Michael Caine is sitting on a sofa watching the Wimbledon championships on TV when, on a cloudy day in early July, I arrive to meet him at his apartment in a tower block at Chelsea Harbour. ‘I’ll turn it down,’ he says, reaching for the remote.
He is 90, the once-thick head of golden hair thinning and greying now, dressed in a blue shirt monogrammed MC, black trousers and suede shoes, the manner genial, the eyes sparkling behind his outsized glasses. A walking frame stands beside him.
His wife Shakira had greeted me at the door. Charming, beautiful, 76 but seemingly ageless, asking whether I’d like tea. They have owned the apartment for 30 years.
Until recently they also had a country home in Surrey, but it came to a point where Caine couldn’t walk around its eight acres any more, and the house was so big that he and Shakira would have to phone to find out where the other was, and what’s the point of that? So they downsized and bought a house in Wimbledon, closer to the family and their three grandchildren.
Now they spend three days in Chelsea and the rest of the week in Wimbledon. You wonder why. Wimbledon is hardly the country, but there’s something about Michael Caine and Chelsea that seems inseparable – the echoes of the ’60s, Swinging London, the King’s Road.
‘Once you’ve lived in Chelsea you don’t want to live anywhere else in London.’ He pauses. ‘And if you come from the Elephant and Castle like I do, you want to live anywhere else in London.’
The living room is filled with large, modern furniture, with a counter separating the living and dining area from the kitchen, where Shakira sits on a high stool, keeping an eye on things.
On the wall are paintings of Chelsea pubs and social landmarks – The Chelsea Potter, The Pheasantry, where Eric Clapton lived upstairs once upon a time. ‘It’s all the great ’60s pubs on the King’s Road,’ Caine says.
‘I used to go there when it was all happening, and one day I went in a gallery and there were five or six of these paintings, and I loved them so much I bought them.’
He points to one. ‘That’s The World’s End – that’s just round the corner. This block of flats was the first block built here. We’ve sat here watching everything come up around us, and it’s been extraordinary, because it was all slums and docks and crap.’
A housekeeper materialises at my elbow and puts a cup of tea on the table beside me. ‘And he’s got a biscuit and all!’ Caine affects indignation. ‘I didn’t get a biscuit!
Michael Caine is probably the most famous cockney there ever was. Everyone knows his voice: the flattened vowels, the nasal intonation, the occasional cor blimey. But here, in private, propriety takes a rest and Caine allows a deeper, more unfiltered cockney to emerge.
Truman Capote once remarked on Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘amusing abundance of four letter profanity’ and it’s true of Caine this afternoon, effing this and effing that, never in anger but like a punctuation mark, or as a throwaway expression of exasperation, always with a laugh. He likes a laugh, Michael Caine, and you find yourself laughing a lot as he talks.
‘I’ll tell you who liked a laugh.’ He holds up a finger. ‘Frank Sinatra.’ They met when Caine first went to Hollywood in the mid 1960s. ‘He was very nice, he became my friend, and he loved to laugh. But he never did many things that made you laugh.
‘He was tough… very tough. He took me to Las Vegas on his private plane, and then I knew every mafia guy in Las Vegas. I had dinner with them all. Caesars Palace…’ He pauses. Michael Caine from the Elephant and Castle. ‘It was very difficult for me to believe what was happening.’
This was when Sinatra was marrying Mia Farrow. And Caine was going out with Sinatra’s daughter Nancy. In March, on Caine’s 90th birthday, Farrow posted a message of congratulations on Instagram, pointing out that if Caine had married Nancy, she would have been his mother-in-law. ‘Really?’ He laughs like a drain. He doesn’t look at Instagram.
He and Farrow became good friends. ‘When Frank married her and he’d go away he’d say, look after her, Michael, don’t let her get bored. He had an older friend, whose name I forget, and we both used to take her out to discos and restaurants and all that – so she wouldn’t get bored.’
Hollywood… the very word animates him. Growing up he’d sat in cinemas watching all the stars and suddenly there they were. ‘It was the most incredible experience. It was like living with gods. I’d go out to a restaurant and there’d be John Wayne sitting there, all sorts of people – and they’d all say hello.
‘They treated me as one of them! I lived there, I worked there, I occasionally won an Academy Award and all that. [He has won two, and been nominated for four more.] I was just like them.’ You’ve had an extraordinary life, I say. ‘Oh blimey, yeah.’
In a career lasting some 73 years – since his first fleeting, uncredited appearance as a tea boy in the 1950 movie Morning Departure, Michael Caine has made more than 120 films, and called every major star in Hollywood his friend. But he has now made what will probably be his last film.
