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Caine Reopens 'The Ipcress File'

November 20, 1994|Daniel Howard Cerone

So what do you do if you want Michael Caine to star in an original movie for your premium cable channel but he's more interested in making feature films? If you're the executives at Showtime, you give him a feature film--provided that he shoot the follow-up cable TV sequel for Showtime.

Caine just completed work on two projects in Russia, reprising the Harry Palmer spy character who made him famous in director Sidney J. Furie's "The Ipcress File" in 1965.

"I did the TV movie because it was the only way they would make the feature," said Caine by phone from Russia. The actor has only played a handful of roles for television in three decades, his last one earlier this year as Stalin in the NBC miniseries, "World War II: When Lions Roared."

"Bullets to Beijing" and "Midnight in Saint Petersburg" were both filmed for 12 weeks in areas around St. Petersburg for a cost of $9 million, with 60% or so of the budget allocated to the first film. "Beijing" is expected to receive a limited theatrical release next fall; Showtime will try to find a distributor in February at the American Film Market.

"Beijing" will then follow the normal path down the entertainment food chain, coming out on video six months later, and then hitting Showtime six months after that. The sequel, "Saint Petersburg," will probably be seen on Showtime a few months after the theatrical release of "Beijing."

"It would be difficult to get Michael Caine to do an original movie. He's a well-established star, who comes with a certain price. By having a theatrical locomotive we could make it work," explained Matthew Duda, senior vice president of program acquisitions and planning for Showtime Networks, which put up half of the budget for domestic rights. The rest of the film was paid for by Canadian, Russian and British interests.

Both movies revisit the character created by author Len Deighton in a series of espionage thrillers about a Cockney crook turned secret agent. For those who don't remember, Harry Palmer was a sort of reaction to the cult of James Bond. While Bond sipped his vodka martinis--shaken, not stirred--and then jumped into his Aston Martin, Palmer slammed a beer in the pub and then hopped the bus home. He first volunteered for espionage to escape a jail term.

"Ipcress File" was the first film featuring Caine's name above the title, and it led to "Alfie," which cemented Caine's career in 1966. Two more Harry Palmer sequels, "Funeral in Berlin" (1966) and "Billion Dollar Brain" (1967), were made. A couple years ago, veteran producer Harry Alan Towers was wondering what would have happened to the Palmer character once the Cold War ended.

"I thought there was a story here about what happened to the out-of-work spies left over from the Cold War," said Towers, 74, who executive produced the Showtime productions and wrote the screenplays for them under the name Peter Welbeck. His credits range from producing the Orson Welles radio series "The Lives of Harry Lime" to producing two back-to-back "Lost World" movies, for B-movie distributors Harmony Gold, that went straight to video.

Towers secured the Palmer series rights about six months ago, after some difficult negotiations with Deighton and original producer Harry Saltzman, who also produced the early Bond films. Because Deighton didn't give his character a name, Saltzman, who died recently, and Caine came up with the Palmer name together before they made "Ipcress File."

"We set these sequels in Russia, because I was in Russia about two years ago, and I learned about a security agency flourishing under the name of Alex," Towers said. "It's the first private security organization ever licensed in Russia, and largely staffed by ex-Red Army intelligence." In the second movie, Caine establishes a private investigation agency in Russia, based on Alex.

But not without help from Jason Connery, the son of the original Bond, Sean Connery. They team up in both Showtime productions. If these movies turn out to be a hit on Showtime, Dudas said, viewers can look forward to seeing a series of TV movies starring Connery. Caine describes their work together as "comedy thrillers."

"Michael Caine is a super comedian," Towers said. "I don't think he's a lively leading man any more. That's why Jason Connery fits so perfectly into the package. Michael is perfectly content to get the laughs and let Jason get the girls."

Most feature film actors do cable television for the prestige. Caine makes no bones about the fact that he's doing these for the money. He won't reveal how much he is getting paid, but he says he has never received more for a role.

"The whole thing financially is very advantageous," said Caine, who also has 10% interest in anything the Showtime movies make in theaters or on video. "This is not an entirely artistic endeavor. I'm not out busting my neck like a youngster trying to get somewhere. I've got a very beautiful home in London, a home in the country in Oxford and one in Los Angeles. To get me out of there, you have to pay me."

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