In the early 1960s, Michael Caine was regularly playing small character parts in television dramas and British movies. With his cockney accent and tough-guy image, he was repeatedly typecast as the small-scale villain. Stanley Baker, who had worked with him before, asked him to audition for the part in Zulu of cockney malingerer Private Hook.
But when Caine turned up to the audition, the part had already been given to his friend, James Booth. Caine was just leaving, when the director Cy Endfield asked him to come back. He said to Caine that he did not look like a cockney to him, but had much more the air of an upper-class toff, a typical army officer of the late 19th century.
He asked Caine if he could do an upper-class voice and, following the dictum of all actors at auditions – say ‘yes’ to whatever you are asked in order to get the part – Caine said that he could.
Many years later, Caine would regularly tell the story of how he did a hopeless audition as an aristocratic officer, but because Endfield was an American he did not realise how poor Caine’s accent was, so he got the part.
Caine struggled to sustain during the filming a voice and posture that were completely alien to him. Nevertheless, he was a huge success in what turned out to be his breakout movie.
Producer Joseph E Levine initially offered Caine a seven-year contract, but cancelled it after filming, telling Caine: ‘You gotta face the fact that you look like a queer on screen.’ Instead, he gave the contract to Booth (Private Hook).
Nonetheless, Zulu made an international star out of Michael Caine. He went on to play the lead in The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966), movies that helped define the 1960s. His cockney accent became his trademark in an era when regional and working class accents were becoming fashionable.
Caine has become one of the great British leading actors, featuring in more than 60 movies, including The Italian Job (1969), The Battle of Britain (1969), Get Carter (1971), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Educating Rita (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), several of the Batman films, and The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). He has been nominated for an Oscar six times, winning twice, has several BAFTAs, and was knighted in 2000.
This is an article from the September 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here