned 80 on March 14). The voice, as Rob Brydon so adroitly noted, has changed: all the brandy and cigars have lowered its timbre, putting anyone who can only do the Italian Job-era Caine out of work. The glasses, so long chunky-framed and modish, are thinner, less Harry Palmer, more Dennis Taylor. The hair is still curly and tight on the head, albeit white rather than that sunflower yellow that first captivated the world in Zulu.

But Michael Caine is still Michael Caine. One of the great icons of cinema and one of the best actors these shores have ever produced, still going strong. And he’s quite unlike any other big name you care to mention. When Empire met him he'd walked to the top London hotel, because it’s just around the corner from where he lives. He’s alone. No entourage. He’s full of laughter and anecdotes and a sense of contentment; at a life lived, at a career that knocks spots off most others — even when you count The Swarm and all those terrible cash-ins he did in the early ’80s. So, when Empire took him down Memory Lane via an iPad loaded with pictures, there was lots to talk about.

We were just shooting the last scene here where I said, ‘Just a minute guys, I’ve got a great idea.’ It was a big hit but it didn’t work in America and I know why.

I went there and there was the poster and it was a naked woman and me. And I said, ‘This is for kids. There aren’t any naked women in it! We’re going to get a load of old guys coming in to see naked women and they’re going to be pissed off, and mums aren’t going to bring their children.’ They said, ‘We’re not going to change the poster,’ so I got on a plane and came home.

There’s my guide and mentor, Stanley Baker. He was the producer. [For research] I looked at powerful people, and one I looked at was Prince Philip. Prince Philip always has his hands behind his back, so Lieutenant Bromhead always had his hands behind his back. About two weeks in, one of the heads said, ‘Suggest firing actor playing Lieutenant Bromhead. Doesn’t know what to do with hands.’

I went to Stanley and said, ‘I’ve heard there’s been some negative reports about me.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Who’s the producer on this movie?’ I said, ‘You are, Stan.’ He said, ‘Have I said anything?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, fuck off and mind your own business!’ (laughs) That was Stanley in a nutshell.

That’s Shelley (Winters). That’s Tower Bridge. That’s the first scene we shot on location for Alfie. That’s what that was. I remember the first scene I did with Shelley, in the studio. We had a lot of dialogue and I was a bit nervous. She was a big American movie star and she was drinking this big glass of water and she put it on the wood behind the scenery. And I was just about to start and my mouth had gone dry with nerves. I had a quick sip of her water and it was straight vodka! This was 8.30 in the morning! I was pissed by the end of it.

The Ipcress File for me was the big starring movie. I remember I was having dinner in a restaurant with Terence Stamp. (Producer) Harry Salzman came in and he had just been to see Zulu. Then the waiter came over with a note, saying, ‘Mr. Salzman over there said would you have a cup of coffee at the end of dinner with him?’ I said, ‘Certainly.’ I went over and he said, ‘Do you know a novel by Len Deighton called The Ipcress File?’ I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m reading it now.’ He said, ‘Would you like to play the leading character? The spy?’ He didn’t have a name. We named him Harry Palmer. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Would you like a seven-year contract?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I went back to Terry and said, ‘I’ve just got a movie and a seven-year contract.’ He said to me, ‘You fucking liar!’

Oh, the two of us. In the ‘60s you used to say, ‘We’re having a party, bring a bottle and a bird.’ It was very chauvinistic. I was invited to this party and I couldn’t afford a bottle, but I knew two very beautiful girls, so I thought I’d take two birds. Sean walked in on his own, spotted me and I became his instant new best friend! So he got one and I got the other one! We’re still friends. I phoned him the other day on his 80th birthday, but we never see each other because he doesn’t move around a lot now. He won’t make another film now, no. I just asked him. He said, ‘No, I’ll never do it.’

I think Hannah And Her Sisters was Woody's warmest movie. He can be quite cynical about everything, but I love Woody. I introduced him to Mia (Farrow) in the first place, in Lanes. Mia was in a play and she came up there to have a coffee with me and my missus. He was at the next table and she wanted to meet him. They just said hello then because she was at my table and he was at his, but obviously they met up afterwards, behind my back!

I love doing Batman. Chris (Nolan) is the new David Lean. The way he does things, he knows exactly what he wants down to the last detail, he knows how to tell it to you - quietly - and he always wears that coat. In that coat, he’s got a carafe of coffee or tea or something. He just sips it all day. All day long. I’m sure it’s not vodka! He’d never do that. I’ve read the new Batman script. Chris is the most secretive person. He said to me, ‘You’re one of only four people who have the end.’ I daren’t say a word about it or else I’ll get fired!

This is for my grandchildren. For their mother, 20-odd years ago, when she was a little girl, I did The Muppet Christmas Carol. Otherwise when they ask what their granddad does, they can’t see him in anything! You don’t want to say Harry Brown! It’s not family viewing... When they offered me the chance to play the part of a car (Finn McMissile), I was very interested. The other thing that was very good for me was that I started out in movies as a spy and I’m a spy in this. It’s all come full circle. I’m a 1966 blue Aston Martin which I thought was absolutely great — that sounds like me!