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Michael Caine on the trail of Holmes

Michael Caine as Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Watson.

LONDON, England -- Down here on the banks of these forgotten underground canals running beneath crumbling old Victorian warehouses, it is cold and damp, and they have a rope strung along the walls so if the lights go out, you can feel your way to safety before the rats gnaw your bones. Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are blowing on their hands and sipping hot tea, and looking uneasily at the water in the canal, which is the color of green mud. "If you fell in and went under," Caine observes, "you'd have to have about 30 injections."

They are filming a movie named "Sherlock and Me" [released as "Without a Clue"], and although there have been countless film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes, from the age of Basil Rathbone to the era of Jeremy Brett, there has never before been one with quite this premise. If we are to believe the screenplay, Sherlock Holmes never existed. All of his cases were investigated and solved by Dr. Watson, who then, to amuse himself, wrote them up for the Strand magazine, disguising his own identity by creating a fictional writer named Arthur Conan Doyle, and a fiction detective named Sherlock Holmes and solved by Dr. Watson.

As the story opens, Watson, played by Kingsley, is trapped in the horns of a dilemma. He needs to produce a "real" Holmes. So he hires an actor, a very bad actor, to portray the detective. The actor (played by Michael Caine) enjoys playing Holmes all too much, until he confuses the role with reality, and begins to think he is Sherlock Holmes. And that gets to be a problem for him when the evil Dr. Moriarity arrives on the scene.

"It's all a lot of derring-do today, and not a lot of dialog," Caine was explaining during a pause in the shooting. "We hide behind those boxes over there, and shoot our guns, and duck bullets. Then Dr. Moriarity tries to set off his bomb before we all burn up in the fires that have started."

He and Kingsley hid behind the boxes, and waited for the director to call "Action!," and then they leaped up, shot, and dove for cover.

"They're two very different kinds of actors," the movie's producer, Mark Sturdivant, was musing over in the shadows of a slime-covered archway. "Michael is very instinctive, Ben is very intellectual, They work marvelously well together. During the read-through of the script, we'd call out "scene 90" or something, and Ben would instantly be checking to see what had happened to his character before, and what would happen after, so he could fashion the correct frame of mind. Meanwhile, Michael would be slumped on the couch, picking balls of fluff off of his sweater."

Thom Eberhardt, the genial American who is directing the film, asked everyone to retreat down a gloomy corridor for safety's sake, while the special effects men prepared to set off a bomb. Then it appeared that the explosives would take some time to rig, and so lunch was declared. I followed Ben Kingsley to his mobile dressing room, which was parked upstairs not far from Camden Lock, in an area of London that was once filled with warehouses for the canal boats from the north, and will soon be filled with condos for the yuppies from the south, but is currently an industrial wasteland.

Kingsley is indeed an intellectual actor, polite and precise, not given to personal revelations. The dignity and reserve that he brought to his Oscar-winning performance in "Gandhi" seems to be innate. So is the twinkle in his eye. 

"We are, I suppose, making a comedy," he explained to me, "but we are playing it very seriously. Michael is portraying a bad actor, not a funny bad actor. I am playing a detective, a doctor, and a writer. That gives me my limits. Watson is a serious man. We will play these characters as if we believed in them--not lampoon them like the Three Stooges."

"I'm somehow surprised that you know the Three Stooges," I said.

"Oh, I know them, all right. The lowest form of comedy."

We talked briefly about the age of Sherolock Holmes, which is Kingsley's favorite historical period: "They had a covenant of honor then, that disappeared after the war.They had a clear concept of good and evil, which is why is was the perfect period for Sherlock Holmes. I like the style of the period, the dress, the paintings, and the photographs. And I am calling on all of that affection in my performance. This may be a comedy, but I am not making fun of Watson or Holmes."

He thought for a moment.

"You have to believe in God,: he said, "to be able to blaspheme."

Outside his trailer, it had started to rain, one of those grim January drizzles that seems to be good until March. I walked across a windy brick parking lot to Michael Caine's trailer, where the instinctive actor was reading the morning papers. After ten years in Beverly Hills, Caine moved back to England last year, and lives in an ancient cottage on the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire. I told him I had enjoyed a clip on the TV news showing him officially opening the village fete.

"Actors are called upon all the time to open one thing or another," he said. "It's who they call if they can't get royalty. But the difference between opening my village fete and opening something in California is that my village is 1,000 years old! The name of the place is Wallingford, which I think refers to a walled-in fording place from the Roman times. Walled-in-Ford becomes Wallingford, don't you imagine? You can walk across the Thames when the tide is low enough."

"When you moved to California," I said, " you said it was because American producers never called you with job offers in England, because it never occurred to them they could telephone long-distance."

