'What's it all About?' In Michael Caine's case, it's about succeeding against all odds

January 10, 1993|By Angela Fox Dunn | Angela Fox Dunn,New York Times Syndicate

Michael Caine divides his life so far exactly in half. His first 29 years were hell; his next 29 have been, for the most part, heavenly. But he says he had a devil of a time finding paradise.

Amazingly youthful for 59, Mr. Caine says he has exorcised his demons and is taking on new challenges.

No wonder the title of his recently published autobiography, his sixth book, poses the question: "What's It All About?" (Turtle Bay Books, 1992).

Yes, the title refers to his famous film "Alfie" (1966), for which he won the first of four Academy Award nominations over the past 30 years, but there's another layer.

His book is about life -- not just his -- and how to succeed against all odds.

"I should have been a laborer in a factory," Mr. Caine says in his modified Cockney accent, now a mixture that defies description.

"I should be there now with a wife and three kids, living in a modest flat, have a steady job and at the end of the day have me tea and watch the telly, or go to the pub for a pint. I invented this whole other character."

For Maurice Joseph Micklewhite (his original name), born in the charity wing of London's St. Olave's Hospital on the wrong side of the Thames River, son of a fish porter and a charwoman, the journey to the top was the impossible dream.

"I sometimes think they must have switched the babies at St. Olave's. I should have been the son of a multimillionaire, because I'm basically lazy and I don't want to work.

"And I've had to work all my life, so I've had to get pretty angry to get out of bed!"

Anger and frustration only fueled his ambition.

"They still do," he says.

In the living room of his airy, hilltop home in Beverly Hills, Mr. Caine is confident and poised, never at a loss for words. It's hard to imagine that he once was, as he relates, "psychotically shy."

He says he became what he was most afraid of.

"I became a person who stood up in front of people and talked. I created myself as an actor. But first I had to overcome the painful shyness, which I did with great trial and tribulation."

Mr. Caine thinks that people who never conquer their demons have perhaps never been able to identify them. He offers these insights.

"I think you become a doctor because you're afraid of becoming ill. I think you become a policeman because you're afraid of being a criminal.

"The police always say, 'It takes one to catch one!' I think policemen are basically criminals who overcame their demons.

"And firemen are afraid of fire or feared becoming pyromaniacs. Lawyers are people who fear being sued. I mean, who sues a lawyer? And psychiatrists are all nuts."

Troubles in battalions

For Mr. Caine, troubles came in battalions, and by age 24 he had lost almost everything. His brief first marriage to actress Patricia Haines was over, and their daughter Dominique (now 36 and happily married) had been sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Sheffield.

His father Maurice had died of liver cancer at age 56. Mr. Caine was broke and out of work. His father's last words were, "Good luck, son," but the luck didn't come for seven more years.

Mr. Caine took many menial "soul-destroying" jobs, he says, but kept up with his acting by taking drama classes and small roles in repertory productions.

Though he had done bits in 10 films, his first major film role was in "Zulu" (1964), playing an effete British officer with a cultured accent.

The producer, Joe Levine, told Mr. Caine he would never make it in movies because he "looked too gay on-screen."

Mr. Caine now advises, "If you want to do something with your life, never listen to anybody, no matter how expert they may appear. Go for it."

He has never stopped. Taking on great or so-so parts, Mr. Caine had a motive for racking up more than 75 movies.

"I thought, 'I'll make a load of movies and by the time they find out I'm not a star, I'll be one,' which is exactly what happened," he says.

"Cary Grant told me, 'You become like a favorite brand of tea or coffee. Then you become someone they know and love.'

"I never realized the amount of affection out there until I began signing my autobiography on tour.

"You never think anybody actually loves you. They like your work. I didn't realize they're inseparable."

DOne stroke of luck, he says, is his lovely wife of 20 years, Shakira Baksh, a delicate beauty with an amazingly firm handshake.

"She's not as fragile as she looks," Mr. Caine says.

Soul mates

Ms. Baksh gave him the loving support to stop drinking; Mr. Caine was up to three bottles of vodka a day at one point. She has been his soul mate.

He says they're alike.

"We are two identical electric plugs, but she is grounded and I am not. So when the lightning comes I blow up and she doesn't."

Ms. Baksh is a Muslim from India's Kashmir region.

Mr. Caine tracked down the former beauty-contest winner after seeing her on television in a Maxwell House coffee commercial shot in Brazil.

There she was shaking her maracas, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," he recalls.

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