Double Oscar-winning British actor Michael Caine is often described as “the pin-up for gentlemen around the world.” There’s something about his laconic accent, his youthful charm, and his sharp style, that has kept in in the spotlight for seven decades, appearing in more than 160 films – he says as many as 175 if uncredited films are counted.
Londoner Michael Caine – born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite – turned 90 years old on 14 March 2023. He first acted in 1944 in his village school in North Runction, 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of London, where he was evacuated to avoid the Blitz bombings during the Second World War. He was ten years old.
Six years later, he won a small part in the 1950 movie Morning Departure. He served in the Britsh Army from 1952-1954 as part of national service, before returning to London to resume his acting career, taking on the name Michael White in 1953 for the film Wuthering Heights. His agent told him that there was already an actor with that name so he changed it to Michael Caine in 1954.
He became well-known for his Cockney-accented role in Alfie (1966), playing the arrogant, womanising chauffeur Alfie Elkins who confronts his own mortality and changes his life. Cher performed the Burt Bacharach and Hal David title song “Alfie” in the American release of the movie, while Cilla Black performed it in the British release. Jude Law starred in the 2004 re-make of the movie.
Director John Huston said after the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King, co-starring Sean Connery, that Michael Caine was a master improviser and “one of the most intelligent men among the artists I’ve known.”
Nominated for an Oscar six times, he won two supporting actor Oscars: in 1986 for his performance in the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters, and in 1999 for his role in The Cider House Rules. Only American actor Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine have been nominated for Academy Award Oscars for acting in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s. His latest role was Lord Boresh in the 2022 Czech film Medieval.
In 2015, The Times called Michael Caine “the epitome of Sixties cool” and he has long been known as a man of aplomb and style. His iconic style of the Sixties was his thick horn-rimmed glasses, worn in the three movies as Harry Palmer of Len Deighton’s spy novels: The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).
From the character’s working class, nondescript, bespectacled appearance, who “fought, fumbled, and survived his outrageous way” through the films of best-selling novels, he became an influential figure. He played Harry Palmer in two further films in the 1990s, not associated with the Len Deighton series: Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996). Mike Myers adopted the ‘bespectacled look’ in his Austin Powers comedy spy films from 1997 to 2002.
His classic style, on and off screen, endures: polo necks, Chelsea boots, printed ties. His distinctive looks, voice, manners, and smile will long be imitated.
Photographs: Young Michael Caine, 1967, by Fred Ohert.