VENICE: At 84, Michael Caine is still going strong as one of the most successful actors Britain has ever produced. Caine believes he might never have got the break that launched his movie career but for an American being oblivious to the door-closing presumptions and prejudices of the British class system. The actor was past 30 by the time he entered the big time after director Cy Endfield cast him as a British army officer in his 1964 Boer War epic, “Zulu.”
As he recounts in “My Generation,” a new documentary revolving around the actor’s recollections of and perspective on the art and music scene of swinging 1960s London, the role would probably have gone elsewhere had an English director been in charge.
Nine years of theater experience would not have erased the typecasting imposed by Caine’s modest roots as the son of a fish market porter from the then-impoverished East End of London, a cultural melting pot for centuries whose natives have the right to call themselves Cockneys.
“It is an example of class and how lucky I was,” Caine says now of his Zulu breakthrough, which coincided with him beginning to rub shoulders with the Beatles, some of the Rolling Stones and the new, upstart stars of art, fashion and photography of the era.
“My career has been made up of hard work,” he said, “but also tremendous timing and luck.”
Caine had just made the leap from provincial repertory theatre to London’s West End when Endfield came calling.
“He came backstage to see me,” Caine recalled in an interview with AFP at the Venice film festival, “and said, ‘I want you to play a Cockney corporal in a movie called ‘Zulu.’”
Being unreachable as a result of not having a phone at his flat at the time cost Caine that part, but when he went to see Endfield in person, the director had another idea.
“I was very tall, and thin and blond,” Caine recalled. “He said, ‘You look like an officer, not a corporal. Can you do a posh accent?’
“I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been in rep for nine years, I can do any accent you want.’ And he gave me the part.
“Now the thing about that is, Cy Endfield was an American. If that had been a British director, even if he was a left-wing communist, he would never have given me the part of an officer, and that was the start of my movie career.
“That is how strong the class system was.”
Having helped to shatter the suffocating glass ceiling imposed on working-class talent at the time, Caine says the benefits he has personally enjoyed have been the key to his longevity in a fickle business.
He is fond of Winston Churchill’s maxim that, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” The flipside, he says, is, “If you are in heaven, which I have been for about 60 years, keep quiet about it.”
“My Generation” director David Batty says Caine’s prolonged success actually reflects an underestimated capacity for reinvention.
“Every decade he has managed to tap into something new – through ‘Batman’ or things like being the voice in ‘Cars,’ each new generation is aware of his voice.”
“Batman was very important,” Caine concurs, “because young people know who I am.”
With the demise of free college education for most young Britons and the high costs involved in living anywhere near central London, creative opportunities are receding again for people from Caine’s kind of background, particularly in acting as elite private schools increasingly dominate the rollcall of new stars.
In comments likely to make the likes of Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston wince, Caine says star quality cannot be obtained through an expensive education.
“What you had [in the ’60s] was people like Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney who became giant stars,” he said. “I haven’t seen a recent public schoolboy become a giant star. I have seen extremely good actors and seen people starring in movies and doing it very well, but icons I have not seen.”
“My Generation” includes another memorable anecdote, from photographer David Bailey, about how ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev had to be taught how to dance the Twist at the Ad Lib club, a hangout for assorted Beatles, Stones, Kinks and the likes of actress Julie Christie and mini-skirt creator Mary Quant.
The memory has Caine quickly flipping into his much-imitated insistent tone. “I will tell you. How to do the twist,” he says. “You imagine your right foot is stuck to the floor on a piece of chewing gum and you are in the bath and you’re drying your back with a towel. You go like that and you are doing the twist.”