From 'Alfie' to 'Austin Powers,' a class act


Has any other movie actor sustained a busy and diverse career as well as Michael Caine?

Gene Hackman and Samuel L. Jackson must be the only other contenders. At age 69, Caine has made more than 130 major movie and TV appearances (not counting guest spots like his cameos on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In). More important, he has managed to pull off the feat of becoming at once an identifiable star whose name alone evokes a Cockney cool and a versatile character actor.

As he swings from the extremes of colorful surrogate-fatherhood in The Cider House Rules (1999) to institutional sadism in Quills (2000), he colors each part individually. Yet underneath is the quick, instinctive intelligence that connects to viewers of all kinds. No actor has done more to make both mall and art-house audiences feel smart.

Even after the ebbing of Swinging England - a time and place that Caine helped mold with his Cockney spy Harry Palmer in 1965's smash The Ipcress File (and two follow-ups) and his title role, in 1966, as the womanizer Alfie - Caine kept toting up achievements in every succeeding decade. He helped John Huston revive his reputation with the classic The Man Who Would Be King (1975). He gave a towering performance as the sodden don in Educating Rita (1983) and won an Oscar for his supporting role in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). And a few years ago, with his appearance in Little Voice (1998), he began a run of critical favorites that included a second supporting-actor Oscar win, for Cider House.

This summer alone, movie-lovers can sample Caine's diversity if they see him as Austin Powers' super-spy father in Austin Powers in Goldmember, then go to video stores Aug. 13 to rent Last Orders, the best film released in Baltimore so far this year, and return Aug. 20 to take out a no-good crime-and-boxing flick called Shiner, in which Caine is, against all odds, still a marvel to behold.

For a trouper like Caine, acting silly in an Austin Powers movie is a larky adventure. Rising to the occasion of Last Orders - an unsentimental tribute to the lower-middle-class members of Britain's version of the Greatest Generation - comes as naturally as breathing. But casting a giant shadow in a puny revenge flick like Shiner, turning a desperate promoter into a gutter King Lear, is the mark of an actor who both loves acting and has mastered its transforming powers.

Talking to Caine on the phone the day before the opening of the Austin Powers movie was a brief education in the flexibility that he acquired to become "Michael Caine." It's clear he identifies not just with his own part, but with the picture as a whole, which must be one reason directors love him. Part of what drew him to the part of Austin Powers' father was the series' underlying mixture of sentiment and silliness. Caine knew that Mike Myers conceived these films to salute the comic spirit of his father, Eric Myers, a former British army cook and encyclopedia salesman who, despite his move to Toronto, gave his son an appetite for all things English, especially British humor and escapism of the Beatles-and-Bond epoch.

Caine speaks with the easy rapidity of an honest man - and the constant amusement of an artist who is Kryptonite to boredom.

Most people think that Austin Powers is primarily a burlesque of James Bond movies. But your spy character, Harry Palmer, especially in his first film, The "Ipcress File," was one of the biggest espionage superstars of the Austin Powers Swingin' London era. And it wasn't until you appeared in this film that I realized Austin had been wearing your Harry Palmer glasses for the whole series.

Of course, I knew that right away. When Mike sent me a script he sent me a letter with it, and he 'fessed up. So I thought since I was the creative father of the whole thing I'd better be the real thing too. That adds a whole other dimension to our relationship, Mike and I. I'm the same age his father would have been, and I'm playing his father, and I was one of his father's favorite actors. And all those films and things of that era featured in the Austin Powers movies are a tribute to Mike's dad.

But Harry Palmer was the anti-Bond, more down-to-earth, more mortal.

And here I'm playing an aging Bond, really. I'm the superhero who the son cannot live up to.

As an aging Bond, did you make any nods to your old friends, Sean Connery and Roger Moore?

No. What I figured was I had to copy Mike playing Austin Powers, based on the fact that he would have copied me, because he idolized his father and would have liked to act like his father. But because he was also playing Harry Palmer, it wasn't very difficult.

Now, Austin couldn't shop for his own groceries and seduce a woman with his culinary abilities the way Harry Palmer could.

Well, he hasn't figured that out yet. And he wouldn't know what to shop for - he was frozen for 20 years or so, wasn't he? All he could get was ice.

Compared to Mike Myers, your theory of screen acting ...

Is a tad cooler! A little cooler!

So how did you get the right temperature?

I just kept saying to Jay Roach, the director, is this over the top? And he said, no, you can't go over the top. So I went right over the top, really right over the top.

Even when you did this kind of crazy comedy before, in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," with Steve Martin ...

I was the straight man for the ridiculous. That's what made it so funny, because I never, ever reacted to how ridiculous Steve was in his actions. I reacted as though he was normal. That was based on what I made out to be comedy acting in movies - which was to be absolutely natural and realistic. Normally, once you try to get a laugh you've had it. But if you're going to do an Austin Powers movie, you've got to go right over the top, so everyone knows you're not trying to play a real character - you're trying to get a laugh.

What was your first reaction to the series?

