Michael Caine: How he’s helped himself help himself
He’s self-made in the purest sense, surviving slums and trenches, heartbreaks, alcoholism and grief
Michael Caine has written a self-help book, although he’s never read one himself – he prefers thrillers.
“Len Deighton, that sort of stuff.” He has also never seen a therapist. “I think you have to be mad to have therapy!” He laughs, looks at me, waits for the joke to land. I laugh too. He is Sir Michael Caine, after all – 85 years old, Hollywood icon, star of films like The Ipcress File, Alfie, Get Carter, The Italian Job and A Muppet Christmas Carol, and more than 100 others, with a voice so famous that it is used in talking birthday cards.
He is also charming, good company and, although his hair is downy and his eyes rheumy, he still has charisma. “No,” he says, serious now. “I would never go and see a psychiatrist myself. Because I’ve sorted myself out. I won’t say I don’t believe in psychology because I don’t know anything about it, and obviously it has done a great deal of good for a lot of people, so it is a valid thing, but …”
In many ways he’s right; he has sorted himself out. He’s self-made in the purest sense, surviving slums and trenches, pushbacks and heartbreaks, failure, discrimination, alcoholism and grief. He has strived, thrived, succeeded – professionally and personally.
He’s won two Oscars (and been nominated for six), he’s been married for 45 years, he’s got the big house in the country and the penthouse in London’s Chelsea Harbour – which is where we meet, sitting at the far end of a vast dining table, the shelves crowded with photographs of him and his grandchildren, him being knighted by the queen, him and his wife Shakira on his 38th birthday, cutting a massive pavlova. Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life is Caine’s third memoir.
He has also written an almanac of surprising facts called Not Many People Know That and a thriller about a terrorist attack involving a plane flying into a skyscraper, conceived before 9/11 and consigned to the drawer thereafter.
This new book is ostensibly a how-to guide for movie actors. There are sections about blocking and learning lines, being on time and always remembering to carry a pencil. But really it is about how to overcome adversity, offering personal anecdotes interwoven with homespun wisdom such as: “It doesn’t matter where you start …”
Michael Caine was born Maurice Micklewhite jnr in 1933, the son of a charlady and a Billingsgate Market fish porter. The family lived in a two-room flat, “with no electric light, no fridge, no inside loo, no hot water”, and as a young boy Caine had to wear surgical boots after contracting rickets.
His father gambled on the horses and Caine recalls being three years old, tottering down the stairs to answer the door to the debt collectors. The book is redolent with this sort of detail, but for Caine the process was not a Knausgårdian unspooling of deep memory, as he sat there with his green pad and felt-tip pen, writing his life in capital letters.
His past is part of his mythology, and as such you get the sense that this was all set down and solidified long ago, stories told and retold. “I have a memory like a computer. I remember every detail of everything about everything,” he says.
During World War 2, Caine was evacuated, first to a family who locked him in the cupboard under the stairs, Harry Potter-style. He was rescued by his mother and they moved, with his younger brother Stanley, to a farm in Norfolk where there were fresh milk and eggs, pheasants to shoot and rabbits to hunt. Caine was cured of rickets and was soon towering over his 1.5m mother.
“I was six when the war broke out, and although it was a tragedy for the world, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. The teacher in the local school saw his potential, tutoring him to win a scholarship to a grammar school, and instilling in him a lifelong love of reading. “She was called Miss Linton. She was this very severe woman of about 62. Many years later, I was reading an article about lesbians and I realised Miss Linton had been one. I thought it was funny that the first woman I had a great relationship with was a lesbian!” After the war, the Micklewhites returned to south-east London and the luxury of a prefabricated council flat. Caine didn’t like school, but he did like acting at the local youth club and he loved cinema. “Oh blimey, I lived in the cinema. I grew up watching American movies because I never saw anyone like me in British movies, except as some kind of gangster, a killer or a scumbag.” The England of Caine’s youth was defined by class. “It used to be harmful because it kept people, as they used to say, ‘in their place’.”
But Caine didn’t want to follow his father’s path, he wanted to be an actor. First, though, he had to do two years of national service. After eight weeks of army training he joined the occupation force in Berlin in 1951. He can still speak a bit of German, “but only nasty things like: ‘Put your hands up.’ ‘Lie on the floor.’ ‘What’s in the bag?’”
Then he served in Korea. This was, he says, one of the toughest trials of his life: rat-infested trenches, nights spent in no man’s land, thinking he was going to be killed. But for all the terror and horror, it was in Korea that he discovered that he wasn’t a coward; that if he was attacked he would fight back, hard. “If I’m gonna die, it’s gonna cost you,” he says. “And it’s been my life, I’m like that.”
He returned to London and, after a dispiriting stint in a butter factory, got a job in a repertory theatre in Horsham, West Sussex, being paid “two pound 10 a week”. But he didn’t care how bad the money was. “I just wanted to become the best actor I could possibly be. There were no thoughts of fame or riches or stardom because I knew, and a million people told me, that was absolutely impossible.”
He never gave up, even though he was told again and again that he would never make it, he didn’t look right, he didn’t speak right.
