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A father figure, on-screen and off

A spate of summer films has Michael Caine in the dad's seat, a role he also plays at home.

June 26, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Michael CAINE has a simple explanation for why he's often cast as father figures: He's loved being a dad to his two now-grown daughters, Dominique and Natasha.

"My greatest conceit, and I am very conceited about it, is that I am a great father," he says with a smile. "My daughters will tell you that. I was always involved with my children.... I always regarded the most valuable thing I could give to my children was time."

Caine, a robust 72, jokes that his family thinks of him as a benign godfather. "I can make things happen," he says. "Obviously, I am the richest person in my family -- by a long shot. And in real life, I am a very kind, gentle man -- if you treat me properly. So being a father sort of comes out of my natural persona. I can do that very easily [in movies]."

The paternal side of the two-time Oscar winner is on display in "Batman Begins," in which he plays Alfred, the butler to Batman-Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). And in the new comedy "Bewitched," he exercises his comedic chops as witch Samantha's (Nicole Kidman) warlock father, Nigel. Later this year, he'll be seen as Nicolas Cage's father in "The Weather Man."

Christopher Nolan, the young British filmmaker of "Memento" fame, directed "Batman Begins." Caine, relaxing in his suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, says Nolan shares the qualities of legendary directors such as John Huston, Joseph Losey and Joseph Mankiewicz with whom he's worked during his career.

"It was very similar to working with the great ones," he explains. "All the great ones are always the same. They are quiet. And they know exactly what they want, and they know how to tell you with a minimum of language what to do."

Caine says he always tries to put younger directors at ease on the set. "The last thing I would do would be to cause tension because it harms me," he says. "I never have a row or scream on the set or anything. I am very quiet." Until someone else causes tension. "Then I go into my laughter routine," he says. "I have a lot of gags and jokes, and I try and laugh it off."

If Caine's performances seem effortless and natural, the actor credits the work that goes into creating his character before he gets in front of the camera. He remembers a phrase from an acting class that has stuck with him the last five decades: "The rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation."

"So all the work is done long before I get there," he says. "It's done at home, and I keep doing it right up until the take. Then it's sort of a relaxation. You lie back. You completely trust the camera. It's almost like 'fall back and I'll catch you.' The camera is like that, if you lie back the camera always catches you."

Caine created an elaborate biography for Alfred. "I didn't want him to be the usual butler. He's Batman's butler. I wanted him to be tough, a backup for Batman, and he's also sweet and kind. My back story was he was an orphan and joined the army the minute he got out of the orphanage. He was a sergeant in the British SAS, which is a very elite, tough corps during World War II. He was wounded but didn't want to leave the army, so he got a job being in charge of the sergeants' canteen. Therefore, he knew how to serve drinks and food.

"He was seen by Bruce Wayne's father, who wanted a butler but wanted someone very tough and unusual, and employed him."

Alfred's voice, a cross between Caine's affable cockney and the authority of Winston Churchill, is based on the actor's first sergeant in the British army. "His voice is inscribed in me," Caine says, laughing. "The first moment when you meet a British sergeant in training is not a moment you will forget."

Caine admits he didn't put as much thought into his role in "Bewitched" because he didn't have the time to create a back story.

"He's a 1,000-year-old warlock -- an English gentleman with the eyes for the ladies, an old roue. And then there is the father-daughter relationship with Nicole, which worked brilliantly. She's a smashing girl."

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