On Deadly Ground

Editors' review

November 30, 2017

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By Sir Michael Caine

Updated: 22:05 GMT, 11 September 2010



When I finished my first autobiography What's It All About?, 1992 seemed like a good place to stop. I had a great film career, a worldwide best-seller, some restaurants, a beautiful house and, most importantly of all, a loving family.

Christmas and New Year's Eve 1991 had been spent in Aspen, Colorado, as guests of Marvin and Barbara Davis, the Texan oil billionaires. We were surrounded by friends including Sean Connery and his wife Micheline, and Sidney and Joanna Poitier.

I felt pretty happy with my lot. Everyone there had been part of my life since I first got to Hollywood – although, in fact, I'd met Sean in London in the late Fifties at what was then called a 'bottle party'. If someone was giving a party in those days and couldn't quite afford it, the invitation would be to 'bring a bottle and a bird'.

Michael Caine and Steven Deagal in 1994's On Deadly Ground

Michael Caine and Steven Deagal in 1994's On Deadly Ground

Back then I was just beginning my journey from Elephant and Castle, South London, to Hollywood. I was so broke that I couldn't afford to bring a bottle, so I brought two birds. And they were both beautiful.

I walked into this party and there was Sean, who seemed enormous com-pared with the rest of us weedy actor types, and he saw me with those two girls and I became his instant new best friend. Aspen with old friends was followed by a period back in Hollywood.

I felt on top of the world. I was completely oblivious to the downturn in store for me. Looking back to this period I can see now what I couldn't see then: the storm clouds, as they say, were gathering. A movie I had made the previous year, Noises Off, had come out and gone out just as quickly.

I wasn't too bothered. Everyone has a flop now and then, I thought. But it was another little sign.I took no notice. I had become part of Hollywood history. Out of the blue, Robert Mitchum, the great Fifties movie star, asked me to present his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes.

I was honoured he should ask me, but I didn't know him and had never worked with him and I was curious. 'Did you pick me because I had heavy eyelids like you?' I asked him. He said: 'Yes. They're not as heavy as mine, of course, but they're quite heavy. It's all to do with the eyelids.'

Michael with Tobey Maguire inthe film version of John Irving's great American classic The Cider House Rules

Michael with Tobey Maguire inthe film version of John Irving's great American classic The Cider House Rules

A charming story but I began to wonder if it was really because everyone else turned him down. Back in England, my book came out and went straight to the top of the best-sellers list. And I embarked on a world tour to publicise it – what could possibly go wrong?

For a start, doing publicity on a book tour turned out to be just like doing publicity for a movie, which is some-thing I have done and hated all my life. People tell me movie stars are overpaid. Well, I disagree.

Movie stars only get $1,000 a time for the hard work: the hours in make-up, the end-less takes, the craft, the experience, the star billing – the other $1 million is for the publicity and, believe me, we earn every cent. When I got back to England after the tour, I was shattered but scripts had arrived while I was away.

Eventually I sat down to read one. I was appalled. The part was hardly worth doing at all. I sent it back to the producer, telling him what I thought of it. A couple of days later he phoned me. 'No, no – you're not the lover, I want you to read the part of the father!'

I have a list of younger actresses that I love to work with and Charlize is right at the top says Michael

I have a list of younger actresses that I love to work with and Charlize is right at the top says Michael

I put the phone down and stood there, shocked. The father? Me? I headed into the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

Yes, staring back at me was, indeed, the father – and so was someone else. In the mirror was a leading movie actor, not a movie star.

I realised the only girl I'd ever get to kiss in a film again would be my daughter.

The difference between a leading movie actor and a movie star (apart from the money and the dressing room) is that when movie stars get a script they want to do, they change it to suit them.

A movie star says, 'I would never do that' or 'I would never say that' and their own writers will add what they would do or say. But there's another difference, and this was a difference I knew I could work with.

A lot of movie stars can't act and so when the big roles dry up they disappear, insisting they won't play supporting parts.

All leading movie actors have to act or they would vanish completely.I had always known that this time would come.

I was 58. Should I give up or keep going? The question stayed with me for months.

