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Book review: 'The Elephant to Hollywood' by Michael Caine

Sequels, as anyone schooled in Hollywood knows, are difficult to pull off. The dilemma — how much of the first should find its way into the next? — has confounded many creative minds in this town, so it was probably too much to hope that Michael Caine could beat the odds, though he's made a career of doing just that. "The Elephant to Hollywood," a follow-up to the actor's popular 1992 autobiography, comes lumbering along as more addendum than memoir, more rehash than new dish, but served up with enough warmth and charm that you may be fine with leftovers.

Eighteen years ago, in "What's It All About?," Caine took his first cut at how a hardscrabble childhood in the South London project called the Elephant and Castle (thus the book's title) turned into an unexpectedly successful, sometimes brilliant career. He was nearing 60 at the time, thought his acting days were behind him, and the light and lively look back in that book was entertaining, brisk and quickly turned into a bestseller.

Then came the surprise of the next 18 years, into which Caine packed 35 more films, an occasional turn on TV, earned an Oscar for "The Cider House Rules" in 2000 and a nomination for "The Quiet American" in 2003. Despite his impressive work of recent times with a new generation of actors and directors, however, it is the distant past that still preoccupies him in "The Elephant to Hollywood."

The spine of the story is his career, and he begins, again, at the beginning. Though it's hard to imagine now, Hollywood was slow to recognize Caine's talent. But then so was the actor. He is self-deprecating to a fault — "I wasn't just bad, I was very bad," he writes. Indeed, if you take him at his word, the first 10 years of his career were spent bungling lines, throwing up on his shoes and forever forgetting to fasten his fly.

When "Alfie" came along, that world suddenly filled up with stars: Frank Sinatra, Marvin and Barbara Davis, Swifty Lazar, Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, John Huston and John Wayne, among them. Sir Michael — he was knighted by the queen in 2000 — is generous to them all, and there is clear affection in the stories he includes. On Elaine's, the legendary New York restaurant-cum-salon, he says it's not the institution but the woman behind it he adores. They're old chums who catch up over caviar whenever he's in the city, and she pays for it, he dishes, with "cash that she keeps in her bra…"

A sadness makes its way into these pages. Fast friends — like John Foreman, who produced one of the actor's classics, "The Man Who Would Be King" — have passed on, leaving Caine to help with their eulogies and sort through his memories. Perhaps as a result, "The Elephant" is a more introspective book, though don't expect the sort of naked emotional exposure that has become de rigueur for celebrity autobiographies these days. Caine struggles to put his rising tide of emotion into words, and as was so often the case in his life, the work help saves him.

His harrowing experiences as a 19-year-old soldier in Korea are unearthed as he talks about the filming of "Hell in Korea"; the too-many-women, too-much-drink lifestyle of his early years was not, he says, unlike "Alfie," the role that would set his career on fire. In explaining why the younger actor he feels the most affinity with is Jude Law, we learn it's not because Law stepped into Alfie's shoes for the remake: It's because his private life has been chewed up by the tabloids, a culture Caine makes clear he's glad to have escaped. For the regret and reflection that come with advancing age, there is last year's "Harry Brown," which took him back to South London's the Elephant for filming, and this occupies the final spot on the list of the 13 films which he says are his favorites.

As for love, well, that's an entirely different story. In one of the book's high points, Caine recounts finding Shakira, his wife of 37 years. It was love at first sight: She was starring in a Maxwell House ad he saw on TV. Caine is most moving when he writes of his family — of the death of his father, then his beloved mother, the late-in-life discovery of a half-brother who had been institutionalized since birth, and the scare he and Shakira had in the hours after their daughter, Natasha, was born. Standing in the ICU next to her incubator, he recalls, "My hands were too big to fit, but I did manage to slip a finger through and touch the little hand nearest me … the baby uncurled her hand and slowly curled it round my finger. I felt sure this was a life force that could not be extinguished."

The actor is also more candid about his own shortcomings. Of his first daughter, Dominique, with actress Patricia Haines, to whom he was briefly married, he laments that she was "born to a father who simply wasn't ready for her … I had no money, I was out of work and I had abandoned my wife and child. At 23, I felt I had failed." He doesn't dwell on the guilt, but you can sense it in his assurances that after he had the funds, he spent it all on his family.

For fans of Caine's work, he takes you on a tour of most of it. The book bogs down dreadfully when he drifts into Hollywood history, the old studio system, the men who ran it. And at times it feels as if you're trapped in one of those endless Oscar speeches where all the agents, publicists, etc., who keep star machines in good working order must be thanked.

Though the air he breathes is rarified, it is still nice to hear Caine concede that, like most of us, he often took work to pay the bills. As he signs off on this tome, he writes that his grandchildren are playing nearby and his garden is in need of attention. But then the work awaits him too. Four more films are in various stages of production, and he's writing another book. Next time he promises a novel.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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