Thirty year-old Michael Caine went to London to audition for the role of Private Henry Hook in Zulu (1964), but was informed on his arrival that it had already gone to Cockney actor James Booth. As an afterthought the producer asked him if he could do an aristocratic accent for the much larger part of Lieutenant Bromhead. He could, and was given the second lead in what turned out to be a major cinema success. For the record, he received just four thousand pounds for his performance. The film grossed twelve million!
On location in South Africa he was soon in diabolical trouble with the role and, if not for the intervention of director Stanley Baker, would surely have been replaced early in the shoot. It is movie history now how he stole the picture from Baker and was soon on his way to a long and lucrative career. Later, people meeting him for the first time were surprised to find that his natural speaking voice was pure London Cockney, nothing like the toffee-nosed accent he used in Zulu. Eighteen months late a role would come along that was custom-made for him.
None of the name actors in Britain would touch the male lead in Alfie (1966) with a bargepole. The mere mention of the taboo subject of abortion sent Laurence Harvey, Anthony Newley and James Booth running for cover. Even Terence Stamp, who played the role on Broadway, would not reprise it for the cameras. So, it eventually went to his good friend (and roommate) Michael Caine. And it made him a huge star. Coming almost two years after Zulu, Alfie suddenly turned him into one of the most desirable men on planet Earth.
room-mate Terence Stamp
Intrigued by his sudden fame, Caine once posed an academic question to a pal as they sat in the Pickwick Club observing King Hussein of Jordan at a nearby table. He conjectured on what the next morning’s newspaper headlines would read if he should suddenly walk over and assault Hussein. Would they read, ‘King Hussein Punched by Actor’, or would they read, ‘Michael Caine Punches King’? That, he proposed, was how you measured fame. One wonders, had Princess Diana been present, would the headlines have read, ‘Diana Witnesses Brawl between Actor and King’. Fame has several levels.
Michael as Alfie
In an interview conducted soon after Alfie made him a super-star, Caine responded to a question regarding his own attitude to women. ‘I’m discriminating’, he said. ‘I mean, I’ll go out with anything as long as it’s beautiful…’ That was in 1966. Actually, he has always gone strictly by a set of rules for ‘his women’, as he once called them. If a date wore a see-through blouse, or a low-cut dress, or a mini-skirt that displayed her crotch and panties, he dumped her at once. He also could not abide a girlfriend wearing curlers under a scarf in public, nor one who smoked in the street. If one became tipsy whilst out in public she invariably received short shrift as soon as the couple were alone. Today, of course, in an era where political incorrectness is considered only marginally less of a crime than serial killing, he would be reviled throughout the known world, especially by the fairer sex, for such statements. As for referring to a woman as an ‘it’, well, he’s a braver man than I am Gunga Din.
Edina Ronay was a 37-23-36, seventeen year-old who played a sixth former named Lavinia in The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960), complete with gym tunic, black stockings and suspenders. She and Michael enjoyed a three-year relationship from about 1963 to 1966 and it was Edina who was on his arm at the premieres for The Ipcress File and Alfie. They even discussed marriage until Michael realized Alfie had made him an international star. ‘I really know I’m going to make it now’, he explained to her, ‘and I can’t afford to have a steady girlfriend. It would be bad for my image, you understand’. And that was that. ‘Michael would let nothing get in the way of his career’, she recalled wistfully, ‘not even love’. A week later she moved in with Albert Finney on the rebound, but within a year that relationship, too, was over.
Director Otto Preminger earned a fierce reputation down the decades for being an absolute tyrant on the set, a man who delighted in selecting one member of the cast and focusing his wrath on the unfortunate wretch. Michael had been told what to expect and was determined that he was not going to be the target, so as soon as he arrived on the set of Hurry Sundown (1967) he gave the egg-headed director an ultimatum, one he had probably never heard before. ‘If you’re going to say anything rude to me, I’ll go to my trailer and I won’t come out’. There is a real Michael Caine ‘quality’ about that; a kind of, ‘if I don’t like the game you’re playing, I’ll grab my bat and ball and go home’. And it worked too. ‘O.P. is only happy if everyone else is miserable’, said Michael afterwards.
Not everyone was a fan of Michael, even when he was being politically correct. Dame Judith Anderson was particularly scathing when asked about him. ‘He is the McDonald’s of movie-making’, she said. ‘Now he goes for sheer quantity. He must figure there’s safety in numbers – if you make eight or nine movies a year, one of them is bound to be a hit’. Richard Harris couldn’t abide him either, and was particularly scathing in at least one interview.
It would be fair to say that his performances run the gamut from superb to woeful and all stops in between. For instance, he won an Oscar for Hannah and her Sisters in 1986, but could not attend the ceremony because he was on location filming Jaws: The Revenge, a diabolical pile of tripe that would earn him a ‘Razzie’ nomination the following year. Back in 1980, not to harp on the issue too much, he was nominated for two ‘Razzies’ in the one year for Dressed to Kill and The Island. From the sublime to the ridiculous seems to be his motto.
This inconsistency is more about choice of material than anything else, however, and Caine is clearly aware of it. For every good role he probably chooses two or three poor ones, but he gets paid a lot of money for each and every one of them, so what the hell! ‘First of all, I choose the great roles, and if none of these come, I choose the mediocre ones, and if they don’t come, I choose the ones that pay the rent’. As he said about Jaws: The Revenge, ‘I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However’, he added with a twinkle in his eye, ‘I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!’ Personally, I love Michael Caine’s philosophy of life: ‘Be like a duck, my mother used to tell me. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath’. Amen to that.