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Michael Caine Reflects On His 'Hollywood' Career

When actor Michael Caine was in his late 50s, he thought his movie career was basically over.

The star of films like Alfie, The Italian Job, Educating Rita and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had received a script in the mail from a producer. Caine thought the leading role was too small, so he promptly returned the script.

"He sent the script back to me with a letter saying, 'I didn't want you to read the part of the lover. I wanted you to read the father.' And suddenly I realized that my romantic days in movies were over," Caine says. "And that is the time really, if you're a movie star, you sort of give up or become a character actor."

After the incident, Caine took two years off from show business, spending time in Miami, where he owns a restaurant, and generally just enjoying himself. Then one day, he ran into his friend Jack Nicholson.

"He came to me one day with a movie called Blood and Wine, which I made with him, and although the movie wasn't a big box-office hit or anything, it was with me. ... [T]he actual act of working with Jack, who's such a wonderful actor and man, ... restored my faith in the business," Caine recalls. "It gave me another 20 years of career, not as a character actor, but as a leading actor."

Caine's memoir, The Elephant to Hollywood, recounts the highs and lows of a career that has now spanned more than five decades. (The title refers to the part of London — called Elephant and Castle — where Caine grew up.) In it, he candidly talks about his journey from South London to the screen, detailing his battles with stage fright and his jaunts around the world once the films Zulu and Alfie catapulted him onto the international stage. He also details how early in his career, he worked hard to make audiences realize that he and Alfie, a hopelessly promiscuous bachelor, were not one and the same.

"People would say 'You're really like Alfie,' and I'd say 'No. ... There's a major difference between Alfie and me," he recounts, laughing. "I was going with women he'd never go near. It's the quality of life. You always have to look for the quality of life. ... Alfie was a man who would have sex anytime, anywhere with anybody. That was not me at all — never in a million years. I was a romantic, put it that way."

Caine has appeared in more than 100 films. He has received two Oscars, for Hannah and Her Sisters and for The Cider House Rules. In 1992, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2000, he was knighted.

Interview Highlights

On first coming to Hollywood and meeting John Wayne

"It was quite weird. I came to do a picture with Shirley MacLaine and she wasn't there. She was working on another picture and she was just finishing up. She couldn't get there for two weeks. So until we officially had the party welcoming me to Hollywood, I was in this very luxurious suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel and no one talked to me. No one came. They just paid the bills and that was it. So I used to sit in the lobby looking for movie stars. [That's] where I met John Wayne for the first time and we became friends — not close friends, we hardly moved in the same circles, but we became very deep acquaintances. And he was very kind to me and gave me all sorts of advice like, 'Talk low, talk slow and don't say too much' [and] 'Don't wear suede shoes.' I said 'Why can't I wear suede shoes?' and [John Wayne] said 'You'll be in the toilet, taking a pee and a guy will recognize you and he'll turn and say 'Michael Caine' and he will have peed all over your shoes Michael.' So I said 'All right, I won't wear suede shoes.'"

On Olivier, Jude Law, Sleuth and the class question

"[Laurence Olivier] was the greatest actor in the world: stage, screen, everything. He was incredible. ... In actual fact, in real life, Larry was a lord. Before we started the film, he wrote me a little letter, a very nice letter, saying 'It has occurred to me, as I am a lord, you may be wondering how to address me when we meet. When we do meet, Michael, from the moment we shake hands, I will be Larry forevermore,' which was lovely. He put me out of any sort of worry socially — but the idea that he had to do it is extraordinary and explains a very difficult thing, [which is] the class system in England. Because later, I did a remake of Sleuth playing Larry's part and Jude Law played the young seducer. ... But the idea that I'd write a letter to Jude saying 'You may be wondering how to address me when we first meet' — it shows how the class system changed over the number of years between those two movies."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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