He never gave up, even when he fainted on stage during a production of Wuthering Heights, from cerebral malaria contracted in Korea. He never gave up, even after he got married to an actor called Patricia Haines and had a baby, Dominique, and life was so tough on their tiny actors’ incomes that the marriage failed, and, “young and broke and desperate”, he walked out on his family when his daughter was only eight months old.
“My motto when I was young was this thing I read by Winston Churchill: ‘If you are going through hell, keep going’, and I thought: ‘Well I am going to go through hell and I am going to keep going’.” In the book, he admits that he was not the father to Dominique that he should have been, or indeed the husband he should have been, but has tried to make it up to his daughter in the intervening years. They have a relationship now. She raises horses and doesn’t have any children.
Caine had been working for nearly a decade when he got his break in the film Zulu, in which, surprisingly, he plays a lieutenant rather than a private. This only happened, he says, because the director, Cy Endfield, was American. “An English director, even if he had been communist, wouldn’t have cast me as that lieutenant. There was that sort of thinking.” The England of Caine’s youth was strictly stratified, but by the 1960s that social order was being challenged by a new generation of actors, writers, directors, artists, musicians and fashion designers. Caine was part of that revolution, most notably with his performance in Alfie, about the amoral adventures of a cockney-about-town.
“None of us changed anything on our own, we all changed it together; and we were really lucky to have the writers, like Harold Pinter and John Osborne. Before them, no one had written anything about the working class.” Caine has of course played many non-cockneys; most recently Fred Ballinger, a classical-music composer, in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. But he continues to be cast to type – his latest role is as Brian Reader, the criminal pensioner who masterminded the 2015 Hatton Garden heist, in the new film King of Thieves. And class is still an issue for actors.
The new president of Equity, Maureen Beattie, has spoken of the difficulties facing young working-class actors hoping to break into the profession. “It’s very funny, I’ve noticed that,” says Caine. “All these actors, Damian Lewis, Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, they are all wonderful, fabulous actors, but none of them are working class. And none of them are world stars like O’Toole, Connery, Moore, Finney, me. We had pictures that were automatically released in the US, you know, once we’d made them. That doesn’t happen. There is not that extra something.” By the 1970s, Michael Caine was an international star. He had achieved so much more than he had ever thought possible. And yet he was drinking more than a bottle of vodka a day (in the book it says two; when he was on Desert Island Discs he said one, but it must have been easy to lose track).
“It was slow,” he says. “Just a little drop of vodka after breakfast. It was the tension. I drank to calm myself. If you are a bit pissed you don’t care about stuff so much.” He is trying to be blasé, like this wasn’t a problem, wasn’t indicative of anything deeper, and in those days a tot of vodka after breakfast might not have been considered so unusual. “It was Shakira who came along and stopped all that, so I really owe my life to her.”
Shakira was a model, actor, and Miss World finalist representing Guyana, who Caine spotted in a coffee advert in 1971. They married in 1973; and she is there opening the door to me when I arrive, petite and beautiful. I ask Caine what guidance he might offer for a couple hoping for relationship as long and loving as theirs.
“Separate bathrooms for a start. She must be free to be in there for as long as possible, without you going in and wanting a pee. This is a practical thing, which sounds rather silly, but really you must give each other privacy – not just bathrooms, mentally as well. So there are times when she will suddenly say: ‘I am going to have a lie down for two hours.’ You don’t interrupt her and say: ‘Can you make me a cup of tea?’ Make your own tea.” Sound wisdom indeed.
After the appearance of Shakira, followed by their daughter Natasha, the struggle of Caine’s early years was replaced by celebrity parties, five-star hotels and great wealth, much of which was used to help those closest to him. “I have always taken care of everybody, because I come from a very poor family and obviously I have made a great deal of money. I’ve taken care of everybody, every single person, not out of some kind of charity, but because you have to, and that is the joy of making money, not sitting on your bank account thinking: ‘I’ve got millions of dollars.’ Although that is the joy as well!” He laughs.
He is a happy man, who enjoys the three grandchildren who visit him at his house in Surrey most weekends, who likes to spend spare moments on his own, gardening and cooking. He is still being offered parts, although the last two were both based in retirement homes.
The only real sadness for him now is the fact that so many of his dear friends are dead, people like Roger Moore, who was, he says, second only to Shakira in the niceness stakes. And his Mayfair Orphans, a group that included Johnny Gold, the owner of Tramp nightclub, photographer Terry O’Neill and tailor Dougie Hayward. “There were about 12 of us, and now there are only a few left [Caine, Michael Parkinson, the composer Leslie Bricusse, O’Neill and Gold]. We meet every week, at the River Café or Scott’s. The value of the ones who are left is so great.” I ask him for one last piece of wisdom – how he deals with grief, a subject he has more experience of than most. This is the one time in the interview when he pauses, when he hasn’t got the funny line or an anecdote. He looks like he might cry. “The way to manage grief is to get it all out. There are people around you who need you. So I grieve terribly but for a very short time – because you’ve got to move on, you’ve got to survive.”
• Blowing the Bloody Doors Off : And Other Lessons in Life, by Michael Caine, is published by Hodder & Stoughton