It stayed with me every morning as I opened the packets of cp, coffee-stained scripts with the pencil markings that other, younger actors had made before they turned the parts down.

I could see that things were going to be different now.I had reached the period of my life I called the twilight zone. The spotlight of movie stardom was fading and it all seemed gloomy.

Soon the scripts started to dry up completely – even the bad ones – and if there is one thing worse than being offered bad scripts it's being offered none at all.

The danger is, of course, that the wait for a decent movie makes you desperate, and I got desperate to the point that I accepted a picture in Alaska with Steven Seagal, the martial arts expert. The movie was called On Deadly Ground and the title was to prove apt.

Although Steven and the rest of the team were great to work with, I had broken one of the cardinal rules of bad movies: if you're going to do a bad movie, at least do it in a great location.

Here I was, doing a movie where the work was freezing my brain and the weather was freezing my a. I vowed never to work in a tough location again. The litmus test for this, I decided, would be my wife.

David Bailey's 1965 portrait of Michael Caine

David Bailey's 1965 portrait of Michael Caine

Ian Derry's image of Michael last year

Ian Derry's image of Michael last year

If Shakira refuses to come, I ain't going. I remember asking her if she would like to come to Alaska and she didn't even bother to reply. I should have got the warning.I've been lucky with my career. Like most people, I've screwed up a couple of times and got away with it.

But what I was about to do almost finished me off. I was asked to work with an old friend – the spy Harry Palmer, one of my favourite characters and my first starring role – in two back-to-back sequels to the 1965 film The Ipcress File: Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In Saint Petersburg.

It was my worst professional experience ever. Of course, like all bad experiences, there were some good things – Jason Connery, Sean's son, and Marsha, the assistant and interpreter who guided Shakira and me around St Petersburg. (Yes, Shakira had agreed to come with me.)

Marsha was intelligent and melancholic in equal measure, in a very Russian way. She came to work one day with eyes red from crying. 'What's wrong?' Shakira asked, concerned. 'I've been crying all night,' she replied. 'What for?' Shakira persisted.

Michale Caine as Sherlock Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Dr Watson in the 1988 film Without a Clue

Michale Caine as Sherlock Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Dr Watson in the 1988 film Without a Clue

She shrugged. 'We all do,' she said.Our hotel turned out to be the centre for the local mafia. One afternoon, we were sitting in the tea room when a dozen men in black overalls and masks came tearing across the cafe, crashing on top of the tables and hurling themselves straight at their target.

It was all over in a second. It turned out that they were the elite force of the Russian police – they wore masks so the mafia could not recognise them and retaliate against their families.

I was eventually assigned a few bodyguards, two guys with Kalashnikovs who followed me everywhere in the street in a Jeep and another one with a pistol who apparently was watching over me when I was inside.

I never found out who he was, but I took the production manager's word that he existed.A couple of days before I left, I was sitting in my usual corner of the cafe (now with the damage repaired) when one of the mafia guys came over and asked if he could join me.

As if I could possibly say no. 'Why do you have these stupid bodyguards?' he asked. I replied to him all innocently, as if I hadno idea of his occupation: 'Theysay that there's mafia here in St Petersburg and I'm worried about our safety.'

Micahel with Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine: 'Jack's a tremendous actor who takes life easy and I owe him for restoring my faith in this often nasty business' says Michael

Micahel with Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine: 'Jack's a tremendous actor who takes life easy and I owe him for restoring my faith in this often nasty business' says Michael

He let out a great laugh and slapped his enormous thigh. 'You work for – ' and he gave the name of a Russian movie company that I didn't quite catch.Did I? He stood up and said: 'We own that. There's no need to worry – you're the safest man in the whole of St Petersburg.'

The filming itself was a joke. The final blow came when we were shooting in the Lenfilm studio itself. I wanted to go to the toilet and they directed me to it. I could smell it 50 yards away and it was thefilthiest lavatory I have ever seen.

I went outside and relieved myself against the sound stage, which I noticed several other men had done before.

So this is where my career has ended, I thought to myself: in the toilet. I'm done.I picked myself up and took the family off to our place in Miami straight after Christmas.


