Michael Caine on why he nearly retired in the 1990s — until Jack Nicholson stepped in
The following is an excerpt from Michael Caine’s new book Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life, a memoir in which the Oscar-winning actor shares the wisdom, stories, insight, and skills that life has taught him in his remarkable career — and now his 85th year. The book publishes on Oct. 23 and is available for pre-order.
If all else fails, change direction. Reinvent “success.” Reinvent yourself.
At a point in my career when the movie scripts stopped coming, I went back to TV. Unlike today, with the power of Netflix and Amazon, that was seen as a sign of failure. For me, though, the failure would have been not working at all. I made Jack the Ripper in 1988, for which I won a Golden Globe, and Jekyll and Hyde in 1990, for which I won both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Not a bad way to fail.
At another point, the scripts not only dried up, they started looking hurtfully different. One of the lowest moments of my career—or so it seemed at the time—was that day I was sent the script in which, the producers had to spell out to me, I was to read the father, not the lover. My first reaction to the revelation that I was too old to play the romantic lead (I was about sixty) was that my acting career was over and I was going to have to radically reinvent “success.” I moved to Miami, sent back the few scripts I received, opened a restaurant and settled down to write my autobiography. I told myself and others that I had retired and that I was happy. I was happy. It wasn’t difficult to find good things about this situation: it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter in Miami, my restaurant, South Beach Brasserie, was thriving, my publishers assured me my book would sell and I no longer had to get to six thirty a.m. makeup calls. I’m usually a hard worker and here was an incredible chance to be lazy.
But I was even happier when Jack Nicholson, a wonderful actor, who was also in Miami at the time, persuaded me that the reinvention did not have to be so extreme.
Why not simply reinvent myself as a movie actor, as opposed to a movie star? A character actor, rather than a leading actor? (What’s the difference? Well, essentially it’s this. When movie stars get a script they want to do, they change it to suit them. When leading movie actors get a script they want to do, they change themselves to suit the script.)
Jack brought me a script for a movie called Blood and Wine and talked me into coming out of my socalled retirement and going back to work. I did, and the truth was revealed to me—or I allowed myself to see it: however happy I kidded myself I was, I was never going to be happier than when I was acting. Especially with such a great, fun-loving co-star as Jack. Jack is a tremendous actor who, even more than I do, relishes the relaxation. His attitude to work was summed up for me one day when we were hurrying to get a shot before the sun went down. I broke into a light jog to get back to the set.
“Don’t run, Michael,” Jack said to my back laconically. “They’ll know it’s us who’s late.” I fell back in line and on we strolled. That was in 1996. I followed up with Midnight in Saint Petersburg, another Harry Palmer movie, another flop for me.
But then in 1998 I played the sleazy agent Ray Say in Little Voice, a semi-musical starring the brilliant actress and singing impressionist Jane Horrocks, alongside Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent, which was a great success in the UK, if not in the States. And in 1999 I played Dr. Wilbur Larch in The Cider House Rules, which starred Charlize Theron, Tobey Maguire and Paul Rudd, and for which I won my second Academy Award. I was off and running again. I was using the difficulty, using my change in status to play a wider range of more interesting, more challenging parts than I had done in my movie-star days. I retired more than twenty years ago, and since then I have made more than forty new movies with a whole new generation of directors, producers and movie stars. I may no longer get the girl, but I’m still getting the parts. Bliss.
Even since my “retirement” I’ve made plenty of flops, often with stunning casts and terrific directors. You just never know how these things will go. But I didn’t sit around waiting for the great director to give me the perfect script. I kept working. I didn’t want it to take five years for my next picture to come along, and then when I got there on Monday morning and someone said “Action,” I hadn’t acted for five years.
Over and over I repeated the pattern. I made a couple of disappointments but I kept the faith with myself and was always ultimately rewarded, just in time to save myself. The Magus, which came out in 1968, was a dire film but I followed it up with The Italian Job. Saved. A decade later, The Swarm, Ashanti and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure were all awful—great on paper, with terrific casts, but awful in reality, yet sprinkled, like magic stardust, in between were California Suite with Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for that performance, and Dressed to Kill, in which I played a transvestite killer psychiatrist. Thank you, Brian De Palma, for saving my knicker-covered butt. In the early 1980s The Island and The Hand were both mediocrities but I followed them up with three successes: Escape to Victory,
Deathtrap and Educating Rita. In the mid-1980s, I snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when Blame It on Rio and The Holcroft Convention were followed by Hannah and Her Sisters, and Jaws: The Revenge by Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In the 1990s, after On Deadly Ground and Bullet to Beijing nearly proved to be the deadly final bullet for my career, Jack Nicholson turned up with Blood and Wine.
And, most miraculous of all, in the 2000s, when I’d made a series of unremarkable movies—The Actors, Secondhand Lions, The Statement, some so forgettable that I can’t remember them myself—a young man turned up on my doorstep one sleepy
Sunday morning, unannounced, and script in hand. “Hello, Michael,” he said, waving script in my face. “Sorry to disturb you on a Sunday but I’d like you to read this.”
“Oh, hello,” I said. “What’s your name?”
We had never met, but I knew the name. I had seen Memento, a fascinating film that Chris had made a few years previously, and loved it. It was the only movie I had ever seen that started at the end and finished at the beginning. “Come in, Christopher,” I said, excited that this wonderful young director had brought me a script for what I assumed would be a similar picture: something low-budget and big-potential. I took off my gardening gloves, Shakira [Caine’s wife] made coffee and we sat there, stunned, as Chris explained the script and why he wanted me in the movie. This was not going to be a small arty intellectual piece. Chris was making a series of huge Hollywood blockbusters: a trilogy of Batman movies. “Who do you want me to play in it?” I asked. In my head I had already imagined and then quickly written off Batman, but I thought perhaps I could be a great villain.
“The butler,” said Chris.
I hid my disappointment and smiled. “The butler? What do I say? ‘Dinner is served’?”
Chris smiled back. “He’s not that kind of butler,” he said. “Batman is an orphan and the butler is a father to him. It’s a very important role.”
“OK. Well, leave me the script and I’ll read it and send it back to you tomorrow.”
“No,” said Chris, in what I would come to recognise as his hallmark quiet-but-authoritative manner. “I want you to read it now. I’ll wait until you’re done and you can tell me yes or no.”
“Oh, OK,” I said. Obediently I went to my office and read it. And loved it: Alfred Pennyworth, the butler, was a beautifully written role and the whole thing was just fabulous. When I came back, Chris and Shakira were sitting and chatting over more coffee. I said yes, it was handshakes all round and Chris left, taking the script with him.
Thank goodness I’d kept going. Thank goodness I’d trained myself to say yes. There I was, at the age of seventy-one, cast in one of the greatest movie trilogies ever made and about to kick off ten years of movie-making heaven.
Excerpted from Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life by Michael Caine. Copyright © October 23, 2018. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.