Caine's acting roots in Lowestoft

Who would have though that Michael Caine - that grand knight of British cinema - got his start on the windy shores of Lowestoft. Not many people know that.

Andrew Clarke

Who would have though that Michael Caine - that grand knight of British cinema - got his start on the windy shores of Lowestoft. Not many people know that. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at the career of a true national treasure.

National institution Sir Michael Caine is celebrating his 75th birthday today and is as busy as ever with two films awaiting release later this year. The charismatic actor has managed to turn his career around going from national joke in the early 1980s with films like The Swarm and Jaws: The Revenge to a national treasure and winner of two Oscars.

He may be 75 but he remains one of the greatest movie stars to have ever come out of Britain. The fact he is still regarded as cool by a generation of moviegoers who have trouble reconciling the idea that Tom Hanks was ever young, speaks volumes for his ability to use his immense screen presence to make a role take on a life of its own.

His performances in The Prestige, Children of Men, The Quiet American and Batman Begins have kept him firmly in the public eye and has won him glowing reviews from critics. It seems that his days appearing in sub-standard movies like Bullseye, Escape To Victory and The Island are well and truly over.

The big watershed in Caine's career came in the mid 1980s when he amazed everyone with his BAFTA-winning performance as the drunken university professor in Educating Rita opposite Julie Walters which was rapidly followed up with an Oscar winning supporting performance in Woody Allen's Hannah And Her Sisters

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Suddenly Michael Caine was a force to be reckoned with once again. During the 1960s thanks to movies like Alfie, The Ipcress File and The Italian Job - he along with pal Sean Connery was the face of cool sixties cinema.

In the 1970s and early 1980s that image took a severe knocking as he made the jump across the Atlantic to Hollywood and appear to take a part in whatever he was offered - possibly without reading the script first.

But no matter how many poor films Caine was in - and he was in more than his fair share during his 12 years in the cinematic wilderness - he was never bad in them. He always delivered a stirling performance with a twinkle in his eye and every now and again there was a movie like The Eagle Has Landed or The Fourth Protocol to remind us how good he was.

Caine's ability to survive his career doldrums is down to his charismatic presence and his talent as an actor which he honed, for a short time, on stage in Suffolk.

Caine is very much a film actor but the roots of his craft extend back to the beginnings of his life as an actor - as a lowly member of a rep company picking up the tricks of the trade.

In a recent interview with the EADT Michael Caine happily reminisced about his days at Lowestoft but said that he had no plans to go back on stage - not even to do Willy Russell's Educating Rita for a limited engagement.

He said that his recent film The Actors in which he played an old rep professional opposite Dylan Moran, took him straight back to his early days in the theatre and allowed him to lay a few ghosts to rest.

“I based my part on every old character man I ever worked with. I was in rep for nine years, so I knew about 50 of those guys and they were all like (my part) O'Malley. They were all complete, sad losers and were totally unaware of it. They were all too stupid to know. They thought they were wonderful.

“It was so nostalgic for me being back in the theatre with stage actors - I haven't been in the theatre for over 30 years, so it was great for me. I had great fun doing bad Shakespeare that was another reason to do this film. I wanted to do a bad Richard III - it was such a laugh.”

Michael Caine is a really good interviewee. His interviews take on the feel of a chat over a pint in your local pub. He talks with such enthusiasm, a sparkle in his eye and a smile which is always threatening to break into a laugh as he remembers some joke or amusing ancedote.

He is a great raconteur - although he maintains he would be scared stiff to do stand -up and talk about himself in a one-man show. It is clear that he remains very much a down-to-earth man - as you would no doubt expect from a cockney lad who was born Maurice Micklewhite, the son of a Billingsgate fish porter.

Caine may not have many airs or graces but he does come armed with a barrowload of great stories and is quite happy to just talk and talk.

You are left in no doubt that Michael Caine really does enjoy his work. But he quashes any hope of ever being tempted back to the stage to recreate Educating Rita or anything else. “I am a professional movie actor - that's all I ever wanted to be. I went into the theatre to learn how to act - it took me so long to learn that I almost became a theatre actor rather than a movie actor.

Happily it didn't turn out that way.

“I was the first generation to see an actor on a cinema screen rather than at the theatre. I had never been to the theatre, I didn't know what the theatre was, but I went to Saturday morning pictures and it was the Lone Ranger who made me want to be an actor, an actor in films.”

Although he is firm about his life in the theatre being well and truly in the past. He retains vivid memories of his early days on the boards - including a year in rep in Lowestoft - although he can no longer remember the name of the theatre.

“I must have been very bad. In fact I know I was because I had no training. I was just an ex-soldier looking to get on. But the company was a definite step up from Horsham where I had been before I came to Suffolk.

“It was classic rep. We did a play a week. I was a fairly lowly actor doing smaller roles and the odd juvenile lead. To be honest I can't remember a single play we did - they all tended to blur into one another.”

The one aspect of his stay at Lowestoft that remains in his memory was his romance and marriage with the leading lady Patricia Haines. According to Caine this broke all the rules of the theatre. It was not unusual for actors to fall in love with one another but you had to remain within your station.

“I was 22 - she was 26 and I committed the cardinal sin of falling in love with the leading lady. That was part of the glamour of it. I was terribly shy and a little overwhelmed. It took me ages to do anything about it. Anyway to cut a long story short, we fell in love -with me confessing myself at a rather drunken party and it turned out that she knew all along. I was madly in love with her and pursued her into a disastrous marriage.

“After a while we packed our bags and headed for London. My other abiding memory of Lowestoft was that it was always bloody

cold. Whatever time of year it was, there was always a bloody cold wind coming off the sea. I'll never forget that.”

He added that in one of his earliest roles at Horsham he had to seduce a girl by getting her drunk but was so nervous he did the entire scene without taking the cork out of the bottle.

“She ended up getting drunk on empty glasses. I was then to have my terrible way with her. In fact, that lady is now a top television producer, June Wyndham Davies - she produced the Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett. I met her a couple of years ago and she reminded me of this scene and how I didn't give her anything to drink. She would tell you how bad I was.”

Seeing how confident he is on screen and how charming and chatty he is during the interview, it is hard to reconcile the fact that even when he made Zulu he was still very unsure of himself.

“I remember I was a very young, nervous actor when I first got into movies. On Zulu, an assistant came up to me and he said 'why are you nervous?' I said; 'Jesus Christ, look at all of this, it's a big shot, lots of extras, all these grips and technicians...' He said: 'You don't realise, Michael, that every single person you see here is absolutely dedicated to making you look good on screen - that's all they're here for. To make you look good on screen and therefore make a great movie. So what the hell are you nervous about?' It didn't work, but I never forgot what he said.”

Despite his less than successful beginnings, he says he has never felt tempted to throw in the towel. “I have never wanted to give up or get out of this business because it's what I have always wanted to do. Just being an actor is great. I started off as an amateur actor - I did it for nothing.

“People ask me 'when will you retire?' I tell them you don't retire from movies - the scripts stop coming - they retire you.

Sometimes they retire you after three movies. It's just in my case, as I have got older, the scripts have got better and better. The great thing about movies, and acting in general, is that they always need guys of 80. Jessica Tandy won her Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy at 82. So it's a great life. I recommend it.”

Michael Caine admits he still enjoys the camaraderie of acting life and enjoys going over to LA for events like the Oscars - particularly if he has been nominated as he was for The Quiet American.

“The last time I was there, the Iraq war had started and no-one knew what to do. Jack Nicholson rang and said let's have a drink at my place. We all got bombed together. Jack served a load of caviar and it went on until 1.30 in the morning.

“I knew that I wasn't going to get the Oscar because I saw the way Miramax had divvied up the advertising expediture. There was 100% and nil. I was nil but I had got to the stage where I was nominated as Best Actor. I had won two Oscars already, both for Best Supporting Actor, and this was a nomination for Best Actor and that made a tremendous difference to me.

“The Oscars are great because it is your own people who vote - 2,600 actors are voting for you to win that statue. It's very touching.”

Now at 75 he is very happy just to carry on making films - good films. “People say 'how do you feel about getting old' and I say 'great, I hope to continue on doing it for quite a long time'.”

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