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Actor Michael Caine, 85, On His Long Career: 'The Alternative Was A Factory'

Sir Michael Caine attends the European Film Award ceremony in Berlin in 2015, when he won the best actor prize for his work on the movie <em>Youth</em>.
Clemens Bilan
AFP/Getty Images
Sir Michael Caine attends the European Film Award ceremony in Berlin in 2015, when he won the best actor prize for his work on the movie Youth.

Michael Caine, 85, has been filling our movie screens for a half-century.

His breakout role came in 1966, as the callous heartthrob in Alfie. More than 100 movies later, Caine is better known these days for his supporting roles, such as the fatherly butler in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.

Sir Michael Caine has a new memoir, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life. (Ahem.) He spoke to us about working with the greats, his working-class origins and how being frequently imitated is a form of respect.

"What it also is, is a form of success in a way, because the impersonator knows that everybody knows who he's talking about," Caine says.

Interview Highlights

On meeting Sir Laurence Olivier, and how Caine prefers to be addressed

I was doing a picture with him called Sleuth. And we had to rehearse for two weeks before and I'd never met him. And he was Lord Olivier. And before we actually met, I got a letter from him saying, "It's occurred to me that you may be wondering how to address me when we meet." And then he said, "After the handshake, I will be Larry forever." ... And I will be Michael forever.

On being evacuated from London during World War II at age 6

Caine: It shaped [my life] in a couple of ways actually. Mentally, I got a great education. And there was also another thing about — the war was an incredible thing for all of us in one way. I mean, talk about "use the difficulty" — which is my motto ... In the war, the only food you could get was organic food, because they used all the chemicals in explosives. And so for six years, all we ate was organic food, and there was no sugar. And all these things that we worry about so much now, in the war you couldn't get them, so — so we all grow up, sort of, very healthily in the war.

Shapiro: Before the war, you were poor, malnourished — you say you had rickets. And the war actually helped you become a strong, tall, healthy person.

Caine: Oh yeah. Well, I came from a slum in London, and London then was very smoggy because we didn't have central heating and all that. We had coal fires, and so you know, it was always smoky and unhealthy, terrible. To be taken to the country in the fresh air, with exercise and everything, I sprang up. By the time — I'm 6 feet, 2 [inches], but by the time I was 14, I was 6 feet tall.

On breaking through the British class barrier

Caine: Your life — you think you're doing great, and you're going to do this and you did that, you're so clever and all that. But life depends a lot on timing for all of us. And my timing was perfect. It was the '60s, which changed everything for class, you know? We stopped taking notice of bourgeois upper-crust people. I mean, there's still class here in this country. But it doesn't count. I mean, it has no power.

Shapiro: And so you just happened to come of age at a time when you are able to make strides that somebody of your class would not have been able to 20 years earlier.

Caine: Ten years. Ten years. Someone wrote a leading play with a character called Alfie who was a cockney layabout womanizer, you know? No one had ever written a play like that in England. And it was an era when everybody became something, you know what I mean? It was quite extraordinary.

On working through crippling stage fright, to the point that it regularly made him sick

'Cause I couldn't help it. I had to be an actor. I wanted to be an actor. And of course, you have to remember with me, the alternative was a factory. I mean, when I was 20, I was in the Army, and I came out of the Army ... I came home and I worked in a butter factory.

On working on Swarm, a star-studded horror movie about bees

And the first time I realized that it was a big flop, is: We did a special scene where they had the bees in a hive up on the ceiling above us where we were talking, and as we were talking, we noticed little black dots on our shirts. It was the first reviews were in — even the bees were crapping on us.

On finally enjoying security in his career

Oh, that's one of the greatest things in my life. I thank God every day. I am religious. I don't practice one religion 'cause my father was a Catholic, my mother was a Protestant, I was educated by Jews and I'm married to a Muslim, so ... But I believe in God. Rocky Graziano, an American boxer, wrote an autobiography which I thought described me — he said Somebody Up There Likes Me. I thought of nicking that title, but they told me I couldn't.

Art Silverman and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.