"I hope you like the seating arrangement," the waiter said in a soothing voice, fluttering and fussing as he seated Michael Caine in a quiet corner of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "This is our best table."
When you've been a movie star as long as Caine, everything seems to fall neatly in place, whether it's having your salad prepared just right or still getting juicy parts to play more than 40 years after coming to fame as the Cockney cad in "Alfie." Of course, to hear the 74-year-old actor tell it, his real talent has been in the area of career choices.
"I have a tremendous amount of pragmatism," he said, in town to tout his new movie that opens today, a remake of "Sleuth" starring Caine and Jude Law, who plays the part of a brash arriviste that Caine handled in the original 1972 film opposite Laurence Olivier. "Whenever anyone asks what my biggest talent is as an actor, I say 'survival.' "
Hollywood is a churn 'em, burn 'em business, where the topic of survival is always on everyone's mind, especially with actors, whose careers are more fleeting than ever. Every few months the industry anoints a new It Boy or Girl, ever in need of a new sensation to provide sizzle for a new film. It's easy to land a good part in a surprise hit. The real challenge is keeping a career on track afterward.
Just ask Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for her role in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" but soon saw her career derailed by a string of bad films. Look at Wes Bentley, an instant sensation after "American Beauty" who has faded from view since. Julia Ormond, once ordained as the new Audrey Hepburn, is now almost entirely forgotten. The latest fall from grace belongs to Adrien Brody, whose career has been in steady decline since he won an Oscar for "The Pianist."
What happens? After having a hit, some actors take a few big paydays in cheesy movies and suddenly find the good parts have dried up. Others get too nervous or too choosy and sit on the sidelines, where they find themselves quickly forgotten. What could they do differently? If anyone is an expert on career maintenance, it would be Caine, who still works at an astonishing pace -- having made nearly 20 movies since he won his last Oscar in 2000 for "Cider House Rules" -- while most of his peers have faded into obscurity or retired to a cozy country home. Sure, some have criticized him for taking too many roles -- even Caine himself jokes about it -- but the actor says there's a method to his madness.
"Success comes from doing, not waiting," says Caine. "When I was young, I wanted to become an experienced actor, so I'd read a load of scripts and take the best one possible. If you sit around waiting for that great part, you won't be ready for it, because you won't have all the little experiences that give you the confidence to do your best. I had friends who did one great movie but never worked again because they kept waiting for Fellini or John Ford to call them -- and it never happened."
Caine thinks today's actors spend too much time comparing themselves to their contemporaries. "What they really should be doing is competing with themselves, not with someone else. They're all going -- he's getting the girl, why not me? It's unhealthy to worry about other people -- get on with your own life."
For Caine, career longevity has a lot to do with lack of vanity. He recalls complaining to a producer that a part he'd read in a new script was too small. "Don't read the [part of the] lover, read the father!" he says the producer told him. "That's when I became a film actor instead of a film star. I took the father and never looked back."
Caine isn't like so many of today's stars who have screenwriters at the ready to personalize scripts for their various predilections. For "Educating Rita," he says, "I gained weight and put on a big stomach to play the part and I got nominated for an Oscar. A movie actor says, 'How can I change myself to fit the part?' "
He points to a scraggly burr of fuzz growing past his ears. "Look at me now -- I'm already growing sideburns for my next part."
It's hard not to notice the difference between Caine and Jude Law, a handsome charmer who was heralded as a new star but has yet to live up to the billing, having endured a string of failures, including a remake of "Alfie." When Caine is asked if he ever teased Law about his "Alfie" flop, he dryly replies: "Not at all. I'm very kind, especially if it's someone I'm going to work with."
In the new "Sleuth," Caine projects the air of a chilly eminence grise, playing the famous mystery author who matches wits with his wife's young lover. It's quite a sight seeing him play a pillar of the establishment, considering that when he first emerged in the 1960s, he was dismissed as a working-class upstart.