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Michael Caine

The veteran British actor who's made dozens of films and won two Oscars over 50 years is still going strong as a leading man at the age of 82

The following script is from "Michael Caine" which aired on Dec. 20, 2015. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Ruth Streeter, producer.

If you don't remember Michael Caine as Alfie in the 1960s, you might have seen him in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" in the 80s, or more recently as Alfred the butler in the Batman movies.

He has been in so many films, there's no official count: though he says it's nearly 180. He's been nominated for an Academy Award in every one of the last five decades. Now, at 82, he just might be nominated again, for his new movie "Youth."

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Michael Caine
CBS News

"Youth" is set in the Swiss Alps. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired, celebrated composer and conductor who has turned his back on music. But he can't help finding it everywhere. It was a part written specifically for him.

Michael Caine: It was the most surprising offer I've ever had in my life. I don't get offered many leads at the--

Lesley Stahl: At your age?

Michael Caine: At 82, there aren't too many. And I almost said, "Don't bother to send the script. I'll do it. It's OK. It's OK."

[Fred Ballinger: Do you know who composed that piece you're practicing?

Young boy: No, who?

Fred Ballinger: Me.

Young boy: My teacher makes me play it. He says it's a perfect piece to start with.

Fred Ballinger: Yea, he's right it's very simple.

Young boy: It's not only simple.

Fred Ballinger: Oh really.

Young boy: It's also really beautiful.

Fred Ballinger: Yes, it is beautiful. I composed it while I still loved.]

youthuse.jpg
Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger in "Youth"
Fox Searchlight

Lesley Stahl: Would you say that Fred's in crisis in the movie?

Michael Caine: He's more or less destroyed, as a matter of fact. But you don't know that. And he would never let you see that.

Lesley Stahl: We have so much sympathy for him. How did you do that?

Michael Caine: I go back to situations in my life, and you can see it in my face.

But sometimes Caine wasn't acting at all. In one scene, director Paolo Sorrentino decided to present Caine and his co-star Harvey Keitel - with a surprise.

Michael Caine: We had no idea. We're in a swimming pool. And one of the most beautiful girls you've ever seen comes up with absolutely nothing on and gets in the pool. And we just look in disbelief. And he didn't tell us 'cause he wanted us to have a certain reaction. We just sat there like--

[Fred Ballinger: Who is she?

Mick Boyle: God... What do you mean who is she? Miss Universe.]

Lesley Stahl: How do you think you did in this movie? Rate yourself.

Michael Caine: Secretly with myself I regarded it as the best thing I ever did. It was the most difficult. And the criterion for that is I made it look the most easy.

Lesley Stahl: So in other words, you've improved?

Michael Caine: I just try to play more and more difficult roles.

Lesley Stahl: So, so you want a greater challenge at the age of 82--than when you were Alfie?

Michael Caine: I need a challenge 'cause I don't get the girl anymore.

Lesley Stahl: Right.

Michael Caine: All I get was grandma, you know.

Lesley Stahl: What's wrong with grandma?

Michael Caine: Nothing, you know. So long as she's pretty.

Lesley Stahl: There's a sense of the futures of these characters closing in on them, that age is shutting down their future. Did it in any way begin to infect you?

Michael Caine: Oh, no. But, there was a point in the movie where I'm being examined by my doctor. He says, "How's it feel to be old?" And I said, "I don't understand how I got here." And that affected me like hell 'cause I was thinking, "That's true of me. I don't understand how I got here."

He was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933, the son of working class Cockneys in the slums of south London... a lot of which have been torn down and rebuilt.

Michael Caine: It was very, very tough. And it was full of razor gangs and all that.

Michael Caine: Is this the London Road comin' up, Mitchell?

Mitchell Freeman: On the right hand side, yes.

Michael Caine: Yeah, turn right there, please.

Michael Caine: Oh look. Now, there's an example. I spent my life in the library reading books to get away from this-- that's the library.

Lesley Stahl: This pile of rubble--?

Michael Caine: A pile of rubble.

Lesley Stahl: Your library.