My first reaction was: that's Harry Palmer! But also I thought it was very funny, apart from the fact that I thought it was very broad. I never thought I'd ever be doing it myself, because I don't do broad stuff like that. But when I was asked, I thought, why not? I never get the chance to do anything like that and I did it and it worked out well. They gave me complete freedom to do whatever I liked and ad lib if I wanted to. The attitude was, if it doesn't work, it goes on the cutting-room floor; if it does, you've got another laugh. It was good fun, because you could walk into that situation where everyone's a success already and everything's set in concrete and you're the new boy at school, and I wasn't treated like that. I was treated fairly and made welcome.

Seeing these films, a viewer senses that the final print is only the tip of the volcano.

There's, at least to my knowledge, a half-hour of footage on the cutting room floor. But it was all replacement stuff - stuff we tried to do a different way. All the stuff we finally wanted was in there. There was a sequence where we all sang, to the tune of Alfie, "What's it All About, Austin?" That was cut completely. But that will be on the DVD, I think.

In your biggest laugh-getting scene, you and Austin are subtitled in American as you trade off different bits of British slang. Was that an improvisational duet between you and Mike Myers?

It was always written. But I understood it because I am Cockney and I knew it was Cockney rhyming slang. So we didn't have to change anything. And Mike has toured England as a comedian in music halls for years, so he knows all the slang and colloquialisms.

You're going to have quite a showcase in the States, because this will be around for a number of weeks, and on Aug. 13 you'll have the video and DVD release of "Last Orders."

Is that right? I didn't know that. It's a wonderful little film! Working with Bob Hoskins again, and Ray Winstone, and Helen Mirren, and David Hemmings - it was a wonderful cast, a wonderful thing to do, and it was fun, too.

You gave a great Golden Globe acceptance speech for your role in "Little Voice" a few years back - I think you said you obviously weren't working as much as you did before because you were able to accept in person! But since then you've been doing a steady stream of movies like "The Cider House Rules" and "Quills" and "Last Orders" and interspersing them with total surprises like "Austin Powers."

I did Miss Congeniality, with Sandy Bullock, a different thing again. I've gone in for some comedies lately. The next film I do will be a cute, sweet family film called Second Hand Lion, with Haley Joel Osment and Robert Duvall. And that again is very different. What it is for me is that I can wait and choose exactly what I want to do - I'm not trying to make a living like I used to. I'm trying to enjoy myself. The choices I make, I call "offers I can't refuse" - that's what I call them. I don't want to go to work just to go to work. I don't want to get up at 6:30 and get made up if it's not going to be fun all day.

The end of the year I've got the remake of The Quiet American coming out, which again is a serious subject, obviously. And I've got another film, a really mad Irish film, The Actors, which I did in Dublin, with me and a load of Irishmen, all going nuts. That'll be out soon; Miramax has that, too.

"The Quiet American" [Phillip Noyce's version of Graham Greene's Vietnam novel, first filmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1958] has been finished for some time, hasn't it?

Yeah, it has. But it wasn't ready to go out the end of last year because there was so much post-production work to do on it. We were supposed to be in Hanoi and Saigon in 1952, and just from the point of view of sound, it was all bicycles then. And it's millions and millions of motor scooters now. So just from the point of view of sound it was a nightmare. Then we had to use computer images to put a lot of different things in - a lot of things have changed, buildings and so on. So we missed the end of last year.

You've forged rich partnerships with other actors and with directors, too; early in his career you did "Get Carter" and "Pulp" with director Mike Hodges. What did you think of his unexpected success a few years ago with "Croupier"?

I always thought that Mike Hodges was going to be one of the greatest directors in the world. Somehow it never happened. So when Croupier came out I was very, very pleased - and I hope he got something else going because of it.

The star of "Croupier," Clive Owen, had a Michael Caine thing going on.

(Laughter) Yeah, sort of ... I've influenced some people along the way.

Part of the '60s revival was Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey," which was like a cross between "Get Carter" and John Boorman's "Point Blank," and starred your roommate from that era, Terence Stamp. I was wondering if you two made contact more recently?

We ended up, from having a great relationship when we were single and we shared a flat, to having no relationship, no points of contact on anything. Terry went off into macrobiotic rice and Indian gurus. I went off into Texas steaks and Hollywood. We went into absolute opposite directions. I got married and he stayed single.

But all you guys ...

Yeah, we're all alike in that we've all come back from the grave. You know Soderbergh offered me The Limey years ago, but we couldn't get it off the ground.

And now you've made this transition into doing father figures - not sentimental ones, but father figures who are complicated and have a lot of "issues."

Yes, in The Cider House Rules, Last Orders and even Austin Powers, because of Mike's attitude and relationship with his own father and to his father's death. I had a great relationship with my own father, and I really am my own father. My mother always said that, "You're just your father - you don't just take after him or look like him, you are him." And I am, really. And I've always been the father figure in my family. I come from a very poor family and I'm obviously the richest one by far so I'm sort of a benign godfather, too. So I'm used to that role; I take the responsibility for everything.

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