The sun was shining, everyone was happy, the book was still selling, my restaurants were doing well. Fine, I thought, life was different – but that was life. And this is when my friend Jack Nicholson changed everything.

Having been one of the original reasons we'd decided to buy our South Beach apartment, he'd moved on from Miami – but he suddenly turned up there again with the director Bob Rafelson and a script called Blood And Wine that they were going to shoot there.

The combination of the three was seductive and I decided to have one last shot at being a movie actor. It was the best decision I ever made.Jack's a tremendous actor who takes life easy and I owe him for restoring my faith in this often nasty business.

I know he's not everyone's idea of a fairy godmother, but he did it for me. His attitude to work was summed up one day when we were hurrying to get a shot before the sun went down. I started to run. 'Don't run, Michael!' hissed Jack. 'They'll know it's us who are late!'

So we kept strolling – and I still do.Jack has a deservedly great repu-tation for the ladies, but he had me fooled one day. We stopped for lunch and I saw him go into his motorhome with a particularly pretty but very young girl.

After lunch I tried to broach the subject diplomatically. 'That was a very pretty girl I saw you with at lunchtime,' I said, trying to keep a disapproving note out of my voice. 'That was my daughter, Michael,' he said. 'By Miss Denmark,' he added with a careless flourish.

Although Blood And Wine, released in 1996, was never a big hit with the public, it was a big hit with me. Filming was suddenly fun again and there was a whole new bunch of talented young actors to get to know – Jennifer Lopez, Heath Ledger, Sandra Bullock, Christian Bale, Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson to name but a few.

It was the beginning of an exciting new phase of my life. I was definitely on my way back!To consolidate this new phase of my career, I needed a film that would work in America as well as Britain.

In 1998 at least one of my prayers was answered with a script for a film version of John Irving's great American classic The Cider House Rules.

That was a strong enough pedigree to hook me in, but the director Lasse Hallstrom was also very talented, and the cast included Charlize Theron, who would go on to win an Oscar for Monster, Tobey Maguire, who would become the hugely successful Spiderman, and my two cohort nurses Kathy Baker and Jane Alexander, both great actresses.

I play a doctor who runs an orphanage. The adage about not working with animals or children is always trotted out, but I've done both and survived. There were about 100 children in The Cider House Rules.

In movies there are strict rules for working with small babies: they can never work for more than half an hour and their eyes must be protected from the bright lights at all times.

Michael with wife Shakira

Michael with wife Shakira

As a grandfather of two babies, I understand all this, but it makes the acting hard work. As the acting time is so short companies usually cast identical twins, which sounds sensi-ble, but of the twins I worked with on Cider House one never stopped crying and the other never stopped laughing.

But I loved the movie – and I loved my part. One of the most enjoyable aspects of getting to my age in movies is watch-ing the young stars come up, and Charlize is one of the most talented – and beautiful – of them all.

We had to play a potentially embar-rassing scene together in which my doctor character gives her an obstet-ric examination with her legs up on stirrups. We were all waiting to see how she would handle this and she did it in typical Charlize fashion.

When the time came for the shoot, she got up on the stirrups, gave her wickedest smile and opened her legs to reveal the nastiest pair of old man's underpants I have ever seen – although being Charlize, she still managed to look sexy in them.

I have a list of younger actresses that I love to work with and Charlize is right at the top, along with Nicole Kidman, Beyoncé Knowles and Scarlett Johannson.I was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1999 for my role in Cider House.

I'd learnt my lesson with my previous Oscar, in 1987 when I won for Hannah And Her Sisters but hadn't attended, and this time I made sure I was there. And just as well I did – because I got a long stand-ing ovation when I won.

Time is always the big issue at the Academy Awards. When the producer thinks the winner's speech has gone on long enough he starts the music softly and gradually increases the volume until the audience can hardly hear you.

Steve Martin and Michael Caine in 'Dirty Rotten Scondrels'

Steve Martin and Michael Caine in 'Dirty Rotten Scondrels'

I had picked out the other nominees in my category for a remark and I was aware I was going on a bit. I needed another minute, so I looked over at the wings to check with Dick Zanuck who was producing that year.