Michael Caine: That is my library. I spent my entire time reading books and going to the cinema, just to escape. And they pulled my library down.

Lesley Stahl: You were really, really poor...

Michael Caine: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah. But my father was a fish market porter. So I grew up on fish, because he used to steal one a day, I grew up on the very best fish that money could buy, 'cause he only stole the good stuff.

Caine was determined not to be a fish porter like generations of Micklewhites before him. He was going to be a movie star and make a lot of money. At 14 he joined a local acting club.

Lesley Stahl: Acting was considered sissy-like--

Michael Caine: It was, yeah.

Lesley Stahl: --were you teased?

Michael Caine: Yeah. Oh yeah, but I, you know, you didn't tease me for very long.

Lesley Stahl: Why not?

Michael Caine: 'Cause you--

Michael Caine: Yeah, that wouldn't go down very well.

Lesley Stahl: You'd beat them up?

Michael Caine: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: Were you that tough?

Michael Caine: Yeah. I'm not tough anymore, I'm 82.

At 22, Caine was struggling to find acting jobs. On the dole, he had a new wife and a baby and left them both.

Lesley Stahl: This is a very traumatic time of your life. Because you really--

Michael Caine: Oh yes.

Lesley Stahl: --you basically, in effect, walked out.

Michael Caine: Yeah, well, I screwed up. Yeah, I screwed up on everything--

Lesley Stahl: You walked out. You walked out on the baby, you walked out on the wife--

Michael Caine: Everything, everything, yeah.

It wasn't till he was 30 that he got his first big break in the 1964 film "Zulu," where he played an upper class British officer.

[Lt. Gonville Bromheam from "Zulu": Oh, when you take command old boy you're on your own. The first lesson the general, my grandfather, ever taught me.]

Michael Caine: The luck of it was that the director was an American. Because no English director would've cast me as an officer, I promise you. Not one.

Lesley Stahl: Because you were Cockney?

Michael Caine: Because I was a Cockney.

Lesley Stahl: The class system was that rigid.

Michael Caine: It was that rigid, yeah. And it holds people back, you know. It really holds--

Lesley Stahl: But it makes you angry.

Michael Caine: Oh, me, I-- you start snobbery with me, and that's one of the times you get into trouble.

He helped trigger the break-down of that class system with a series of roles he played as a Cockney.

[Married woman: I've had a lovely time Alfie.

Alfie: I always say make a married woman laugh and you're halfway there with her.]

Alfie was a shameless, impudent rogue and audiences loved him.

[Alfie: Nice, isn't it]

Starting in the so-called swinging 60s his characters personified the working class antihero...

[Harry Palmer from "The Ipcress File": Courtney, I am going to cook you the best meal you've ever eaten.]

With his irresistible charm, he played lovers, fighters, killers, spies... all with his trademark Cockney swagger.

[Jack Carter from "Get Carter": Why the hell aren't you here?]

[Rudyard Kipling from "The Man Who Would Be King": Mister...

Peachy Carnehan: Carnehan. Former gunnery sergeant in her majesty's forces.]

Caine's success got Hollywood's attention. Soon he was playing leads in American movies like the classic, "The Man Who Would Be King."

[Peachy Carnehan: Glenlivet 12 years old.

Rudyard Kipling: You have an educated taste in whisky.

Peachy Carnehan: I've an educated taste in whisky and women, waist coats and bills of fare. Though I've had few chances to exercise it lately because them that govern spend all their time making up new laws to stop men like you and me from getting anywhere. Right?]

By 1987, he was one of the most bankable British actors in Hollywood, living the life of a movie star in a Beverly Hills mansion.

That same year he won his first Oscar for actor in a supporting role for Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." He played a man who was married to Hannah but had the hots for her sister.

[Lee: Did you ever read this one...Elliot, don't!

Elliot: Lee, Lee, Lee. I'm in love with you.]

Lesley Stahl: Talk about slime buckets, he was it. And yet we like you.

Michael Caine: I don't think human beings are bad. They're weak. And that's what makes 'em bad. And so I always exposed the weakness rather than the nastiness. But you got the nastiness anyway.

