By Jim Jerome
March 27, 2000 12:00 PM

I come from over there,” says Michael Caine, pointing toward South London from the terrace of his tony pied-à-terre in Chelsea. Though Caine perfected a New England accent to play world-weary Dr. Wilbur Larch in The Cider House Rules—for which he has earned an Academy Award nomination this year—the actor’s native cockney remains pitch perfect, as it needs to be in Shiner, the British gangster film he’s now shooting in London. Still, Caine knew a long time ago he would escape the gritty Elephant and Castle district where he grew up. “I’d have never stayed there,” he says. “I’d have gone up to the West End for something—to be a designer or architect. I’ve always loved that idea. An architect.”

Instead, Caine, 67, has spent four decades constructing a body of cinematic work that towers above most of his peers’ in sheer volume, range and quality. Over a career that includes some 90 movies as varied as Dressed to Fall and The Muppet Christmas Carol, Caine has had four Oscar-nominated roles in addition to Cider—in Alfie, Sleuth, Educating Rita and Hannah and Her Sisters, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor award. Even Caine’s work in such what-was-he-thinking? stinkers as The Swarm and Jaws: The Revenge is informed by a masterful precision and grace.

“What makes Michael tick,” says longtime friend Roger Moore, “is that he’s brave. He doesn’t give a damn. He will tackle anything.” Film critic Roger Ebert says Caine “brings a real joy of performance to his work,” and Cider director Lasse Hallström says, “There’s no switching on or off. Michael doesn’t let us see the actor.”

But Caine’s wife of 27 years, Shakira, 53, knows the man—and his drive. “He’s mellowed, but he had a temper which had to do with ambition,” she says. “If he wants something, he really wants it. Sometimes I wish he could be kinder to himself workwise.” Caine did take a break to write his 1992 memoir What’s It All About? and commit more time to his investments in London restaurants. But he came back with 1997’s Blood & Wine, with Jack Nicholson, and Little Voice in 1998, which earned him a Golden Globe. “When he’s making a movie,” says Shakira, “Michael expects to be not just good but the best he’s ever been.”

Some say he’s done just that in Cider, based on John Irving’s 1985 novel. Caine was willing to lose the part—Paul Newman and Anthony Hopkins were considered at one time—if dialect coach Jess Platt didn’t buy the accent. “Give me two weeks, then be brutally frank,” he told Platt. “I can make a chump of myself enough ways without a daft American accent.”

Win or lose the Oscar on March 26 (he just won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actor), Caine says he is “always happy and astonished” to be nominated. Caine won’t fold an acceptance speech into his tux pocket either. “That’s bad luck. When I see people getting out a piece of paper, I think, ‘How dare you be so bloody conceited to think you were going to win?’ ” It’s that kind of breezy, ego-free view that has long disarmed Caine’s fellow cast members. “Here was this living legend entertaining you with great stories,” says Cider costar Charlize Theron. “There is no fakeness. He just has this life inside him, this happiness that glows.”

Life hardly began that way for Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, as Caine was born on March 14, 1933, in the charity wing of a London hospital. His father, also Maurice, was a fish-market porter and mother Ellen a cook and charwoman in wealthy homes. Little Maurice suffered from swollen eyelids, prominent ears (his mother pasted them back every night through his first two years) and rickets. The family—brother Stanley is three years younger—had no money, but it was a cheerful, loving home, says Caine, and as a boy he embraced his parents’ bruising work ethic and spunky humor. “They were great at getting pins for piercing the balloon of pomposity,” he says. (Later in life Caine learned he had an illegitimate half brother, David Burchell, seven years older, who had been born before his parents met. An epileptic who was misdiagnosed and placed in a mental institution most of his life, he died in 1991.)

Caine’s film fantasies kicked in as a kid at a Lone Ranger matinee. He would later take his screen name from a movie marquee advertising The Caine Mutiny.

Caine survived the Luftwaffe’s blitz of London in the ’40s, shuttling between the countryside and the family’s home, which was heavily damaged. “When the antiaircraft guns fired, we could hear the bedsprings go boing boing from the percussion,” he remembers. “When they put screamers on the tail fins of the bombs, it was terrifying.”

