Off Cut Fifty


More excerpts of an interview by Michael Parkinson with Sir Michael Caine which was aired on ABC-TV in 2003.

When an experienced actor is prepared to talk about the ordinary issues of a career there is much that the less experienced can learn from the detail that is revealed. Some actors when interviewed talk as 'stars' providing anecdotal self-promotion. These hyped interviews are of little value to a working actor. Sir Michael Caine however, talks about the nuts and bolts of being an actor and although in the interview he recorded in 2003 with Michael Parkinson he was also telling entertaining stories there was much of interest for the actor.

"I treated myself like a studio…"

Although the young Michael Caine wasn't contracted by a studio he believes his work ethic created a similar situation. He took whatever work he could get and agreed to the limitations of the contract. That's the way the studio system was and it would appear that is the way he chose to work. "I knew how the bosses treated you," he said. "They gave you a contract, and you had to do that and do that and do that." These limitations didn't worry him at first. At that stage in his life he did need the money but the added advantage was that he gained lots of experience. "I knew some of them were crap," but essentially he did all the movies that came his way.

Probably as a result of the extensive exposure Michael Caine became an icon for many young Brits. "Back where I started, when I was looking for someone in the movies to identify with, there wasn't anybody: it was Americans. I mean, Englishmen on the screen were always either sissies, neurotic, gay, afraid of women, having nervous breakdowns, everything. They were always absolutely fallible, especially where women were concerned. Now, I was Alfie ['Alfie', 1966] - so, that's all the women taken care of; 'The Italian Job' - we won the football and got the Gold even though we lost it in the end; and 'Carter' (?) - well, anybody says anything and you get your nose pushed down your throat. So there were the three iconic things for a young man to look at…You had an Englishman who on the screen was all those things. Off the screen I'm not any of those things at all…I think that's what young men see, an Englishman who represents that."

Like all actors Sir Michael Caine has spent his time unemployed. It is one of the constants when working in a creative area based on short-term contracts. He re-called that the last time he was in a dole queue his friend Sean Connery was in the line two people ahead of him. "He always got there early…he's a Scotsman" he said.

But ultimately as skill and experience grows the working actor gets to work with the big names. Michael Caine worked with Lawrence Olivier on "Sleuth" (1972). "It was fascinating. We became great friends. Larry was 'the great man of the theatre'. In the theatre, everybody is there to get the great man's performance…and you're there, just sort of groveling. But after about a week on the film together, he said, "I thought, Michael, I had a servant in you. I see I have a partner." I said, "Yes, Larry, you do, you have a partner." I said, "I think you're the greatest actor in the world, and you're a much better actor than me, but, you are gonna have to go as hard as you can because I'm never gonna let you off and I'm never gonna let you down. I will go everywhere you go, with you…and I know my position, but I'm not succumbing to it. And we became tremendous friends." This would seem to be an ideal way to deal with a big 'stars' ego - acknowledge it; pander to it enough to keep the relationship a pleasant one but don't succumb to it.

In fact, Michael Caine did "know his position" in relationship to Sir Lawrence Olivier for he acknowledged, to the next question from Michael Parkinson, that in fact there was nothing to be learnt from Olivier in regard to screen performance. He saw Olivier's skills as stage based. So the exchange described above is merely a politely deferential one. It would appear Michael Caine knew that as a screen actor he was at least equal to Lawrence Olivier if not his superior.

So having accepted all offers at the beginning of his career eventually Sir Michael Caine had accrued enough experience and enough money and (with the help of an Oscar for "Cider House Rules") enough prestige to pick and choose his projects. "I don't have to work," Sir Michael said, "but I love to work, but I don't want to do crap…So I sit there…I will sit, like I sat for two years - I didn't get a script I wanted to do. And then I got 'Blood and Wine' [1996] which I did with Jack Nicholson…then I sat and I got 'Little Voice' [1998], then I sat and got 'Cider House Rules', then I sat, "Quiet American" I sat for 18 months to get that…then I didn't work for a year, and then very quickly I played Austin Powers' father…but they are things I find interesting…it's not about the money, oh no…some of the pictures I do haven't got any money. It's just the joy of doing it and getting it right. Or trying to get it right. Also, I think, if you give up, you die…"

Michael Parkinson: What's it all been about, you think?

Sir Michael Caine: It's all about being happy and spreading the happiness that you have first amongst your family and your friends. I'm a very family-oriented person which is probably unusual in this day and age…Family comes first…I adore my home. That's where I go for my holidays. I love to be home.

Michael Parkinson: Have you ever had the urge to go back on stage? Where you started?

Sir Michael Caine: No. Never. I had a terrible time on stage. It was a terrible thing for me…very rough. I was a very shy person, and to go on stage for me was torture. And I always regarded the stage as a woman who always treated me badly, no matter how well I treated her. Movies, is a woman who always treats me superbly no matter how badly I treat her. So, she's the one I love.

Michael Parkinson: And finally, I came across a line, which I want you to explain to me. You said that if you did have one Philosophy in life, it was 'Use the difficulty.'

Sir Michael Caine: Yes, 'Use the difficulty'…If it's a comedy, fall over it. If it's a drama, pick it up and smash it. Use the difficulty. Now, I took that into my own life. There is never anything so bad that you cannot use that difficulty. If you can use it a quarter of one percent to your advantage you're ahead - you didn't let it get you down. 'Use the difficulty', that's my philosophy. Also, an added philosophy is, 'Avoid them if you can.'



Michael Caine's real name:

  • Maurice Micklewhite

Worst location he worked on:

  • Philippine jungle…it was scary…they have what is called a twig snake…looks just like a twig…you can't tell…

Best film he did

  • 'The Man Who Would Be King' [1976]…because of his relationship with Sean [Connery] and John Huston the director.

Worst film he did:

  • 'The Swarm'…killer bees from Brazil…they screwed up the special effects…was acting against a blue screen…a million bees.

Thanks to Christine Anagnostis for organizing this material.

January 2004


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