Not a lot of people know this, but Sir Michael Caine commenced his career in theatre. “She treated me badly”, he quipped, “so I’ll never go back to her”.
We were at the China Exchange for the latest in its series of ’60 Minutes With’ interviews, conducted by Sir David Tang. What a coup, to persuade one of the best British actors of all time to participate – small wonder the auditorium was packed.
Sir Michael was only half joking about theatre. Acknowledging the skills that it teaches you (“Acting on stage is very different than on screen – you need to think about the people up in the balcony”) and the friendships he forged with other out-of-work actors (Sir Michael used to share a flat with Terence Stamp), he remembers only too well what a tough and badly-paid industry it is.
Still, theatre provided an effective launch pad and appearing in Harold Pinter’s first – and last – plays paid off; today, Sir Michael Caine is one of our most successful and prolific actors. He has appeared in a whopping 147 films – 75 as a leading man and at the age of 83 remains as in-demand as ever, a fact recognised by the Queen when she knighted him: “I have a feeling you’ve been doing this for a very long time”, was her greeting.
It takes a certain strength of character to achieve that kind of longevity, a fact Sir Michael attributes to two “defining moments” in his life: the first in 1939, when his father was sent to war, and the second when Sir Michael himself fought for his country in the Korean War. Based upon his own experiences, Sir Michael describes himself as a firm believer in National Service, which “makes you understand what it’s like to defend your country”.
It’s been well-documented that Sir Michael comes from a working-class background and he talked, during this interview, of his concerns about how difficult it is these days for those from less well-off backgrounds to enter the acting profession. Personally, he was inspired by Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando, because they tended to play working class characters and he regrets never having met Bogart (although he did meet Brando, who he found “odd”). He did, however, meet another of his idols, Frank Sinatra – and they became great friends.
Does he enjoy fame? “I’ve never taken it seriously”, Sir Michael replied, “so it has never bothered me”. And how does he go about choosing his films? “I always want to be better than I was before”, he told us, explaining that he is not competitive with other actors, only with himself. His favourite film of those he’s made is ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’, partly because it was shot in the South of France and partly because Lawrence Jamieson remains his favourite character of all those he’s played.
Somehow, he was never approached to play James Bond, despite being a fan of the franchise; when pressed, he admitted he’d like to see Idris Elba or Tom Hiddleston as the next Bond (the latter, you may recall, once played a young Michael Caine).
Now married to Shakira for 42 years, the man who once smoked 80 cigarettes a day (he was persuaded to give up by Tony Curtis, of all people) still indulges in the odd vice – cricket and red wine among them. It was cricket, together with the changing seasons, that Sir Michael missed most about London when he lived in Los Angeles for ten years: “I stopped trying to explain cricket to Americans; it was hopeless”.
Living in LA certainly didn’t deprive Sir Michael Caine of his sense of humour; this was a witty and entertaining 60 minutes that I wish had lasted much longer. As someone who has overcome adversity through grit, determination and – it goes without saying, talent – to achieve the trappings of success, he makes the perfect role model.