Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Birthday, Michael Caine

Yes, I'm going to drag you kicking and screaming again down my VH1 memory lane.  This time, with Oscar winner Michael Caine.  I dig his work so much.  I've been entertained by it.  I've learned from it.  This master of screen acting technique turned 80 today.  I feel like I've grown up with his work.  When I was young, drive-in movies were still popular and plentiful in Southern California.  One night, Mom and Dad put my sister and me in the back seat of the green Plymouth and we were off to see a big historical war drama ripped from the pages of British history.  The Joseph E. Levine production was called Zulu.  This 1964 film marked Michael Caine's screen debut.
I was a youngster.  I was more interested in the cartoon that played before the movie than I was in the historical movie itself.  I had my pajamas on underneath my street clothes as I sat in the back seat.  So did my little sister.  However, when there was a close-up of that high-tone officer with the blond hair, there was a certain quality about the actor that just jumped out from the screen.  It was star quality, I'd learn in later years.  The British actor clicked with American audiences in his screen debut.
Still, show business being the way it is, that success with American movie-goers did not stop the producer from canceling the new actor's contract.  Levine didn't feel that this talented new actor had the right sexual energy to be a star.  Caine, understandably, was emotionally flattened by what Joseph E. Levine did.  But his smart, super cool performance in the spy thriller, The Ipress File, got atttention that picked Caine right back up again.  The 1965 release was even more popular with American audiences.
Then came his lead role as the "love 'em and leave 'em" working class British Lothario called Alfie.  The ladies can't get enough of Alfie and he can't get enough of them.  But...what's it all about, Alfie?  Is sex all there is?  Doesn't love mean anything?  This performance brought the actor his first Oscar nomination.
Michael Caine was an Academy Award nominee for Best Actor of 1966 -- just a couple of years after Joseph E. Levine canceled his contract.  His first Oscar win came for his Best Supporting Actor performance in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters.
Unfortunately, the actor wasn't there to accept because he was on location making a god-awful sequel, Jaws:  The Revenge.  This is one reason, coupled with his years of excellence, why he got the immediate standing ovation that he did when he won again in that same category for 2000's The Cider House Rules.  He was there to accept -- and to see how beloved he is in the Hollywood community.  A very touching Oscars moment.

See?  I've sort of grown up with Michael Caine in my life.  I headed to movie theaters to see his other Oscar-nominated performances -- in Sleuth and Educating Rita.  A number of his non-nominated performances are favorites of mine -- in movies like Gambit with Shirley MacLaine,  The Man Who Would Be KingDirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin, Miss Congeniality and the Christopher Nolan Batman adventures.

If there's any proof that I have been lucky in my unorthodox television career, it's the fact that I went from being a little kid seeing Michael Caine at a Los Angeles drive-in movie to having Michael Caine as my sole guest one night on my VH1 talk show in New York.  He was promoting his 1988 Sherlock Holmes comedy, Without A Clue, at the time.  He'd won his first Oscar.  He was a great guest, the kind of celebrity you hope to have as a guest.  Even if he had nothing to promote, he'd still have something to say.  Something very entertaining.  That's what I find missing in many talk show guests in the current arena of night time entertainment talk shows. Remove the self-marketing and product placement of the moment and they have very little to say.  Caine is a terrific storyteller.

Deathtrap was a hit Broadway murder mystery.  Michael Caine played a writer in Sidney Lumet's 1982 film version opposite Superman movie starChristopher Reeve.

Their characters seemed to become very good friends in that movie.

Michael Caine and I talked about his early career disappointment with film producer Joseph E. Levine and about making Deathtrap with Christopher Reeve.  The Oscar-winner starts with his memories about Zulu and the sexual vibe the producer didn't like.

I loved that show!  To this very minute, it's one of my favorite on-camera experiences in my entire television career.  I still can't believe I was lucky enough to interview him.  To have grown up in the South L.A. curfew area during the Watts Riots of the 1960s and then to host a national prime time VH1 talk show in New York City in the 1980s with him as a guest ... wow.   I wish Michael Caine an extremely, fabulously happy 80th birthday.

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