The Bermondsey-born son of a fishporter and charwoman, Maurice Micklewhite began in poverty and went on to become one of the most prolific and durable of film stars.
After Korean War service, he joined a rep company as assistant stage manager, took easily to acting, and changed his name to Michael Caine after seeing The Caine Mutiny.
He had walk-on roles in TV and films, including Sailor Beware and A Hill in Korea (both 1956), but plodded on largely unnoticed, often uncredited, for nearly a decade.
Then came the first of those roles in which he has staked out his claim to be a major film actor: this was as the aristocratic officer in Zulu (d. Cy Endfield, 1964). The following year he incarnated Len Deighton's anti-Bond intelligence agent, Harry Palmer, the bespectacled gourmet, in The Ipcress File (d. Sidney J.Furie, 1965), and completed the hat-trick with Alfie (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1966), his first Oscar nomination, as a tireless womaniser running out of steam.
Off-screen, his freewheeling sex life - he and Terence Stamp shared a King's Road flat and were committed to 'pulling the birds' - merely reinforced his laconic film persona, apparently irresistible to women of all ages. Their very names now conjure up that remotest-seeming of decades, the 60s.
What was also emerging was that he was one of those screen actors who contrives to look as if he is doing nothing while effortlessly inhabiting a range of quite disparate characters, in delineating whom he draws on and extends aspects of a basic personality image.
He played Palmer twice more in the 60s, had a big success in the caper movie, The Italian Job (d. Peter Collinson, 1969), in which he held his own with Noël Coward, found the necessary toughness for Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges, 1971, remade in US, 2000, with Caine in cameo), matched wits with Olivier in Sleuth (d. Joseph L.Mankiewicz, 1972), was Julie Walters' sympathetic lecturer in Educating Rita (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1983), and a pier-end entrepreneur in Little Voice (d. Mark Herman, 1998), in which the surface shoddiness peels back to reveal the shoddiness beneath.
There are others too, and, when he got sick of paying British taxes and went to live in Hollywood in the late 70s, he kept as impressively busy on the international screen. He won an Oscar (Supporting Actor) for Hannah and Her Sisters (US, d. Woody Allen, 1986), as well as becoming an impeccable character star in such movies as: California Suite (US, d. Herbert Ross, 1978), as Maggie Smith's homosexual husband; a transvestite murderer in Dressed to Kill (US, d. Brian DePalma, 1980); back in Britain as a Soho sleaze in Mona Lisa (d. Neil Jordan, 1986) and a deeply incompetent Sherlock Holmes in Without a Clue (UK/US, d. Thom Eberhardt, 1988). He has been very critical of the British film industry, but it has arguably given him most of his best chances.
There is, in a filmography of over 80 titles (plus TV work), inevitably a lot of junk, but his own performances seem teflon-protected from his surrounds on such occasions. And when the material is right, as in The Man Who Would Be King (US, d. John Huston, 1975), few can touch him for conviction and subtlety. In the latter film, his second wife, Shakira Baksh, played her last screen role; his first wife was actress Patricia Haines.
Caine now runs his own production company, M & M Productions, with business partner Martin Bregman. He was made a CBE in 1992, knighted and awarded a BAFTA fellowship in 2000.
Bibliography: Acting in Films by Michael Caine (1990), Arise Sir Michael Caine by William Hall (2000).
Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema