Fast chat with Sir Maurice Micklewhite — better known as Michael Caine

[23 April 2009]

By Joseph V. Amodio

Newsday (MCT)

When Maurice Micklewhite, an aspiring actor from South London, chose a stage name, he came up with Michael, then ... Caine, after glancing at a movie marquee for “The Caine Mutiny.” Still, he never relinquished Maurice - it remains his legal name, and it’s what friends and family call him.

Caine, 76, is one of film’s busiest actors, appearing in 100-plus movies (hits like “Alfie,” “Educating Rita,” “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” - plus “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “The Cider House Rules,” for which he won Academy Awards for best supporting actor). There’ve been clunkers (“Jaws: The Revenge”), he admits, but they gave him the financial independence to do smaller, important films (like 2002’s “The Quiet American”) - and to buy homes for himself and relatives.

“Is Anybody There?” stars Bill Milner as a lonely 11-year-old whose parents run a nursing home, and Caine, as a cantankerous retired magician forced to live there. Joseph V. Amodio sat down recently with Caine - aka Sir Maurice Micklewhite (he was knighted in 2000) - to discuss war, romance and walking three miles a day.

Q. Have you always walked a lot?

A. I started in the army (in Korea). You walk three or four miles a day with a pack on your back. So it’s easy to walk without it.

Q. My dad fought in Korea.

A. Did he? What was he in?

Q. The U.S. Army’s 5th Regimental Combat Team - on the front lines.

A. Ah, yes. Well, me, too. I was in the British infantry. In the Commonwealth Division, which was all Brits, Australians, Canadians. We were with Marine I-Corps. Which is not recommended. (He laughs.) Anything with Marine in it - stay away - because it’s gonna be bloody dangerous.

Q. Yeah, they’re going in first.

A. Korea is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. It defined me as a person for the rest of my life. Because I thought I was going to die - and I didn’t - and I faced up to it. Young men often wonder, will I be a coward in a terrible situation? Well, I got in a terrible situation, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t brave. (He laughs again.) I (blanked) me’self, but at least I didn’t run away.

Q. This film deals with mortality, too. Were you eager to delve into that?

A. I was. There were other things, not the least of which, my best friend was dying of Alzheimer’s, and did so during the film. But that wasn’t the only reason. To me, it was a chance to do something I found very difficult - to push myself further than ever. Other actors could do it better. But it’s the best I’ve ever been ... in my opinion.

Q. Did you give your young colleague any advice?

A. Nooo. This boy is extraordinary. We became friends on a sort of equal basis. It was like working with Sean Connery. He’s one of the most natural child actors I’ve ever seen.

Q. You have two daughters, I believe?

A. Yes. And a new grandson, 6 months old. I love him dearly. I regard him as my son.

Q. How did you meet your wife, Shakira?

A. I saw her in a coffee commercial. Tracked her down through the ad agency. But she wouldn’t go out with me for weeks. I had a very bad reputation in those days, sorta Alfie-ish. And all her girlfriends told her not to go out with me.

Q. So how did you win her over?

A. I don’t know. I just kept ringing ... and ringing ... and ringing. I think she got fed up. (He smiles.) She said, “All right, but we go in my car, not yours.” She drove, so there wouldn’t be any trouble. But there was. (Big laugh.) Later.

Q. An actor - married 36 years. What’s your secret?

A. Two bathrooms. (Smiling again.) I mean, it’s a minor thing, but I always say it’s the first thing you need. But also ... you must be equal partners. I’m not this big film star with the little woman. She’s my guide, my mentor. She’s always there for me, always. And I’m there for her. You just ... reach a stage of intimacy where I’ll order a drink and she’ll start drinking it, without thinking or anything. We’re so intertwined. And, of course, I’m very family-oriented. So is my wife. She’s Indian - Kashmiri, and they’re extremely family-oriented, more so than the English.

Q. You used to be known as a trivia junkie. Do you still read the “Guinness Book of World Records” or ...?

A. I’m the Google man. I’m very, very curious. Google was invented for me. I’ve Googled everybody. Even if you spell it wrong, they spell it right for you. It’s amazing. People say, “How do you feel about growing old?” I always say, “Well, considering the alternative, quite good.” But I was thinking - you’ve got satellite television, Google, computers, text, e-mail. You’ve got bloody things for not going bald, you’ve got Viagra, you’ve got all these aids to everything. So growing old is not such a task as it used to be.

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