Sir Michael Caine has an uncanny ability to look forward to life with optimism.
This year marks his 60th anniversary in movies and in his latest film Youth he has given one of his best ever performances.
“It is perhaps my favourite ever role,” he says.
Caine is 82 but will never give up. “When the offers of work stop I will say I have retired,” he insists.
“The film business will have to give me up rather than the other way around.”
There is still no sign of that with a moving, thoughtful performance as retired composer Fred Ballinger in Youth, which last month won him best actor at the European Film Awards. It also won best director for Italian Paolo Sorrentino and was awarded best film of the year.
It is released here later this month with Rachel Weisz playing his daughter and Harvey Keitel a close friend sharing a rest on what is a glorified health farm in the Swiss Alps.
For Caine the subject matter of the film has sparked thoughts not only of his own youth but staying youthful. “I never think about life or death when I am making a movie but just enjoy having a good time,” he admits.
“The years for me, like anyone my age, have gone quickly. From a working point of view I have gone from playing the lover and husband to being a father. And these days I am lucky to even get the grandma!
“It has meant I am mostly no longer the lead these days. It is great. I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn every day for three months and learn endless lines.”
Yet in Youth he is back playing the lead. “I got the chance to play a classical musical composer and conductor who is wanted by Buckingham Palace for a special concert. The script was great, the cast was great and so was the director. There was no way I was going to turn it down.”
Caine could even be a long shot for another Oscar nomination. He’s had six, the first being for the 1966 film Alfie, and has won two of them.
“This film stretched me,” he admits. “I have not lost the thrill of finding myself in these situations when I still think of myself as a working class kid from London.”
Memories of his own youth always seem to run parallel to Caine’s progress and phenomenal success as arguably Britain’s greatest ever film actor. He’s made 150 films, playing the lead role in 85 of them.
There is nowhere in the world where he can step off a plane without being recognised. “I keep my background very much in mind,” he adds.
“There are two reasons. One is to remind me of how tough real life can be away from films and the lucky existence I have been able to enjoy. The other is that you learn from your mistakes. I try and remember those times when I felt hopeless and everyone was telling me to give up. Even now it inspires me to move onwards. I like to remind myself of the struggles and knock-backs before I made it.”
There were certain moments he used as inspiration. A court case in 1960 “marked the lowest point in my life”, he reveals.
He had been ordered by a judge to pay three pounds 10 shillings (£3.50p) a week for the maintenance of his first wife, the late actress Patricia Haines, and baby daughter Dominique. He had been arrested for nonpayment and put in police cells before the case.
“It was the end of a long, bad run,” he reflects. “I fell madly in love with Pat when we were working together in theatre and we married a few weeks later. I was only 22, which was ridiculously young. I sometimes got walk-on parts on TV with no dialogue. But I gave up acting work because Pat was more talented and had a bigger chance of success.
“I began a long line of souldestroying jobs. I worked in a laundry, wheeling trolleys of dirty clothes to boilers. I washed up in a restaurant and had a stint as a plumber’s mate. Pat became pregnant and we had our wonderful daughter Dominique [now aged 59]. But it was the straw that broke the already weak camel’s back.
“I walked out of the marriage and Pat took Dominique to her parents in Sheffield. They were marvellous and brought her up. The breakdown of that marriage was my fault entirely. I was too young to take on the poverty as well as the personal and professional failure.
“I collapsed like a pack of cards. I was out of work, had no money and was forced at a young age to return to the council prefab where I’d lived with my mum and dad.”
He remembers the small twobedroom bungalow fondly. “I was 12 when we moved there and it was the first house we’d had that had electricity. We had no money but a lot of love.”
The death of Caine’s father Maurice, a Billingsgate fish porter, was another wake-up call. “When they turned out his pockets at the hospital all he had was three shillings and eight pence [about 18p]. That’s all he had to show for 56 years of manual labour. When I walked out of that hospital I was determined that I would make something of myself and that my family would never be poor again.”
His big film break in Zulu, released in 1964, followed swiftly by Alfie and The Ipcress File, playing secret agent Harry Palmer, meant he became one of the biggest names in the swinging London of the 1960s. By the time he played Charlie Croker in The Italian Job in 1969 with the famous line “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” he was an international star.
“I have always thought that life swings on small, sometimes insignificant incidents and decisions,” he reflects. “That’s how it has been for me. It is all about luck and timing. The 1960s gave working class kids like me a chance.”
Yesterday he celebrated his 42nd wedding anniversary to wife Shakira, 68, with whom he has daughter Natasha, 42, who has three children.
“I don’t make a song and dance about anniversaries,” he admits.
“In fact I have been known to forget it completely. For me it is a matter of how we live every day. I had vowed never to get married again – until I met Shakira. The wedding ceremony is the least important thing about getting married. I always worry a bit about massive weddings and whether people have them because they are trying to convince themselves they are doing the right thing.
“So for me life really did begin again at 40. I had met my wife, gave up all the drinking and nightclubs and moved out of London to get fit with gardening. It was the making of me.”
The resurgence of older people returning to the cinema has combined with Caine’s own greater popularity in recent times. “Films like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are drawing out audiences that most film companies didn’t know were there,” he says.
“These people used to go to the movies every week in their youth. “They are now free to go and see a movie whenever they like. They are grandmas and grandfathers just like me, who are attracted to stories with a bit of depth and which look at life.”
Caine, whose debut film A Hill In Korea was in 1956, will star in another upcoming film Going In Style, a comedy with Morgan Freeman about pensioners taking revenge on their bank.
“It is aimed at the same kind of audience as Youth,” he says.
“Youth is what we once had. Youth is what we see around us. I now play with my grandchildren and look forward to it. Youth is what keeps us going.”