It was seeing the French actor Jean Gabin up on the bigscreen in “Le Jour se leve” that convinced a young Maurice Micklewhite, Jr. that he might possibly have a future in film acting. “(Gabin) featured everything that I thought could hold me back: fair hair, a big nose and a small mouth,” wrote Michael Caine in his autobiography, “What’s It All About?” “He was the biggest star in France, so everything was now possible.”
Caine never looked back. What’s more, he succeeded in a country, Britain, where imitation is the highest form of flattery. Caine’s heavy-lidded charm and defiant Cockney phrasing have gone on to inspire numerous impersonators and parodists.
Peter Sellers began the trend when he imitated Caine on BBC1’s “Parkinson” show in October 1972, initiating the famous Caine catchphrase: “Not a lot of people know that.”
Since then, Caine has been parodied by the British comedian Paul Whitehouse on “Harry Enfield’s Television Programme” and on the BBC2 series “Stella Street.” He was also the inspiration for the British ska group Madness’ 1984 hit single “Michael Caine,” which borrowed heavily from “The Ipcress File” for its propaganda-style video. Caine’s daughter, who was a big fan of the group, persuaded her father to provide the song’s distinctive voiceover.
“What I’ve always liked about him (Caine) is this everyman quality he has,” says the song’s lyricist, Cathal Smyth. “I liked the way he stayed true to his working-class roots and didn’t try like a lot of actors to imitate the Queen’s English. He seems very comfortable in his own skin, and I think that’s something that’s come across throughout his career.”
Caine’s popular appeal also stems from his choice of roles. From the bolshy, bespectacled sergeant in “The Ipcress File” to the down-at-heel lothario “Alfie” or the shotgun-toting assassin in “Get Carter,” Caine’s best performances have become iconic masculine templates.
“It seems that men in particular are really inspired by Caine,” says Matthew Field, the English-born author of “Michael Caine: ‘You’re a Big Man’ ” and “The Making of the Italian Job.” “He’s very macho, especially in films like ‘The Italian Job,’ ‘Get Carter’ and ‘Alfie.’ Before him, Englishmen in films had always been bad with women; he really broke the mold there.”
It is also a father-and-son thing. Field was 5 years old when his father first let him stay up and watch “The Italian Job.” Ever since, Caine has become a massive part of Fields’ life.
“First of all, (Caine) secured the generation who grew up during the ’60s and watched the films that made him a star,” said Field who is now 26. “Then he secured my generation because all of a sudden the ’60s had become cool again, and Michael Caine was the epitome of that.”