The Great Escaper is based on the true story of Bernard ‘Bernie’ Jordan, a Royal Navy veteran. In 2014, at the age of 89, he disappeared from his care home in Hove, where he was living with his wife Irene, to make his own way to France to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France, after being told that he was unable to get a place on a Royal British Legion trip. His disappearance sparked a police search and made him a media sensation.
Bernie had served on a support ship during the D-Day landings. The Great Escaper fictionalises his story, turning his journey into an act of remembrance for a young soldier he saw killed during the storming of Sword beach, and developing Bernie and Irene’s relationship, to create a portrait of a marriage built on lifelong familiarity, gentle bickering and a deep and abiding love. It’s a story, Caine says, that had a particular resonance for him. ‘Oh, blimey, yes. I could have been him.’
Caine was 12 when the Second World War ended – he spent much of the war as an evacuee in Norfolk. ‘But I knew all about it because my dad was a soldier.’ His father Maurice Micklewhite – which is also Caine’s birth name – was not at D-Day, he was in Rome, Caine says. ‘He liberated the Pope.’
Caine himself did National Service, called up when he was 18 and sent to occupied Berlin. ‘And then when I was 19 they sent me to Korea – which was not a very nice idea for your 19th birthday. I wasn’t a big professional soldier, and it wasn’t a big war.
‘The Korean War was like the First World War, we all lived in trenches and fought each other in the dark; but I was still s—t scared, as everybody else was. So I understood those things – death and close friends dying and getting injured.’ He pauses. ‘I’ve seen a lot of what’s gone on, you know? Unbelievable.’
The Great Escaper is a deeply affecting film, which avoids the trap of easy sentimentality through its deft direction by Oliver Parker, and the brilliant performances by Caine as the cautious Bernie and Glenda Jackson as his no-nonsense wife, who gives him the resolve to embark on his adventure and keeps it secret from the care-home staff.
Bernie Jordan died in 2015, six months after his journey to France. Irene died just a week later. And The Great Escaper is given an added poignancy by the death of Jackson at the age of 87, six months after the film was completed.
If this is to be Caine’s last film too, it marks extraordinary valedictory performances by both of them. ‘I was so happy to do it,’ Caine says. ‘I just loved the character of Bernie. I thought he was incredible, and it’s so beautifully written. With Covid and all that, I hadn’t done a picture for three years, and I thought I was finished. And I suddenly did it – and had such a wonderful time.’
It was, he admits, a physically arduous role to play. These days he can’t walk unaided. ‘They gave me a very good walking stick, and I was able to do scenes that needed that. I’d just do them once, and then fall over.’ He smiles. ‘But just one take, and that’s it. Forget it.’
‘We were careful to ensure that Michael wasn’t working too hard’, says Oliver Parker, ‘and having to negotiate him moving around at the pace he did. But for him to have returned to acting after not having made a film in a while, and in the way he did, was quite a thing.
‘I’ve rarely seen him playing a character that has such frailty. He’s always been Michael Caine – carefree, confident and cool. Here he’s playing a man who is struggling to keep control. And for the audience to invest in that he really has to share his vulnerabilities, and I really was thrilled at Michael’s ability to do that.’
Caine and Jackson had worked together once before, in 1975, in a film called The Romantic Englishwoman. ‘We really liked each other,’ Caine recalls. ‘But it didn’t last in real life because she was a Left-wing socialist, and I’m just an ordinary conservative stuck-in-the-middle. Once the movie ended we never saw each other again, until we met on the set of this one.
‘She led an entirely different life from me; we never had any social times together. I never went to the Houses of Parliament for anything, and I’ve been married to Shakira for 50 years, so I wasn’t looking for any lady friends.
‘It’s a shame, because I liked her so much, and I think she liked me. And on this film, we worked very well together and we had fun.’ He shakes his head. ‘I’ve just never been able to fathom why we didn’t meet up in the 48 years between movies.’
Parker says that before shooting on the film began he brought Caine and Jackson together for dinner. ‘It was almost like two great heavyweights getting back into the ring. But in this case they were fighting on the same side. There was almost a tenderness between them. Michael did say he was worried that she thought he’d be an old fascist, which is the last thing you’d say about Michael. But they had far more in common than their differences.
‘It was amazing to see them stepping on to the set of a care home – that was the first scene – at their respective ages and carrying that wealth of shared experience. They were mutually supportive. Inevitably, given his age, Michael would rest between scenes.
