HE WAS BORN WITH A MOST UNPROMISING name—Maurice Micklewhite—in one of London’s most dismal slums. Yet for nearly 30 years he has been one of Hollywood’s most durable leading men, playing cads (Alfie) and con men (The Man Who Would lie King), battling killer bees (The Swarm) and a monster shark (Jaws: The Revenge). This month, as Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol, he’s the only flesh-and-blood star in a cast of fleece, flocking, fabric and foam. Still, Michael Caine’s most astonishing role may have been the one he played in May 1991 in a real-life story reminiscent of Rain Man.
As Caine, 59, recalls in What’s It All About? (a spirited—and unghosted—autobiography that’s been a best-seller in his native England since October and was published a few weeks ago in the U.S.), “I was shocked when a reporter from an English tabloid gave me the news that I had an illegitimate half brother some seven years older than me.” David Burchell, born out of wedlock to Caine’s mother, Ellen, before she’d met his father, Maurice Sr., was an epileptic. His disease, then mistakenly diagnosed as a form of mental illness, condemned him to life in an asylum on the outskirts of London, where his epilepsy only worsened. Though Ellen visited him faithfully once a week until her old age, his existence remained a secret she carried to her grave in 1989. “Her attitude,” Caine says admiringly, “was that David’s being discovered there might [adversely] affect my career.”
Caine (described by his friend novelist Jackie Collins as “very excitable”) and Shakira, 44, his wife of 19 years (whom Collins appraises as “very, very calm”), flew from Los Angeles, where they keep a home in Beverly Hills, to London, where Caine had arranged for David to be transferred to a nursing home. There, later joined by Caine’s brother Stanley Micklewhite, 56, an unpublished novelist, they met with David. Confined to a wheelchair, he-puke in grunts that only the nurses seemed to understand. Still, Michael was gratified to learn that his mother had told his half brother about him. David died last February of pneumonia. “His ashes,” Michael writes, “are buried with our mother’s” in the garden of the Caines’ 10-acre country estate in Oxfordshire, England.
As poignant as David’s story is, Michael’s memoir may be even more noteworthy for the juicy, offbeat-on-wry anecdotes that Caine, a veteran of more than 70 films, supplies about his costars. Laurence Olivier, we learn, cagily tried to hog the camera during their two-man 1972 tour de force, Sleuth. Olivia de Havilland, taking Caine on a tour of the Warner Bros. lot in 1978, showed him the secluded hill behind the studio where Errol Flynn once seduced her. Arriving in Las Vegas in 1966 with platonic friend Nancy Sinatra to catch her dad’s show, Caine found his hotel room was far from Nancy’s and right next door to Frank’s—”Where I can keep an eye on you,” said Ol’ Blue Eyes.
For years, Caine says, he resisted the idea of writing his autobiography. It was his friend Collins and another pal, literary superagent Irving “Swifty” Lazar, who kept after him to set down the events of his life, which had been recounted—inaccurately, he says—in a dozen previous biographies. “There’s this perception of me being this incredibly lucky Cockney moron,” he complains. To correct that impression, Caine, in 1989, signed a reported $1.5 million contract with Random I House, Inc. Working in solitude at Oxfordshire (where he and Shakira, a former model turned jewelry designer, reside nine months of the year), Caine wrote from 9 A.M. until 6 P.M. every day, finally completing the book last summer.
The writing was emotionally painful. For one thing, he had to confront what he calls “the dreadful and despairing” details of his childhood. Crowing up “very skinny and very ugly” in the bombed-out ruins of postwar South London, where his father was a fish-market worker and his mother a charwoman, Caine as a teenager-haunted the local cinema and dreamed of becoming an actor. He dropped out of school at 16, though, and at 18, was called up by the army, which sent him to fight in Korea. Back home two years later, he took on bit roles in regional theater while hauling crates in a butter factory, greasing rods in a steelyard and performing other jobs he calls “soul-destroying.”
There were other memories too difficult, at first, even to put down on paper. At such moments, he says, “I’d walk around the garden, usually to stop myself from crying, hoping no one would see me, dodging the stall and Shakira.” Especially draining to write about was the death of his hard-drinking father at 56 from liver cancer. (“It stiffened up my backbone to no end,” he says, and vowed, “Nothing like that will happen to me.”) Caine also cried recalling the premature birth of Natasha, his daughter by Shakira, who, struggling to survive in an incubator the first two weeks of her life, would wrap her tiny hand around her father’s gloved finger. “There was a bond,” he says, “and it stayed.” (Now 19 and a student at England’s Manchester University, Natasha remains close to her parents and to her married stepsister, Dominique, 36, a horse-farm owner and Caine’s daughter from his two-year marriage to his first wife, actress Patricia Haines, who died of lung cancer in 1977.)
Caine had angry memories, too, especially of Britain’s rigid class system (“I was from the wrong part of town with the wrong accent”) and of his own long struggle to make his mark as an actor. It wasn’t until he was 29 and a veteran of dozens of TV and stage plays that Caine was invited by an old friend, British movie star Stanley Baker, to test for what would be his firs major film role, in Zulu. He went on to win raves as skirl-chaser Alfie Elkins and laid-back intelligence agent Hairy Palmer (The Ipcress File).
Caine was riding high professionally when he met Shakira Baksh, a former Miss Guyana, who first caught his eye in 1971 while she was doing a Maxwell House Coffee commercial on British TV. He tracked her down and began asking her out. At the time he was drinking up to three bottles of vodka a day, but Shakira helped him kick that habit, and he now has only an occasional glass of wine. “Shakira understands Michael more than anybody.” observes pal Roger Moore. “They’re completely compatible.”
Husband and wife both agree that writing the book was “a great catharsis” that has left Michael more content than he has been in years. But he’s hardly complacent. Having just opened his fifth restaurant in 16 years, The Canteen, in London’s trend) Chelsea Harbour, he is already researching his next book—and first novel—a police thriller. And he recently completed his next film, Blue Ice, an HBO spy caper (due out next year) costarring Sean Young.
Caine’s Muppet movie, in which he gets to emote with Miss Piggy and Kermit, might not be considered the wisest career move, but he doesn’t care. “I’m always on the farthest branches, and I fall off more than other actors do,” Caine acknowledges. Still, he keeps climbing. “I cannot think of anything more frustrating,” he says, “than to be sitting on a rocking chair on a porch at the end of your life, regretting the things that you didn’t do.”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Beverly Hills