Over the next couple of years, he made a few clunkers.

[Hoagie from "Jaws 4": You're all the same. Complain, complain.]

He came to the harsh realization that his career was fading.

Michael Caine: You don't retire from the movies. The movies retire you.

Michael Caine: There was a certain moment. I was about 61-- two, three or four, and I got a script. And I sent it back to the producer saying-- "I don't wanna do it. The part's too small." And he sent it back to me, he said, "You shouldn't read the lover. You should read the father."

So he reinvented himself as a father figure and it paid off. At 67, Caine won his second Oscar for actor in a supporting role in "The Cider House Rules."

[Dr. Wilbur Larch from "The Cider House Rules": Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.]

A few months later, he got the ultimate accolade when Queen Elizabeth knighted Him Sir Maurice Micklewhite, not bad for a bloke from the slums of south London.

Michael Caine: It's the best award I ever had because you get the Academy Award, it's about a performance. You get a Knighthood, it's about a life.

Lesley Stahl: Was there a sense after the knighthood, that you had totally arrived?

Michael Caine: I knew I had arrived, this was proof for anybody who thought I hadn't.

Lesley Stahl: So I should be calling you "Sir Michael."

Michael Caine: You should be, but I've let you off.

Lesley Stahl: Yes, let me off the hook.

Christopher Nolan: He's one of the greats.

Lesley Stahl: Where do you put him? He's up there with who?

Christopher Nolan: I wouldn't put anybody above him.

Director Christopher Nolan has cast Caine in his last six films including the Batman movies where he plays Alfred the butler. At 72, Caine started the third act of his career, picking up a whole new generation of fans.

[Bruce Wayne: Bats are nocturnal.

Alfred Pennyworth: Bats may be but even for billionaire playboys, three o'clock is pushing it. ]

Christopher Nolan: It's an incredible rapport with the audience that he has. And it's to do with warmth and humor as well as just basic grounded humanity. Feels very real. He is very real.

Lesley Stahl: Somebody said that a lot of your characters are way out there and you put Michael in there to be normal, to be the solid one.

Christopher Nolan: When you see Michael in the scene, you do -- there's a sort of sign of relief a little bit. Like, OK, I'm gonna-- I'm gonna have something I can understand here." There's somebody else who's grounded, you know, the way the audience is.

What's kept him grounded, he says, is his family. He and his second wife, Shakira, have been married for 42 years. They now devote themselves to their grandchildren and their daughter Natasha.

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Lesley Stahl, left, Michael Caine and his wife, Shakira
CBS News

Michael Caine: By the way here she comes. These are my-- these are my two grandchildren with her. Hiya guys, how you doin'?

Voices: Grandpa.

Michael Caine: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Great to see you. Lovely.

I'm the happiest grandfather in the world, I promise you.

The kids are now the center of his life. He says he's like a father to them, so he and Shakira are moving so they can live closer and see them more often.

Michael Caine: I was watching cartoons on television and a commercial came on for one of the Batman series where I played a butler. And then my grandson looked up at me and he said, "Do you know Batman?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Really," I said, "Yeah." I said I know him very well. And he told all the boys at school, he said, "My grandpa knows Batman. Does your grandpa know Batman? OK, no. Mine does."

Caine says he's a happy man, made even happier by the talk that his role in "Youth" might get him his fifth Oscar nomination for actor in a leading role and if he wins---

Michael Caine: It would be one of the most important things in my life, you know? It'd be up there with a knighthood.

Lesley Stahl: You would be--

Michael Caine: I'd be the oldest person.

Lesley Stahl: --person, actress, actor, to ever win such a thing.

Michael Caine: I think it would be great for the Academy to recognize old age.

Lesley Stahl: And all 82-year-old men out there, right?

Michael Caine: Yeah, yeah, all those 82-year-old men.

Lesley Stahl: Maurice Micklewhite, look at you.

Michael Caine: Yeah, I thank God every day.

Lesley Stahl: Yeah, but you've worked for it.

Michael Caine: Yeah, I gave God a hand.

  • Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.