‘But if ever Glenda had one of her big emotional scenes he would be there and insist on doing the lines off camera, which he didn’t need to do. They both had this strong respect for each other, and professionalism. There was never an issue of being late or throwing their weight around; they were the ultimate professionals, the two of them.’
Jackson’s death, Caine says, was ‘a big shock. She was such a lovely person and had so much more to give.’ He pauses. ‘It also meant I had to do all the publicity on my own, I didn’t have anybody to help me out. She would have been here with me; it would have been an entirely different interview.’
Caine, it seems, has been talking about retirement for more than 40 years. In 1968 he was telling one interviewer that he planned to retire when he was 45, move to a farmhouse, ‘fill it with kids and grow old gracefully’.
When I last met him in 2015 he had just finished making the Paolo Sorrentino film Youth, playing an orchestra conductor, and he told me that he had now retired, pointing out that, ‘I don’t have to work to pay the rent’. He went on to make 10 more films. ‘But I wasn’t 90 then. I am bloody 90 now, and I can’t walk properly and all that. I sort of am retired now. Anyway…’
He changes the subject. He has written a book, he says. ‘And I’m very happy with that because it’s something I can do without walking. All you need is a chair and a pencil and paper.’
It’s not his first book. He has published three autobiographies, and two collections of amazing facts Not Many People Know That! Michael Caine’s Almanac of Amazing Information, followed by And Not Many People Know This Either!.
But this is his first thriller, to be published in November. It was inspired, he says, by a newspaper story he read about two rubbish collectors who found pieces of plutonium in their dust cart, and which he has spun into a cat-and-mouse tale with a cast of characters including a London detective, a sinister Russian oligarch, a dodgy art dealer and a Colombian drug cartel.
It has taken 18 months to write, with some professional help for context and character development. ‘When I wrote about my career I knew everything about it. If you’re writing about a murder, I don’t know anything about that so I needed some help with the research. It’s not literature, it’s a thriller. And they changed the f—g title after I’d finished it.
‘Shakira!’ He calls across the room. ‘What’s the title of my book now they’ve changed it?’ ‘Deadly Game, darling,’ she replies. ‘I called it Chasing Death,’ Caine says. ‘Because when the police start looking into it everybody who’d had the plutonium was killed before they could be interviewed.’ He shrugs. ‘I’m just happy it’s being published.’
An avid reader of thrillers, he had attempted to write one before – ‘This is unbelievable…’ – about an aeroplane crashing into a London skyscraper. And then 9/11 happened. ‘I just got so angry, I tore the f—g thing up,’ he says. ‘I was so p—d off, I’d been working on it forever.’
I ask him, what’s the best thing about being 90? ‘The best thing about being 90 is that nobody expects you to do very much and people do things for you.’
But people doing things for you must have been the case for most of your life, I say. He nods. ‘The worst thing about it is that so much disappears from your life. You can’t run around, you can’t play football, and you gradually realise you’re approaching death.
‘It could be just around the corner at 90. But I’m quite happy. I’m sitting here writing, doing my thing. I like it. I have two children, three grandchildren and a wife; and if the book I’ve written is a success, everything it makes will be left to them after I’ve gone. And the thing to remember is, someone will probably turn up and ask to do the movie. And there’ll be a million dollars put on it. So I’ll be very happy about that.’
But you won’t be there to play the lead role. He laughs. ‘Yeah, there’s no 90-year-old lovers in there.’
I ask, does the prospect of death frighten him? ‘No,’ he replies. ‘Because I have a way of looking at it. Everyone’s going to join me eventually. No one’s going to say “I’m so sorry you’re going to die – I wish you were like me and not going to die”. Everybody’s going to die. At least I’ve lived to f—g 90; I didn’t die at nine, or 19, or 29. I’m 90, and I’ve had the best possible life I could have thought of. The best possible wife, and the best possible family. They may not be a family that other people would say is the best possible family – but the best possible family for me.’
Caine has two daughters, Dominique, 67, from his first marriage to the actor Patricia Haines, and Natasha, 50, from his marriage to Shakira, and three grandchildren: 12-year-old twins Miles and Allegra, and 13-year-old grandson Taylor.
He points to a picture of himself with the twins, that is displayed on a table, flanked by his two Oscars, taken in the stands at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. ‘We lost,’ he says. Caine had been a season-ticket holder for years, but gave it up this year because of his mobility issues. Another pleasure gone.
Caine says he never had ambitions to be a movie star – a movie actor, yes, but not a star. ‘Because I thought you had to be very handsome and all that – kissing the girls and everything – and I wasn’t like that when I was young. I was an ugly, skinny bastard. But I’ve been married for 50 years to one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.’
