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Michael Caine - Friday August 1
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Michael Caine Profile

Those who write about movie stars often stress the lowly origins of some actors, a penchant for the Cinderella story that implies they were suddenly and unexpectedly snatched from poverty and obscurity and thrust into a life of glamour and fame. Gary Cooper, they say, was a ranch hand befitting his Western icon status. George Raft's legend cast him as a Mob muscleman in his early years, before Hollywood co-opted that image for a string of crime films. Michael Caine, so the story goes, was a porter in a meat market, and the strong impression of that background has served his longtime screen image as an ordinary working-class Joe and Cockney rebel. This is a perception that lingers even as he has become so familiar and avuncular that he easily slides into the role of the sage and protective Alfred the manservant in the latest round of Batman movies.

The humble beginnings are true. Born Maurice Micklewhite in South London, March 14, 1933, he was the son of a fishmarket worker and a charwoman, a family so poor that the boy was born with rickets due to prenatal malnutrition and had to wear leg braces for a time. And it is true that, out of necessity, he often found himself employed in less-than-glamorous jobs as, reputedly, a bouncer in a brothel, a baker, and a steelyard worker, among other things. But Caine had his eyes on the acting profession early on, a yearning stirred as a boy in the city's movie houses, and some sources list his first jobs as office boy for a small film outfit and go-fer for one of the leading British movie production companies of the time, the Arthur J. Rank organization. After a stint in the Army, he took a job as assistant stage manager for a regional theater company, which led to a handful of walk-on parts. During this time he met and married his first wife, actress Patricia Haines, a short-lived liaison marked by financial struggles, the birth of a daughter, and Caine's own youthful restlessness.

His first film is usually listed as Hell in Korea (1956), which was set during the war in which he saw real-life combat; it earned him an additional credit as technical adviser, but he had acted in a few uncredited bits prior to that. There followed a string of small television and movie roles, such as The Two-Headed Spy (1958), one of a number of war films he made early on, a genre Caine has had much success with throughout his career. In fact, on-screen combat provided him with his breakthrough role in the epic Zulu (1964). In this film, directed by Cy Endfield, Caine plays an aristocratic British officer humbled by his experiences during a bloody native uprising in South Africa in the late 1870s. Although not the lead, Caine's work was impressive enough to bring him important offers, and within a year he was first-billed in one hit after another.

The mid-1960s were not only one of Caine's most successful and acclaimed periods but also brought him his most iconic roles. The first of these was as espionage agent Harry Palmer in the adaptation of Len Deighton's first novel, The Ipcress File (1965). British-made spy stories were all the rage at this time, thanks to the huge success of the films based on Ian Fleming's James Bond character. Unlike his pal Sean Connery as 007, Caine's Harry Palmer was more of an ordinary guy, a Cockney with a less than upright past. And instead of Bond's slick tuxedos and expensively gadgeted sports cars, Caine sported plain tailored suits and his own horn-rimmed glasses, which became something of a fashion statement itself. The picture brought him instant stardom, a British Academy Award (BAFTA) nomination, and led to two more in the Harry Palmer series, Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

The year after The Ipcress File, Caine confirmed his international success with his most iconic role, that of the roguish, self-centered working-class ladies man Alfie (1966). The film not only offered Caine the chance to display both dramatic and comic skills (not to mention considerable sex appeal), it also perfectly captured the mood of swingin' 60s London, spawned a hit song by Dionne Warwick, and earned a number of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, including Best Actor nods from all three for Caine. (The picture also won a Golden Globe in the since-abandoned category of Best English-Language Foreign Film.)

Over the next decade or so, Caine continued to work steadily, often in big-budget war films to which he brought an interesting complexity outside the usual heroic renderings: The Battle of Britain (1969), Too Late the Hero (1970), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and the all-star A Bridge Too Far (1977). His most successful roles in this period were as the brutally vengeful gangster in Get Carter (1971) and he was terrific as Cockney soldier Peachy Carnahan who, with his friend Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery), set out to become rulers of their own remote kingdom in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). This John Huston adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's short story featured Caine's wife Shakira, the only time they've worked together on-screen. He also earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for standing toe-to-toe with Laurence Olivier in the labyrinthine mystery-comedy-drama Sleuth (1972).

During this same period, he also began gaining a reputation for taking on almost any role for the money. Whether that perception of him was deserved or not, it wasn't helped by a number of box office and critical failures: Zee and Co. (aka X, Y, and Zee, 1972) with Elizabeth Taylor; Pulp (1972), an offbeat noir satire from Get Carter director Mike Hodges in which Caine plays a dime novelist hired by a reclusive ex-star (Mickey Rooney!) to write his biography; as a hitman in The Destructors (aka The Marseilles Contract, 1974), opposite Anthony Quinn and James Mason; and a nice comic turn in the hit-and-miss Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), something of a knock-off of the far more successful The Sting (1973).

Perhaps it was these pictures (and perhaps his long exile from England to avoid the country's stiff taxes) that led to Caine's complaint that, although he was popular in America, he got no respect in his home country. That all changed with his highly lauded role as a jaded, alcoholic professor in Educating Rita (1983), under the direction of Lewis Gilbert, the man who had given Caine not only one of his earliest roles (Carve Her Name with Pride, 1958) but also guided him in the star-making Alfie. He was awarded the BAFTA Best Actor for that part, a welcome sign of respect from the British industry.

Since then, Michael Caine has continued as one of our most admired and highly sought after actors, even into his 70s. His working-class roots have still been used to excellent effect in such respected work as Mona Lisa (1986), Blood and Wine (1996), Little Voice (1998), and Last Orders (2001). And although he has reaped numerous awards and critical accolades over the years, including Best Supporting Actor Oscars® for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (1999), he is not above taking on parts in highly commercial ventures like Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) - opposite Mike Myers in a role partially inspired by Alfie - and Bewitched (2005). It is a mark of his lasting appeal and iconic status in the movies that he returned as Harry Palmer in Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996), He also played a cameo role in the remake of Get Carter (2000) and took the Olivier role in a remake of Sleuth (2007), opposite Jude Law, who played the lead in the remake of Alfie (2004). He even had a song named after him by the popular 1980s group Madness, based in part on his Harry Palmer character, and on which, at the urging of his daughter, he recorded vocal samples.

In 2000, Michael Caine was knighted; he is now known professionally as Sir Michael Caine but, true to his humble background, was knighted as Sir Maurice Micklewhite.

by Rob Nixon

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