In “Alfie” mode nearly 40 years ago, Michael Caine played a man who avoided the prospect of fatherhood at any cost.
Now Caine, who personified the heartless swinger in that 1966 classic, has become the father figure of choice for everyone from Austin Powers to Batman to the conjurer who marries a mortal in “Bewitched.”
Caine, the title character’s super-spy dad in “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” is staunch butler Alfred in “Batman Begins,” playing surrogate sire for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he makes his transition from grieving heir to masked superhero.
In the big-screen “Bewitched,” Caine’s an ancient warlock keeping tabs on his daughter (Nicole Kidman), who’s a real witch cast as the sorceress opposite a prima donna actor (Will Ferrell) in a remake of the TV show.
Fatherhood does not end there for Caine, a two-time Academy Award winner who, at 72, is relishing a late-career renaissance. Come fall, Caine co-stars in “The Weather Man,” playing a successful writer with a contemptuous attitude toward his son (Nicolas Cage).
An Academy Award winner for supporting actor with 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Caine hit a patch of so-so movies in the 1990s and was ready to call it quits, figuring his acting days were over.
Then a rush of prime roles came his way with “Little Voice,” “The Cider House Rules,” which earned him a second supporting-actor Oscar, and “The Quiet American,” a film over which Caine still chides Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. Saying Miramax abandoned the film during Hollywood’s cutthroat awards season, Caine stumped for the movie himself and picked up a best-actor Oscar nomination.
He also earned Oscar nominations for “Alfie,” “Sleuth” and “Educating Rita.”
Caine sat down with The Associated Press to discuss his career revival, his roles in “Bewitched” and “Batman Begins” and his thoughts on remakes of his own movies (“The Italian Job,” “Get Carter” and “Alfie”).
AP: Batman’s butler and an ancient warlock. How do you prepare for two such different roles?
Caine: I do a backstory, and the backstory on the butler is, he was a sergeant in the British Special Services. Very tough, got wounded, got put in charge of the sergeant’s mess or canteen. Therefore, he knew how to do drinks and serve and do that. He was seen by the father of Bruce Wayne, who said come and be my butler. Sort of butler-bodyguard. So I played him as that, and the voice was the voice of my sergeant when I first joined the British Army. And he looks like he’s more active than a butler’s ever been. I wanted him to look like a man of action who’s a bit too old to do it professionally, but if push came to shove, he could take care of himself.
AP: And the backstory on “Bewitched”?
Caine: I gave up on that, because he’s a warlock who’s a thousand years old, and I thought, I’m not doing a thousand-year backstory. So I played him as an extremely sophisticated English gentleman roue with a keen eye for the ladies. And a very doting, loving father, because I have two daughters, so I knew exactly how to treat Nicole as a daughter.
AP: In the “Batman” TV show, Alfred the butler was a stuffy guy lingering in the background. Did you worry you were playing “just the butler”?
Caine: If it had just been a butler saying, ‘Dinner is served,’ and ‘I’ll fetch the brandy,’ there’d be no point in it. But it was the dialogue and the relationship. And I was very fortunate with Christian. He had this relationship going so well with me. To be able to work with an actor like that is really good.
AP: Does it bother you that you’re in a string of supporting parts rather than lead roles?
Caine: Oh no. Blimey, it’s a relief, because I did “The Quiet American,” then I had to go out and promote it without a lot of backup, shall we say, from Harvey. It was such a nightmare, doing that. I thought, I don’t want to play the lead in a movie for a while, so I was very happy to do these parts. But now, I’m sort of ready. Now I’ve had a good rest. I haven’t worked since November. I’ve only got one project ... Jude Law and I want to remake “Sleuth.” We have a very good rewrite by Harold Pinter, and we might do that. I figured everybody else is remaking my movies. I’ll remake one. And Jude’s already remade one of mine.
AP: Jude’s “Alfie” flopped last year. What did you think of it?
Caine: I thought it was very good, but you see, it’s timing. It was the wrong movie at the wrong time. The basis of my Alfie, what was funny about my Alfie was that he was a man who not only did not have a feminine side or was out of touch with his feminine side, but he just had no idea. That’s what was funny about him. I mean, he called women it. Jude played it as a modern man who is in touch with his feminine side, so it’s not as funny, but it’s more touching. I was sort of a barbarian, an absolute barbarian in the world of sex, so when Alfie turned at the end of the movie and he said “What’s it all about?” you knew there was something that had happened to him. When Jude said “What’s it all about?” you thought: well, I thought he really knew at the beginning. He was a modern man, and he knew what it was all about. He’d been beaten up by women for the last 25 years, and he knew what it was all about.
AP: Does it surprise you that so many good parts are coming your way late in your career?
Caine: It’s amazing. I’d more or less given up, and it just goes to show, you’ve got to hang in there. The great thing about acting, people say, “Aren’t you a bit old for acting?” I say, “Well, how old are the people in the story? Do they have stories where there aren’t any 80-year-olds in it or 75-year-olds?” They always need someone that age, you know? So it intrigues me.
AP: With all these big films, is this about as a fun a time as you’ve had as an actor?
Caine: It is, because I don’t have to work for the rent or the telephone bill. I sort of treat myself as someone who’s retired, who is absolutely enticed out of retirement to play something that’s great. To play Nicolas Cage’s father and Batman’s butler, Nicole’s father in “Bewitched.” In my vernacular, these are offers I can’t refuse. It gets me out of bed in the morning, because I really look forward to going to work.