When Michael Caine was on the cusp of fame, he received some helpful, if peculiar, advice from legendary screen star John Wayne.
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The up-and-coming British actor, then 33, was visiting America for the first time, having been dispatched to Hollywood to promote his 1966 breakout movie, “Alfie.” In the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, he encountered Wayne, then the biggest movie star in the world.
“You’re gonna be a star, kid,” a cowboy-garbed Wayne told Caine. “But if you wanna stay one, remember this: Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.”
Then The Duke said something strange: “Never wear suede shoes.”
Puzzled, Caine asked why not. “Because,” replied Wayne, “I was taking a piss the other day and the guy in the next stall recognized me and turned toward me. He said, ‘John Wayne — you’re my favorite actor,’ and pissed all over my suede shoes.”
The Duke sauntered off, and Caine took the star’s tale to heart. As he writes in his new memoir, “Blowing the Bloody Doors Off” (Hachette), “I never wear suede shoes.”
Not everyone in LA welcomed Caine quite so enthusiastically. The day after his encounter with Wayne, Caine asked Bette Davis to dinner and she snappily accused him of trying to proposition her.
Still, Caine, now 85, came to be one of Hollywood’s biggest names, with 170 film credits and counting.
Back in the early 1960s, though, long before he won two Academy Awards (for performances in “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “The Cider House Rules”) and got knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, he was just another working-class London kid trying to make it.
Few in the business believed in him the way Wayne eventually would. One executive told Caine that he had “no future in [showbiz] at all.” Another canceled his contract because “you look like a queer on screen.”
Even his cockney accent seemed poised to derail him. “I was told that no one outside of England would understand me,” Caine said. “That stung.”
But the accent lent him a memorably rakish air on screen — and got him noticed by the likes of Frank Sinatra.
Flush with the success of “Alfie” — in which Caine played the title character, a promiscuous chauffeur — he became a familiar fixture at swinging London spots such as Tramps and Annabelle’s.
He spent evenings hanging out with assorted Rolling Stones and Beatles (George Harrison once serenaded him on the ukulele), had his hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, and courted sex symbols of the day, such as Nancy Sinatra.
Through her, Caine was invited to join the family on a private flight from Palm Springs to Las Vegas. He found himself sequestered up front with Frank, who seemed to be grilling him about his relationship with Nancy.
“I was nervous,” Caine told The Post. “But my accent fascinated Frank. He thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. I felt intimidated but tried not to show it. He laughed whenever I spoke. That helped.”
Caine was less successful at keeping his cool when buttonholed for a tryst with Shelley Winters on the set of “Alfie.” It was 8 a.m. on his first day of shooting. Caine was en route to makeup when Winters suggested that they slip off for a quickie in order to calm their nerves.
But that offer made Caine only more nervous. He turned and ran away. “I was in no mood for that on the first day of the biggest film of my career,” said Caine, adding that Winters later claimed to have been kidding, though he was never quite sure. “I don’t know what would have happened [if I had done it]. I was so stunned and so nervous that I think I would have failed miserably.”
A similar sort of awkwardness prevailed during the making of 1987’s “Hannah and her Sisters.” Directed by Woody Allen, the film co-starred Allen’s then-girlfriend, Mia Farrow. It was shot in her Manhattan apartment — where Farrow and Caine had a love scene together.
“I was being directed by her lover, in their bedroom, on their bed, and that created a level of discomfort,” Caine recalled. “Then I looked over. I saw, standing on the other side of the bed, André Previn — her former lover. He was visiting. I thought, ‘Bloody hell! I didn’t know he would be here as well.’ One thing I remember about that situation: I forgot my next line.”
Allen is not the only controversial Hollywood figure with whom Caine has had interactions. He also crossed paths with accused sexual predator Harvey Weinstein during the making of Miramax’s quirky 1998 musical, “Little Voice.”
Caine claims to have “had no idea of the reality of Harvey [and his misdeeds].” But, he said, “There was one time that I had a terrible row with him. I don’t even remember what the argument was about, but I called him dishonest.
