Funny thing about that Cockney bloke, Maurice Micklewhite, aka Michael Caine.
The raconteur you’ve seen on TV chat shows for half a century is pretty much the fellow you get on the printed page. He’s a polished storyteller, great with an anecdote, something you pick up on in his three memoirs, “What’s It All About?”, “The Elephant to Hollywood” and his latest — “Blowing the Bloody Doors Off,” in which he relates “lessons in life.”
“Never do a dangerous stunt on the last day of a picture,” he says. And then explains.
In chapters titled “It doesn’t matter where you start” and “Getting Old and Staying Young,” “Being a Star” and “Don’t Put Yourself above anyone Else” and “Being Decent,” he tells funny little stories — the more well-worn the better — to illustrate an approach to life that’s won him fame, riches and Oscars.
The acting tips, scattered throughout the book, are little nuggets of pure platinum. Actors love adding little “bits of business,” fidgets, mannerisms, tics. Think of James Dean in most scenes, nervous energy captured by fiddly, twitchy performances.
Caine says that once you know how stuff like that drives the editor mad, you eliminate it. Acting opposite the Emperor of Upstaging, Lord Olivier, cemented this view.
“You will usually need to repeat any sequence at least three times: once for a long or master shot, once for the medium shot and once for a closeup. If you fiddle around in the long shot you will have to be able to repeat that fiddle EXACTLY (emphasis added) in every shot — or the long shot will have to be shot again.”
Help the crew help you, in other words. Warn the sound tech if you’re adding a shout at the end of a few lines delivered at a whisper, etc.
John Huston helped him “find” his character in “The Man Who Would be King” with the only direction he got from him. “You can talk faster. He’s an honest man.”
How’d he get his (dreadful) Southern accent in “Hurry Sundown?” Got a tip from Vivien Leigh on the night John Gielgud introduced them in the mid-60s. Say “Four door Ford” over and again, she said. “Foah-doah-Fohd.” Yeah. That happened.
He talks about movies, favorite scenes, “little darlings,” edited out — stinkers. He’s got a long memory for publications that put out “The Ten Worst Michael Caine Movies” and the like, and a longer memory for every warm moment. Even in his advanced years (he turns 86 March 14), he remembers little kindnesses, the lessons his working poor (gambler/drinker dad, plucky mum) imparted, in words or by example.
“Retiring” to Miami in his early 60s, being told to “reinvent yourself as a movie actor,” not a movie star, by Jack Nicholson, what he did with the money from “Jaws 3D” and how he regards film failures — pithy pronouncements delivered with modesty and the confidence of a man who accomplished much, earned much, and got smarter in the process.
“I may not get the girl, but I’m still getting the parts.”
And stayed married to Shakira a very very long time. That’s part of “staying grounded.” That, and the 50 year old cabbie who says, “My grandfather loved you! He saw all your films.”
“Blowing the Bloody Doors Off” has memories his favorites among his “best” films — “The Quiet Man,” “Alfie,” “Sleuth,” “Educating Rita.” They’re slim anecdotes, mostly, and make you wish the book was indexed so you could get a taste for what makes him Christopher Nolan’s good luck charm (he was even in “Dunkirk,” his second shot at playing a WWII Spitfire pilot. I was the first to report that cameo.). His horse “and I did not see eye to eye on ‘Zulu'” which often ended with Caine on his keister, sitting in mud.
He tells stories about George Harrison singing playing “Leaning on a Lamp Post” and more tellingly — “When I’m Cleaning Windows” (a working class classic of taking pride in one’s work) on a ukulele in his living room, on advice about not wearing “suede shoes” when you become a star from John Wayne, upon Caine’s arrival in Hollywood (has to do with what happens when a fan recognizes you at a public urinal) and on his long friendship with the likes of Quincy Jones (they share a birthday, and have shared a joint party celebrating their special day, on occasion) Sean Connery and especially, Connery’s successor as James Bond — Roger Moore.
Caine has a perfect memory for every person who ever encouraged him, who ever tipped him that “You are going to be a star.” Moore, who arrived at that point earlier via “The Saint,” was one of those.
I’ve interviewed Caine several times over the years, and I am sure my name gave me an “in” with making those happen. Every conversation — in person or on the phone, began with gales of Michael Caine laughter on hearing my name — again.
He was full of Roger Moore (as my friends like to call him, “The REAL Roger Moore”) anecdotes, and as unfailingly generous in talking about him as he is about most everybody he describes in his latest book. I’ve reviewed other Caine memoirs, and his gentility and discretion are what you remember, time and again. He won’t “name names” about the biggest jerk/drunk/diva/heel he ever worked with. Might make a mention, won’t burn them, even if they’re dead. OK, director Norman Wisdom (“The Bulldog Breed”) is the exception — “What a conceited, nasty man.” And Hitchcock shunned him until the day he died for turning down “Frenzy.”
But I had one Roger Moore anecdote for Mr. Caine, which we always finish the chat with. Moore came to Orlando as part of his UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador work — public speeches in which his pay went to Audrey Hepburn’s favorite UN charity.
Moore opened his speech to an amusement park suppliers’ convention about how he and Caine were pals, and how they started out together with similar backgrounds, identical accents etc.
“Back then, he was Maurice Micklewhite,” Moore began the joke, “and I was Roger Moore. He changed his name and kept his accent. I kept my name and changed my accent. Michael Caine went on to fame and two Academy Awards. And I,” Moore pauses a beat for comic effect, “stand here before you today.”
Cracks me up every time I think about it. And it has cracked Michael Caine up a few times, too.
That easy laugh and sentimental smile run all the way through “Blowing the Bloody Doors Off” especially in the laugh out loud moments, mostly remembered at Caine’s expense.
There aren’t a lot of stars that are genuinely charming enough that you can say “What you see is what you get.” Caine is one of the last of those. And that goes for his memoirs, too.
“Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life.” By Michael Caine. 274 pages. Hachette Books.