He gave me a smile and a thumbs-up and I got that extra minute – gold dust in an Academy speech.So there I was, a second Academy Award, another role in a great movie – life, I felt, was great again.

Today I'm in the fortunate and luxu-rious position of only working when I want to. I don't like getting up early or spending a long time learning lines, so these days I only work with offers that I really can't refuse.It's very different from the way I used to be.

From the age of 20 to the age of 29, I was obsessed with becoming an actor and when I finally got to Hollywood, I could never quite believe that I had made it and so I kept on working for fear it would all disap-pear on me.

These days, I don't think like that at all. I don't see myself as a Hollywood movie star – in fact I don't see myself as anything in particular. I'm aware that I have this image in the media and I have to confess I quite like it, but I'm not allowed to take myself too seriously.

1965 film The Ipcress File: Bullet To Beijing starring Michael Caine and Nigel Green

1965 film The Ipcress File: Bullet To Beijing starring Michael Caine and Nigel Green

I once tried it on Shakira. 'I'm an icon,' I said. 'It says so in the paper.' 'You may be an icon,' she said, 'but you'd better take the rubbish out! 'Of course we still go back to Holly-wood. It's an incredibly important part of our lives and many of our friends still live there.

But the links are loosening. I had thought it was all over in 1992, but it turned out that it wasn't. Now, I think it probably is. March 14 was my 77th birthday and it was such a special one.

From a high-octane celebrity party full of elegant, beautiful people to a small dinner in Mayfair with old friends from the Sixties and then – and happiest of all – to a day at home with three generations of my family.

I had a birthday I'll always remember. It seems to me, too, that my three birthday celebrations also reflect the distance I've travelled – from the Elephant all the way to Hollywood and back. It was a tough start, it's had some low moments and it's had incredible highs, but it's been a rich and reward-ing journey – and it's not over yet!

Michael after receiving a knighthood in 2000

Michael after receiving a knighthood in 2000

I was knighted – in just one take

Receiving a knighthood in 2000 was one of the proudest moments of my life. Accompanied by my wife Shakira and daughters Dominique and Natasha, I drove to Buckingham Palace.

When we got out of the car, we were immediately greeted by an Army officer who must have been about 6ft 5in, standing ramrod straight.I was taken to a back room to practise.

There was a wooden apparatus with a cushion for kneeling on.'The right knee only!' my usher instructed me firmly. 'I know how to kneel,' I said. 'It's not the kneeling we're worried about,' he replied.

'It's the getting up again!' He pointed out a rail on one side of the cushion. 'This,' said the usher, 'is for the older recipients who might have trouble getting to their feet again.'

I realised that – unlike the movies – I'd have to get it right first time: there wouldn't be a second take.When it came, I did everything I had been told to do and in the correct order and stood in front of Her Majesty.

'I have a feeling that you have been doing what you do for a very long time,' she said. I stifled the temptation to say: 'And so have you, Ma'am,' and just replied: 'Yes, Ma'am,' went down on one knee and was knighted.

Don't ever mess with Sean

Unlike my other golfing friend Sidney Poitier, Sean Connery is not the gentlest person in the world and my lack of grasp of the sport would not make him sad as it did Sidney, it would just make him angry.

Sean has a terrible temper and when he tried to teach me golf he was so incensed by my performance he grabbed my club and broke it in two. I've never played since and I never will because I do not want to upset two of my best friends, Sean, in particular.

Michalel met Sean in London in the late Fifties at what was then called a 'bottle party'

Michalel met Sean in London in the late Fifties at what was then called a 'bottle party'

There was one time in the early Sixties, when we were in a London club together and it was amateur night and people were standing up to sing. They weren't very good, but they were only youngsters trying their best.

There were some drunks behind us and they started mocking the singers and Sean spoke to them a couple of times politely.'Will you give the kids a chance?' he asked. 'They're trying to make their way in life.'

Finally Sean had had enough and he got up. 'Shut the f up!' he said and knocked all four of them out. I didn't even leave my chair. I tell you, you wouldn't mess with Sean unless you were very silly.