The Irrepressible Michael Caine, Savoring the Good Life

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. " Bloody genius Michael Caine is having a bloody good time. He's got the bloody boffo house in the English countryside with the bloody huge garden. "I grow every bloody thing," he says. "I'm a bloody good cook." Sauces? Don't even get him started.

When he's not puttering about as a millionaire farmer, he's in Miami Beach or on the Riviera with his wife, the former model Shakira Baksh. "We have friends in France, and we goof off down there on the weekends." This is a man who has achieved a certain perspective at age 75. One of his favorite movies is "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," because he got to live in the South of France for three months while filming it.

"Bloody marvelous," he recalls, and when Caine says bloody "marvelous," his marvelous just sounds better than your ordinary marvelous, thanks to the bangers-and-mash accent and that smile, being this giddy, gluttony, happy, wicked smile, which works even better because his teeth are yellow with the memory of a million marvelous meals accompanied by the kind of wine that robs precocious children of their college tuitions. White veneers? Not bloody likely.

Caine is in town to promote "The Dark Knight," the disturbing, hyperviolent continuation of the Batman story, starring Caine in a reprise of his role as Alfred the butler, with Christian Bale as the caped crusader and Heath Ledger as the rattlingly intense, slurring fast-cycling psychopath Joker. The critics agree that Ledger performance is the scariest/best thing about this summer blockbuster, and of course interest in the movie is only stoked by Ledger's sudden death earlier this year of an overdose.

"Lovely guy," Caine says. "I got to know him a little bit. Just on the set a bit. I was so impressed by his performance. And when I saw the movie, I was bowled over. On set, we would be chatting about this or that. Then the director would say, 'We're ready, Heath,' and then he'd go straight into that maniacal thing. I told him, 'I'm too old to play a part like that. I don't have energy to do that, what you do. Come to think of it, I don't think I had the energy to do it at your age.' It was stunning on the screen. But to be there when he was doing it ... " He lets out a long, slow profanity.

We mention that Caine himself lived some wild years. In a recent piece in the British press, he mentions drinking bottles of vodka.

"Oh, I just drink wine with food now. Though I thoroughly enjoy it. You know, I was never an alcoholic, but it is true I was on occasion very, very drunk." The smile. "But you know, I used to go out on the town with Peter O'Toole, so I had a bloody master craftsman teaching me." (Caine was an understudy for O'Toole on the London stage.)

On the topic of drink, Caine unspools his theory of the social history of the late 20th century. Oh, we had our times, he says, "but the difference with us, we were always getting pissed, with alcohol. Booze we were. That's why the '60s were so successful. Because with booze you're all out together, drinking. What screwed up the '70s was drugs, because you had to stay at home and take the bloody drugs and you couldn't go out or you got busted by the police. The '60s got finished around 1975 when everybody was high as a kite and couldn't go out. Couldn't find their bloody shoes if they wanted to go out. You don't go out and take drugs."

Caine is sitting in a $1,000-a-night suite, down the hall from the even bigger room where he is staying. One reason it is so delicious to be Sir Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr. " he was knighted " is that he came from a two-room, gaslit, cold-water flat. Caine, the son of a charlady and a porter at a fish market, evacuated to the countryside during the London bombings in World War II.

"We lived on a farm. It was fantastic," Caine remembers. "I've returned to that farm, in a way. I live in a great big barn with a great big garden. When you get old, you relive your childhood, which is what I'm doing."

But with better wine. "Bloody right," Caine says.

He recalls: "After the war, we lived in a prefabricated house. Because we were bombed out. You put the house up in a day. If I were to show you this house, which was the size of this room, it was like paradise for me. If I were to show it to you, you'd think it the biggest piece of (junk). But it was luxury for us. Hot and cold running water. It had a bathroom. Electricity! For me it was incredible."

After he became a movie star, he brought his mother to Los Angeles. "I took her to Beverly Hills, like in February, when in England it's rain and snow and bloody bleak. We're driving along. It's all plants and flowers everywhere. I say to my mother, what do you think? And she says the truest thing ever said about Beverly Hills, even though it was a mistake. She said, 'Look at it, all that hysteria, growing up the walls.' "

Caine laughs with pleasure at the memory.

Caine never formally studied acting. "When I got out of the Army" " he served in Korea for two years, got malaria, the treatment almost killed him " "I was working in a factory and I told this old guy I was going to be an actor, but I didn't know how to go about it. ... (He) says to me, 'There's a newspaper advertises for actors, it's called the Stage.' "

Caine got a job as assistant stage manager out in the boonies. He had never seen a professional play. "Never," he says. "I didn't have the money to go to the theater. It wasn't like that. It was also a very tough area where I'm from. Tell someone you were going to see a play, they say, 'What is he? Gay?'"

He learned his craft doing 50 plays a year in regional repertory theaters in England. Caine has since appeared in more than 100 films " many of them memorable ("Zulu," "Alfie," "Sleuth," "Educating Rita," "The Cider House Rules," "The Quiet American") and many of them duds (like, um, "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure"). That is another reason that people like Michael Caine. The turkeys. Is there not a certain reckless pluck in an actor who wins a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" while making a film called "Jaws: The Revenge"?

"It was only a 10-minute role. It was only 10 days' work. In Nassau. In the Bahamas. And they were going to pay me a million bucks for 10 days, and I said, 'Hey, I'll do that.' I didn't take any notice of it," Caine says. "I didn't write it, direct it, photograph it, produce it, didn't play any of leading parts, but I get the blame.

"I bought my mother a house with the money," he says, "so I was very pleased with myself. But I don't do that anymore."

Make bad movies?

"Right." He explains. "Movie actors do not retire, the movies retire you." It almost goes without saying: He doesn't need the money. But they do keep sending him scripts. He makes a little joke. "So I have retired mentally, but I didn't retire physically." Michael Caine gives us a nice last laugh.

"I've become very good at holiday-making," he says. "I'm practicing it. It takes time to get it right." Now he's off to lunch with his wife. He says he's starving.

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