At 16, Caine quit high school and soon relearned the horrors of war as an infantryman with a British rifle unit in the trenches and paddy fields of Korea. “I took a couple of bits of shrapnel in the back of my head,” he says. “But they were tiny so they didn’t count.”

As he began his career in theater in the ’50s, Caine married actress Patricia Haines, who died of lung cancer in 1977; the union lasted just two years. (Their daughter Dominique, now 43, lives in Gloucestershire, England, and raises horses.) Poverty was to blame he says. Caine recalls collecting welfare in the ’50s with a young Sean Connery, whom he met at a party. “I brought a bottle and two girls. Sean took one of them.”

Caine burst onto the international film scene in 1966 with Alfie, playing a charming cockney cad. The role led to a Best Actor Oscar nomination and a reputation as a lady-killer in swinging—and swigging—London. Caine danced all night at Tramp’s and drank vodka for breakfast. “Being a rich and famous movie star anytime is good,” he says. “In the ’60s it was perfect.”

The bachelor’s head was turned for good in 1971 when he saw an exotic-looking actress in a coffee commercial on TV. Caine assumed that she, like the coffee, was South American. “I was kinda nuts,” he says. “I was about to go to Brazil to find her.” The ad’s director, Ridley Scott (Alien), told him she was a London-based model of Kashmiri descent named Shakira Baksh. Caine called her for 12 days before she gave in. “She had the cleanest hair in London,” he jokes. “Every night I called, she said, ‘I’ve just washed my hair.’ ”

“I thought if he cared enough he’d call again,” says Shakira, who grew up in Georgetown, Guyana, before coming to London for the 1967 Miss World pageant (she was second runner-up). “My flatmates just said, ‘Be careful.’ ” On their first night out they dined Hawaiian—”Italian food with a pineapple on it,” says Caine—and were never apart again. “He was devastatingly attractive and, with that wonderful sense of humor, irresistible,” says Shakira.

They married at Chapel on the Green in Las Vegas (“The green was Astro Turf, I think,” says Caine) on Jan. 8, 1973. (Daughter Natasha, born later that year, is now a 26-year-old writer also living in Chelsea.) Caine, who gave up hard liquor after meeting Shakira, moved the family to L.A. in the late ’70s to pursue work and avoid high taxes in the U.K. After less than a decade, missing the land and changing seasons, he returned home. The Caines now live in a 200-year-old converted barn in Surrey, a half-hour from London, where Michael spends all the time he can. An avid gardener, he gives walking tours of his 21-acre grounds that leave friends’ heads spinning. Says Roger Moore: “Michael’s fascinating to walk his gardens with because he knows the name of every plant, tree, every weed in the hedgerows.”

Caine savors family weekends at their 12,000-sq.-ft, six-bedroom retreat. He loves to cook Sunday roasts with crispy potatoes, and he’s a tech head who surfs the Net and blasts his $45,000 DVD system in a seven-speaker, eight-armchair screening room. “When you’ve got DVD,” he says, “you show Armageddon. The other stuff’s kind of sissy.” And, reveals Natasha, Caine rocks to throbbing “house music” through a powerful stereo rig: “My father still loves to dance.”

Caine also works at keeping romance alive. “When you’ve been married this long, just remembering dates is romantic—especially before you get reminded.” He says a friend gave him Viagra for his birthday as a joke two years ago. “I took a tablet then—and it’s still working.”

Caine’s professional pace remains withering too. He’s writing a thriller, he has a couple of films in the can, two American scripts to ponder and a new restaurant venture in mind. But nothing can keep him off-camera for long. He even says age has made it easier to find risky, challenging roles like Cider’s Dr. Larch. “I’m no longer a leading man,” Caine says with a shrug. “I don’t have to get the girl and worry about my wig and my looks. So they send me parts that are fascinating to play.”

Caine knows exactly what keeps him going. “A guy says, ‘Action!’ with 60 bored people standing there yawning, and audiences see it onscreen and say, ‘That’s a doctor in a Maine orphanage in 1943.’ That’s my blast,” he says. “I get a tingling up my back. It’s as simple as that.”

Michelle Caruso and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles, Kelly Williams in Chicago and Liz Corcoran and Ellin Stein in London