Michael Caine on 1960s London: “Everybody Seemed to Become Famous”

Michael Caine as Alfie (1966), the role that made him a Star. Image: Sky

When it comes to some celebrities, we like to keep things on a Need To Know basis.

But when we heard an interview with British actor Sir Michael Caine on CBC, we were so charmed by his stories and humour, we immediately located his first memoir, What’s It All About?

Some actors are marvellous storytellers. After all, their craft is telling stories, and Caine has lots of tales, amusingly told.

For example, Caine mentions the New York Movie Police, “a special squad set up by the city just to take care of movie units”, and these officers know their way around a set. “I was standing with one of them one night watching a scene,” writes Caine, “and when the director shouted ‘Cut’ and designated the next shot, there was a hiss of disapproval from my police friend. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Woody [Allen] would have gone in for a two-shot there,’ he said – and he was probably right.”¹

Caine is also, surprisingly, a colourful travel writer. With vivid prose, he describes fighting in the Korean War, being broke in Paris, and visiting Los Angeles for the first time. He also describes the zeitgeist of a certain era, such as London in the early 1960s.

During this time, Caine was friends with the likes of Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney. It was a time of palpable opportunity, when the newly famous frequented London nightclubs.

“There was the buzz every night of dreams coming true,” he writes, “and the charge of fresh dreams that would come true some time soon, and the shock as a record was played for the first time ever and you knew you were listening to a pop classic being born, and the new young genius who wrote it said, ‘Sorry,’ as he stepped on your toe as we all whirled like dervishes round the dance floor and into the history of our own chosen field of endeavour.”²

“That’s how it was in those days,” he concludes. “Everybody seemed to become famous.”³

Caine in Educating Rita (1983), for which he won the Golden Globe. Image: IMDb

Michael Caine was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933. His father was a porter at London’s Billingsgate Market, but his true passion was gambling. Caine jokingly says his first performance was at the age of three, when he told bill collectors his parents were not home.

His first professional acting gig was in 1952, when he returned to London following his military service in Korea. His application to a small-town theatre required a photograph, so he signed the photo “Michael Scott” instead of the lengthier “Maurice Mickelwhite”.4

He became “Michael Caine” with the offer of a television play. In order to take the job, he had to join the actors’ trade union, but there was already a member named Michael Scott. After some deliberation, he adopted the name “Caine” in honour of his favourite actor, Humphrey Bogart, who was currently starring in The Caine Mutiny (1954).5

It was a tough ten years of theatre and television gigs before Caine got his first big break in the feature films Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965). Then, in 1966, he landed the role that would make him an international star: Alfie.

With Sean Connery in The Man Who Would be King (1975). Image: IMDb

The bonus features of What’s It All About? are the acting lessons. Some were gleaned during Caine’s time at a small theatre company that was produced and directed by an elderly man who “always seemed to have the right advice for any problem.”

In one production, Caine had to act drunk and, during the first rehearsal, the producer/director interrupted him and explained how to play the scene. “‘You are being an actor who is trying to walk crooked and speak with a slurred voice like a drunk. Don’t you realise that a drunk is a man who is trying to walk straight and speak properly?'”6

There are many witty, thoughtful memories here, but no one can keep it up for 577 pages, not even Michael Caine. Eventually the stories give way to more tedious accounts of which famous person he met at which event.

Still, What’s It All About? is an engaging memoir and a fascinating account of How to Become Famous. We recommend it, but you may find yourself skimming pages towards the end.

Source

Caine, Michael. (1992) What’s It All About? London, UK: Random House.
¹Ibid., p. 544.
²Ibid., p. 187.
³Ibid., p. 162.
4Ibid., p. 92.
5Ibid., p. 132.
6Ibid., p. 105.

This post is part of THE SECOND MARVELLOUS MICHAEL CAINE BLOGATHON hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.

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31 comments

      • Thanks for the undeserved compliment, but it’s not his writing style that I dislike. I had to live through the Thatcher years in the UK, when economic inequality soared as a matter of deliberate policy. Foremost among Thatcher’s stalwart supporters was Michael Caine, who kept execrating those of us who wouldn’t vote for her and threatening to leave the country if she lost an election and he had to pay a realistic rate of income tax. (He never paid attention to the chorus of voices imploring him to go, please, for God’s sake, just go.) There are countless other examples of his overweening self-interest.

        So, every time I see that faux-avuncular, faux-genial act of his, I feel like I urgently want to puke.

        Is all.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I’m a big fan of the onscreen Michael Caine. Off-screen not so much. I can remember him from USA talk shows in the late 70s and 80s running down England as class-bound, too much taxes, etc. – unlike the USA. No one’s a bigger Yankee Doodle Dandy then me, But I thought it bad form to run down your country like that. Plus, all his stories seemed to put himself in the best light. But that doesn’t mean he’s not entertaining, so I’ll probably give his book a read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He is entertaining, for sure. As for his stories putting himself in the best possible light, that is true, but it’s not unusual for an autobiography. I hope you get a chance to read the book. Some really interesting stories about life back in the day.

      Like

  2. I absolutely love his autobiography and have read and re-read it countless times. It has gotten me through some rough nights and dark times – and I have never tired of reading it. Loved your review and whilst I agree that some of the final chapters drag a little, I can tolerate it for the stories that he shares. A great review and I’m glad to see you loved it as well! Best regards, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not surprised that his book is such an entertaining, informative read. He “grew up” as an actor during perhaps the most eclectic decade in cinema history: the 1960s. As you noted, he has co-starred with a wide variety of fine actors in many different genres. I love Michael Caine…so much so that I can forget that he made Jaws: The Revenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, Ruth! I adore Michael Caine and his books always entertain me. I haven’t read his latest, but I highly recommend The Elephant to Hollywood. I think he recycles a few stories from What’s It All About? but it’s much slimmer and still really amusing. I also love that at the end of it, he gives a top 10 list of his personal favorite films, including Charade and Casablanca.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds like a marvellous memoir – and I’m one girl who loves memoirs. I hope to find a copy of this film soon. And, well, now I know where his stage name came from – very cool story.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds like a fun read! And if Caine’s autobiography is only 577; that’s not that big a book!
    Am not one skim pages; I read word to word, and if I’ve lost the plot, I go back and re-read! So I have to read a book in it’s entirety, start to finish, no matter how long it takes. I might have left some books unfinished, but have never skipped a single letter!! 🙂
    Speaking of books, how’s ‘The Medallion’ coming. It’s almost a year since I read it.
    Looking forward to seeing it published.
    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

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