- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

"Im still here, and I'm still above the title" Michael Caine observes during a phone conversation from New York, arranged by New Line Pictures to help promote the presumably presold farcical "Austin Powers in Goldmember," the third installment in Mike Myers' burlesque of vintage espionage thrillers.

In fact, Mr. Caine had custody of the second-most-prominent spy franchise of the early and middle 1960s. While Sean Connery ruled the genre as James Bond, Mr. Caine solidified the early stage of his starring career as Len Deighton's cerebral agent Harry Palmer in "The Ipcress File," "Funeral in Berlin" and "The Billion Dollar Brain."

Reflecting on his own franchise role, Mr. Caine says, "My thought was, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I very quickly realized where Austin Powers came from. I played the spy who wore glasses in the 1960s, didn't I? When Mike Myers sent me the script for this movie, he added a very nice letter mentioning that it was very fitting that I should play his father, since Harry Palmer had served as a model for Austin Powers in certain ways."

The latest Powers comedy is downright preoccupied with paternal issues. Mr. Caine's character, named Nigel Powers, is reputed to be the most celebrated spy in British history. Austin has always tried to emulate him, feeling pangs of neglect when Dad has failed to show up for such important events as his prep school graduation in the distant past or his knighting ceremony in the present.

Michael Caine, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr. in a cockney neighborhood of London on March 14, 1933, was himself knighted two years ago. Twice an Academy Award winner as best supporting actor for "Hannah and Her Sisters" in 1986 and "The Cider House Rules" in 2000 the popular actor is nearing 50 years in the profession and 40 years as a star. He says he feels "very well indeed" and anticipates another active decade.

"What it is," Mr. Caine explains, "is that I keep getting offers I can't refuse. The next film I've got coming out is 'The Quiet American,' a remake of the Graham Greene story. I'm playing the Michael Redgrave role, with Brendan Fraser in the Audie Murphy role. I think it's one of the best things I've ever done."

A dozen movies are on the Caine credit list before the period spectacle that elevated the young actor to prominence in 1963, Cy Endfield's "Zulu."

"The volume is misleading," Mr. Caine explains, "because I was a little part actor for several years. Typically, I would work for one day on some movie. I think I might have done five in a week at one point. So most of those titles don't really mean anything. At the same time, I was doing plays and probably hundreds of television shows, including quite a lot of live TV drama. I think I've done something like 103 films, but I've only been the lead in 63 or 64."

In addition to his co-starring role in "The Quiet American," Mr. Caine has high hopes for a "crazy comedy" with a Dublin setting titled "The Actors." Evidently, he plays the hammiest member of a less than formidable acting troupe.

"You get a thing like that, and you can't resist," he says. "I get to do scenes as the worst Richard III the world has ever seen, so it's really wonderful. My motto now is, 'I used to get the girl, but now I get the part.' To tell the truth, a lot of those parts where you get the girl can be pretty dull."

Nevertheless, Mr. Caine was attracted to acting at the outset as a way to meet girls. "I belonged to a youth club in my neighborhood," he explains, "and it had an amateur dramatic society. I joined to meet girls. That was the whole idea. All the pretty girls in the club were in the drama group. I figured this out one day when I was 14, down in the gym playing basketball with a load of guys. I had been very unsuccessful with the ladies. I thought joining the actors would get me into a love scene where I could kiss somebody. It worked, too. That was my best move at the age of 14."

The son of a fish-market porter and a cleaning woman, Mr. Caine left school at the age of 16 and ended up in the British army before he could take acting aspirations into the professional sphere. He saw combat duty in Korea.

"In the infantry, as a rifleman," he recalls. "I was potential cannon fodder. We were in the Commonwealth Division, which at that time was part of the Marine I Corps. The war in our sector sort of duplicated trench warfare in World War I. We held part of the line in the Samuchang Valley, defending against attacks and also doing really scary things on night reconnaissance patrols. Not recommended."

Mr. Caine's first movie credit, circa 1956, is on a film called "A Hill in Korea." He was hired initially as the technical adviser because of his military background. "That's how I got the job," he recalls. "Not because I had auditioned for a part."

Trained in Stanislavsky methods and traditions at the Theatre Workshop in London, Mr. Caine plugged away and got his big break as a result of Peter O'Toole's getting a bigger break.

"One thing really did it for me professionally," he recalls. "That was being understudy to Peter O'Toole in a war play called 'The Long, the Short and the Tall.'" He became a star in that and then went off to make 'Lawrence of Arabia' for David Lean. I took over his role and was able to substantiate myself in the theater. That kind of settled it."

Despite having a relatively small role in "Goldmember," Mr. Caine was with the Austin Powers troupe for five of the 12 weeks the film was in production in Los Angeles.

"It was a substantial time for not such a huge part," he says. "I was treated with tremendous respect by Mike and everyone else. We ad-libbed all the way. I was made to feel very, very welcome."

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