Think of the Oscar-winning British actor Sir Michael Caine, and his comic role in Alfie (1966) or his suave swindler in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) may come to mind. Caine has made more than 100 films throughout the years. He's also, by all accounts, charming, kind and chivalrous and famously devoted to his wife of 45 years, Shakira. (He once joked that the secret to their long marriage was separate bathrooms.)
Caine also loves to tell a good tale. At 85, he has just come out with his third memoir, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life, in which he reflects on his life and career today, and explains why he thinks getting older is a gift.
An excerpt from his new book:
The other day I was minding my own business, having a quiet dinner in a restaurant, when someone approached me with a look I recognized. He had spotted me and wanted a quick word. I looked up from my French onion soup and smiled.
“Are you Michael Caine?” “Yes, I am,” I said.
“Bloody hell,” he shot back. “I thought you were a fucking hundred.”
That’s a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.
I forget all the time how old I am: It seems like about five years ago I was 35. So I take things on that I shouldn’t. I accept scripts. I wheel manure around in the garden. I nearly rupture myself every day. Age, to me, is in the mind. I’ve seen 70-year-olds who are already dead, and 90-year-olds who can’t stop themselves living. I stay young by refusing to be old.
The only time I really feel old is when I catch sight of my stand-in on set. A stand-in is someone the same height and build as an actor, whose job is to stand and walk about on set in the actor’s place for the hours it takes to get the lighting right. When I first started working, my stand-in was a great-looking young guy and we became good friends. Now I see a poor decrepit old man being helped out of his seat and almost carried to the camera position, and with a jolt I realize that’s my stand-in. That’s me.
Just like I didn’t do what I was supposed to in the 1940s and 1950s, when as a working-class lad I was expected to know my place and go and be a fish porter, I don’t do what I’m supposed to do now that I’m 85. I’m expected to know my place and sink gracefully back into my sofa. But I don’t want to sit down; I don’t want to retire; I want to keep on going. And I’m expected to despise old age, and yearn for those golden years of my youth. But I don’t do that either, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.
Of course ageing brings disappointments and inconveniences, frustrations and indignities, even despair, as weddings and birthday parties give way to hospital visits and memorial services. But it also brings its own joys and even occasionally a little wisdom. I look at ageing not as a problem, but as a privilege. As the (old) joke goes — and it isn’t really a joke: I can never forget the early deaths of my father, of my childhood friend Paul Challen, who never truly enjoyed good health his entire life and died much too young, of my fellow struggling actors from the early days who gave up on life entirely, of burning talents, like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger, who were extinguished too soon — it’s better than the alternative.
My approach to old age is, in many ways, like my approach to youth: I still use the difficulty, and I still look for the good in a bad situation, and I still keep striving to do what I love. I enjoy each year so much that as each one slips past I think, I’ll have another one of those, please.
Adapted from Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life by Michael Caine. Copyright (c) Michael Caine by Hachette Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.