“Not many people know that”. The actor Sir Michael Caine popularised that phrase.
I directed Michael Caine’s feet. Not the rest of him. That happened another time. Just his feet. Not many people know that.
‘The Dark Side of the Earth’ was the BBC production which featured his heavy boots. It was a play by the eminent American screenwriter, Rod Serling, about the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Russian conquerors. Heavy. Portentous stuff. A prison fortress surrounded by the usual thick brick wall was the production’s set main feature. To start the show I thought opening titles would be super-imposed on a shot panning across the relentless lines of the brick wall. Austere. Stark. Good, eh?
But then I began thinking, nah, not quite right. When the phone rang.
It was Michael Caine.
At the time Michael was one of those actors always pestering directors for a job. Another one was someone called Sean Connery. Pestering, Any job. A walk-on non-speaking extra or, hallelujah, a small role with, words. Anything. Always on the phone. Learning who was casting. Phoning. The newly built BBC Television Centre would buzz with such calls. “Anything for me?”
It was in this melange of actors and extras, writers and directors, singers and sycophants, all struggling through the early days of career that I must have first met Michael Caine. I don’t remember if there ever was a formal introduction. Doubtful. I do remember one day walking into the fabled “actors pub”, The Salisbury, near Cambridge Circus, waiting at the bar to be served, when Michael emerged from a crowd. He hesitatingly approached me.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked.
I told him, I was passing and wanted to see what this much-mirrored and much-vaunted interior was truly like.
After a moment, he said. “Can I get you a drink?”
A generous offer. Truly generous. I remember thinking he must be fingering the coins in his pocket, praying he has at least one ridged silver coin to pay for this offer. Michael was not exactly flush with gelt at this stage. I knew that. An East End boy struggling to make his mark in the profession. Whereas I, producing and directing plays for BBC television, was comparably affluent. I declined his offer. But obviously remembered it for years.
Michael had worked with me before appearing as an extra in my shows. BBC archives can reveal the titles. I recall that because of his name, I was keen to use him in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. More importantly I did give gave him a speaking role in Requiem For A Heavyweight. I wonder how many words he had spoken professionally until then?
In the spring of 1957 this production of Requiem For A Heavyweight weighted heavy on all of us concerned. To play the lead role, I cast Sean Connery. He was also totally unknown at the time. This was Sean’s first leading role. A handsome, raw talent, whom I had initially scheduled to play one the boxers in this play about professional pugilists, But when the Hollywood star who was supposed to play the lead, Jack Palance, pulled out at the last moment, I put in Sean. But that’s another story.
Rod Serling – his play Dark Side Of The Earth was not the first of his work I directed – had written the script for American television. Consequently there were a lot of commercial breaks during the show. These off-air periods would be more than a little useful to the US television studio. But this was the BBC. I didn’t have the luxury of such intervals. And in one instance I needed a break to change Sean’s makeup and costume. I rang Serling in LA. A short scene, I explained, say between two young pugs discussing the future. “Good idea,” said Rod, “I hear you write. You write it. I’m busy. And you know exactly what you want. Do it” Then a pause. “But send me a copy in case I hate it.”
I wrote it and cast two unknown actors. One, whose name has faded into the pantheon of actors who never quite make it. – I hope he had a happy life – the other was Michael Caine. It was time, to try him with words.
Rehearsing the scene one day, the leading lady, Jacqueline Hill, stopped to watch the two young actors. Jackie eventually became my wife. “Hey, they’re good,” she said, “especially that one.” She was pointing at Michael. “He’s got it,” she declared. I shrugged. And argued the many merits of the other actor. “No,” she countered, “him, what’s his name?” She checked the cast list. “Caine. He’s gonna make it.” It wasn’t the only time that she was right when her husband was wrong.
A few years later Michael and Sean appeared together in a Hollywood blockbuster called The Man Who Would Be King. Heralding their joint appearance was the line: ‘Together for the first time’ which of course ignored the fact they had both been in Requiem For A Heavyweight. I happened to be in New York as the film was about to be released and saw Sean and Michael on a talk show. When questioned by the TV host, they did mention briefly, very briefly, that they had worked together before “on some television”. It was never mentioned again. With the usual fortune spent advertising ‘together for the first time’ such suppression was not surprising. Even if not true. just another Hollywood lie. Since the line ‘together for the second time’ does not have quite the same zing to it, I kept shtum.
It was about a year after Michael appeared in Requiem that I was on the phone with him, disturbing my thoughts about how to do the opening credits for my new show.
“Sorry, Michael,” I said, “nothing for you in this one,”
“Sure, I’m sure,” I said, “…..wait a minute…” A thought entered my searching head. The fortress. A pair of military boots of a guard walking along the top of the thick wall of the fortress. A heavy tread. Oppressive. Suppressive. Under the opening titles.
“Michael, I can use your feet,” I said. And explained my idea to him. Boots and titles.
I was excited.
He listened patiently
“But you’ll show my face as well?” asked Michael.
“No, Michael,” I replied. “Just your feet.”
“I can be hard. Stern. Or weak. Or…”
“No,” I repeated. “Just your feet.”
“Just my feet?” he said.
“Just your feet,” I affirmed,
A pause, “Of course,” I suggested, “if you feel you don’t want to… “
“No. No.” Michael interjected quickly, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”
And he did.
Shortly after that the career of Michael Caine took flight. I watched him soar and soar to international fame. In films like Alfie, Zulu, Sleuth, The Italian Job, and so many more. Then on to knighthood. And on and on.
So that’s how I came to direct Sir Michael Caine’s feet.
And now a lot more people know that.
*I’MJUSTTHE GUYWHOSAYS’ACTION’ (c)
blogs by Alvin Rakoff
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