He tells me the story. It was 1972. He was at home one night, watching television and a commercial for Brazilian coffee came on featuring ‘the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen’ – and he made up his mind there and then that he was going to Brazil the next day to find her. Later that evening, he found himself in the nightclub Tramp (a place where he’d often find himself in those days) and he told a bloke who was in advertising that he was off to Brazil next morning to find the girl he was going to marry.
‘And he said, wait a minute, Michael, we do that commercial, and she’s not Brazilian, she’s Indian and she lives on the Fulham Road.’
I can hear Shakira sighing on the other side of the kitchen bar. It’s a nice story, I say. ‘It is,’ she says. ‘But he’s told it so many times.’ ‘But I’ve only told it once to this gentleman,’ Caine says.
‘It’s been the greatest thing that’s happened to me in my life. But when I rang her, she wouldn’t come out with me. And I rang her 10 times…’
‘Four or five times,’ Shakira corrects him. ‘Take no notice of her. Ten times. And on the 11th time I thought, if she doesn’t come out with me now I’m not ringing again. And she came out. And I got this life with her, which has been paradise, and the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’
‘Oh, Michael…’ I hear Shakira say.
‘It is an extraordinary thing,’ Caine continues. ‘If she’d have said no, our lives would have been nothing, without each other.’ I ask Shakira, what did she see in Caine? ‘He was funny. He just made me laugh so much. And, of course, he was the most attractive man I’ve ever seen, and warm. There are too many things to tell you.’ Caine is glowing on the sofa.
‘Anyway,’ he goes on, ‘we went to Vegas for my 40th birthday, and we got married. It was where a lot of famous people had got married, because there were pictures of all of them on the wall. I was looking round thinking, f—g hell, I’m getting married where whatisname got married, and so-and-so.
‘And then, at the end, I looked round, and realised every single person on the wall had got divorced. I thought, oh s—t, this isn’t going to last long, then…’ He laughs.
Before meeting Caine, I had been watching an interview by the BBC’s Amol Rajan with the actor Brian Cox, where Cox was asked to give a 10-second opinion on other actors. Asked about Caine, he rolled his eyes and chuckled to himself.
‘He can be really good, Michael… Alfie and stuff like that; when he does what he does, he does it better than anybody else. But there’s just something about him… he’s a bit working-class Tory for me.’
An answer that managed to be patronising, and lacking in graciousness and humility, all in the space of three sentences. Caine has won two Academy Awards. Cox? We’ll pass swiftly over that.
‘Brian Cox?’ Caine says when I tell him about the interview. ‘No, I don’t know him. And I’m not a Tory.’
‘You are, sweetheart,’ Shakira says. ‘You are a Tory.’
‘Er, Shakira, do not interrupt my interview.’
You were quite happy with Shakira interrupting, I point out, when she was saying how handsome and charming you are. ‘No, what I’m saying is, all my life I’ve worked to earn money to pay tax.
‘So the more money I’ve made, the more money goes to the working class. That’s all there is to it.’ And, he adds. ‘I voted Labour for Tony Blair.’
‘Anyway…’ He pauses. ‘I’ll tell you a story. I was making a picture in the Philippines. And there was a millionaire couple who invited some of us on the film to dinner. So we arrive and as we go into the lobby people recognise me. “Michael Caine!” and all that. And I looked up and smiled at the hostess, who was standing on the staircase looking down. And her face was so hard. She never smiled back.
She looked as though she hated me, and I thought, what the f—k have I done?
‘And the crowd broke up a bit and I walked up to her, and I said good evening. She said, “Good evening. Are you a drug dealer?” So I said, I don’t even take drugs, let alone deal in them. I said, why did you ask me that? She said, “If you’re not a drug dealer, why does everybody call you My Cocaine?”’ Caine roars with laughter.
‘You couldn’t invent it!’ But you suspect he might have. ‘No, it’s true! It amused me, once I’d got around it.’ We’ve been talking for more than an hour, and Caine is getting tired. So what, I ask, would you like to be remembered for? ‘Let me see…’ He thinks for a moment. ‘For the fact that I remained an actor all my life, and I never went into anything else. I never left, I never wanted to leave…’
He stops mid-sentence.‘Omar Sharif?’ his voice rises in disbelief. What? I’m confused. Then I realise. On the television, Wimbledon has given way to an interview on the local news about the housing crisis with someone whom the caption says is named Omar Sharif. Caine is laughing. ‘That’s not Omar Sharif,’ he says. He would know. Omar Sharif was Michael Caine’s friend.
The Great Escaper opens in cinemas on 6 October