“He said, ‘Michael, I am an honest man. I will only stab you in the chest.’ That sums up my view of Harvey.”
As for his own encounters with the casting couch, Caine writes that they were pretty much nil. He does, however, acknowledge, from his early days as a young theater actor, “It used to go a bit quiet when I took my trousers off in the communal men’s dressing room.”
Caine himself has admitted to “being a piss artist,” at one point drinking a bottle of vodka a day. “It was due to the uncertainty of my life and the tension of making movies,” he said.
In 1959, while working on stage in London, he had at least one lost evening in the company of Peter O’Toole. They split a bottle of brandy and Caine woke up, completely dressed, in the same bed as O’Toole, with little clue as to how he got there. The veteran actor reportedly gave Caine a piece of advice: “Never ask what you did. It’s better not to know.”
While Caine would continue to drink heavily, he did give up his beloved Gitanes cigarettes early on in his movie career. That happened after Tony Curtis pulled a pack from his pocket, tossed them into a fireplace and told Caine he was killing himself. And he remained pretty much unscathed by the drugs that washed over Hollywood as he attained marquee standing in the 1960s.
According to Caine, he has had singular, unpleasant experiences with both marijuana and cocaine. “I was at a Hollywood party and went to put a teaspoon of sugar in my coffee,” he said. “The hostess ran over and told me not to do it. I was dipping into a bowl of cocaine.”
As for marijuana, “I smoked it one time, laughed for five hours and nearly gave myself a hernia doing it. I stood in the streets of London, laughing so much that I couldn’t get a cabdriver to stop for me. They thought I was mad. I had to walk two miles home. I never smoked marijuana again.”
Although he cut back on boozing after marrying actress Shakira Baksh in 1973, he has enjoyed a high-flying lifestyle throughout his career.
When he wasn’t zipping around on David Bowie’s yacht (“I was an admirer of his, he was a big movie fan and we got on great”), he and Elton John were dodging paparazzi in Capri.
“He was surrounded by photographers and hated it,” said Caine. “If he wants to avoid the paparazzi, I told him, he could start by not wearing a yellow suit.”
When Caine was ready to give up on show business in the mid-1990s, after aging out of leading-man status, he received career counseling from Jack Nicholson. The advice from Hollywood’s venerable bad boy: Focus on being an actor rather than on being a star. Proving the point, Nicholson promptly cast him in 1996’s “Blood and Wine.”
“Hanging out with Jack was great for me,” Caine said. “I always attracted a lot of attention, but when I went with him, he got all the attention.”
Today, Caine attributes his lasting success to a higher power. “I feel like somebody up there likes me,” he said. “I am a religious man and feel that God has taken care of me. My life should not have happened.”
Arguably, a bit of divine intervention transpired on a Sunday morning in the summer of 2003. That was when a stranger strolled up the walkway of Caine’s Los Angeles home. It turned out to be director Christopher Nolan, bearing the screenplay for “Batman Begins,” already set to feature Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader.
He pressed Caine to read it on the spot and consider playing Alfred the butler.
Caine responded to the idea by cheekily asking, “What will my line be, ‘Would you like dinner, sir?’ ”
Nevertheless, he read the script, was won over by the writing and enjoyed a career revival thanks to Nolan’s cool and wildly successful “Dark Knight” trilogy.
“The movies exposed me to a whole new generation of fans,” said Caine, recalling a group of Japanese schoolchildren who recognized him on the street as the superhero’s man-servant. “Batman has been fabulous for me.”
Director Nolan apparently believes that a bit of good fortune came as part of the Caine package. “He decided that I am his lucky charm,” said Caine, who has appeared in five Nolan films since their first Batman project.
“But when he made ‘Dunkirk,’ ” — the 2017 Oscar-winning World War II movie — “there was no part in it for me.
“So Chris cast me as the voice of the squad leader; I can be heard on the pilots’ radios. He made sure to give me a credit, so I would be his lucky charm on ‘Dunkirk.’ ”
Apparently, the gambit worked. “That movie,” Caine dryly said, “made a great deal of money.”
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