"Right. But they're willing to do that now, because I went to American and did quite well. I'm well-known in the U.S., which I wasn't when I moved there. And now that I'm back home, I don't bad-mouth Hollywood. I had a marvelous time. They were all wonderful to me. They gave me lots of work, and I had a nice house, as nice as everyone else in Beverly Hills, and the sun shone on me just like everybody else, but the hard thing to explain is, I wound up missing the rain."

He looked out the window of his trailer at the lowering skies.

"And now that I'm back home, I don't have to miss the rain. I got homesick for life in the country. Also, my daughter is 14, and I wanted her to spend some time in British schools before she was completely mature. She was in a very laid-back school in Los Angeles, and oh, my, are the British schools tougher! I'm 55. I don't want to move again. Here we're a 45-minute flight from strange and alien cultures. In America, you can fly for five hours and still be in the same place. I want to show my daughter a little of Europe. We popped over to Greece, we visited Paris, she's spending her school holidays in Rome..."

"Did you ever imagine you'd be playing Sherlock Holmes?" I asked.

His gaze fell on his deerstalker cap. "I'm an actor, you see. I should be able to play almost anybody. It's part of our British actor thing. I grew up in repertory theater. Our training is to play any suitable role. If you're a movie star in America, you have to worry about what your fan club will think. I'm a leading actor rather than a film star, so I have to give a performance every time, and not rely simply on personality or looks. One of the ways this is fun is that you get to play all sorts of different roles, like the bad chap in "Mona Lisa,' for example, that a film star would not have played. Or my role in "Hannah and Her Sisters,' which was not a leading role, but it was a chance to work with Woody Allen, who is an important filmmaker."

That was the role that won Michael Caine an Academy Award as best supporting actor, further advancing the theory that no single actor in the last decade has appeared in more good, or bad, movies than Caine--who somehow manages to emerge looking good even in the bad ones.

"I enjoy the television shows where they select the year's best and worst films," he said. "I'm always on both lists." 

"Speaking of protecting your image," I said, "you do have a certain willingness to play roles that 'movie stars' wouldn't touch. 'Blame It on Rio,' for example." That was the movie in which Caine played a married man who went on holiday to Rio with his child, his best friend, and the friend's teenage daughter--and had an affair with the daughter.

"That was at a point in my career when I would do literally anything to appear in a comedy. I made 'Sweet Liberty' at about the same time. I should have known it was the wrong decision, looking at the screenplay and seeing how many tits were in the movie. I don't like tits in movies 'caue I know nobody's looking at me. Another strike against the movie--it cam out just at the same time as a massive amount of publicity about incest, and I think people got the idea I was having the affair with my daughter, rather than my friend's daughter."

"You said when you left for America," I said, "that you were paying 92 percent of your British income in taxes."

"Quite right. Now Mrs. Thatcher has it down to around 55 percent. Still about 25 percent more than in America, but I am willing to pay a 25 percent penalty for the privilege of living in England. It's worth it."

"And where else could you play Sherlock Holmes?" He shrugged. The fact was, Caine someone negotiated the minefield of "Blame It on Rio" and escaped untouched. His inborn good humor seems to carry him past the impossible scenes in terrible movies (although he had some very close calls in "Jaws the Revenge'). Caine has made five films in the last year alone, including good performances in "The Whistle Blower" and the Fredrick Forsyth thriller "The Fourth Protocol."

"The problem with that one," he said, " was that Forsyth slowed things down too much by having all those Russians standing around calling each other by their full names. They all have three names, each one longer than the last."

"What's next?" I asked.

"Jack the Ripper," he said. "I'll practically be able to keep the same wardrobe. It's a min-series for TV. For 25 years, I've said I would never do a mini-series, but this was too good to pass up. This is the 100th anniversary of the first Ripper murders, and we have the private papers of the Inspector who caught him, arrested him, and sealed the evidence for a century."

"That's the story?"

"No, that's the fact. At the end of the last episode, on live worldwide TV, we will open the file and reveal the real name of Jack the Ripper. There's tremendous interest all over the world. The Japanese even have professional Ripperologists. After that, there won't be much point in doing any more Ripper films. Our director has had a pre-look at the file, but he is going to make us film three or four different endings, so even the actors won't know who the real Ripper is. The Duke of Clarence? Who can say for sure? Book-makers are taking odds over here."

He smiled at the prospect. He began to think back over some of his earlier roles, and came up with the observation that he has been in movies 25 years, since the days of "Zulu," "The Ipcress File" and "Alfie."

"I'm up for another 25," he said. "Why not? George Burns is 92, and he signed a contract to play the Palladium when he's 100."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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