As remake of top 1960s spy movie the Ipcress File hits the screen, Michael Caine recalls the day spy chiefs paid him a visit over meetings with Russian agent
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The doorbell rang at the struggling Sixties actor’s London flat. Odd, because he was alone and not expecting anyone.
He’d been doing research for a Russian spy movie role that would change his life.
But when Michael Caine opened the door, that fictional Cold War world crashed into his reality.
Two shifty-looking spooks in suits were on his doorstep, flashing their MI5 ID cards at him.
They wanted to know exactly why the shocked actor had been meeting up with a sinister real-life Soviet agent.
“They were checking all his contacts in London and I’d been named as one of them,” said Michael, now 88, reflecting on his breakthrough 1965 movie The Ipcress File – which is now about to hit our TV screens as a six- part ITV drama.
“I got nervous at the word ‘contact.’ I’d read enough thrillers by then to know it meant spies.”
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But Caine convinced the spooks his rendezvous with Captain Eugene Ivanov – Christine Keeler’s Russian lover in the Profumo affair that rocked the Government in 1963 – was only to help him play the role of British spy Harry Palmer.
A movie role he was worried would be an embarrassing flop. Necessarily as it turned out. Because the film – based on a Len Deighton best-seller about a former soldier turned spy with a troubled past investigating the disappearance of a British scientist – was a massive hit.
And it took him from being a failed actor so poor he had to brush his teeth with salt, to being a multi-millionaire feted by Hollywood.
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Michael said: “All my life I had spent making dirty shirts last another day, hiding holes in my socks. I couldn’t afford toothpaste, shampoo.
“I slept in dirty bedclothes because I had no money for the laundry.”
But all that changed the day he had dinner in a London restaurant with fellow actor Terence Stamp – who was picking up the bill. Nearby sat James Bond producer Harry Saltzman, who asked him to join him at his table.
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By now Caine – the son of a charwoman and fish market porter – had appeared in a string of little-known movies before making a big step up in 1964 battle movie Zulu.
He describes his chat with Saltzman as “the two minutes that changed my life.” The producer signed him up, saying: “You could be a big star – you come over well on the screen.”
But there were serious fears their first collaboration, The Ipcress File, would be a disaster.
Director Sidney Furie hated the script so much that he torched it in front of the cast at Pinewood Studios.
Caine even had a row with his hired driver who told him the plot was a “load of c***” and quipped: “What’s this film Ipcress about then, salad?”
It remains the only time the star has ever fired someone. Saltzman wanted Palmer to be the “antithesis of James Bond” and a very ordinary bloke with a boring name.
He portrayed him as a working-class rogue, living in a bedsit in Notting Hill, but there were fears Palmer would seem too soft to take on communist spooks. The script had him buying his own groceries and seducing Sue Lloyd’s character Jean Courtney by inviting her back to his place de ella for a meal – an astonishing gender role reversal at the time.
Caine said: “In that scene, I had to make her an omelette using the macho trick of breaking two eggs simultaneously and with one hand – very spectacular. I couldn’t do it though as it’s very tricky. So we had to use the hands of Len Deighton, who could.” On release the film was hailed as showing another side to the swinging 60s. It won a BAFTA.
The following year Caine’s career went into overdrive when he was cast as a womanizing cockney in movie Alfie, a romantic comedy drama that made him an international star.
The married father of two, who turns 89 this month, went on to appear in over 150 films that have grossed around £5billion.
But he’ll never forget the aftermath of Ipcress as the money rolled in – and he could stop cleaning his teeth with salt. “With my new-found wealth I went completely mad, buying masses of shirts, sheets, towels, socks, tubes of toothpaste, bottles of shampoo and a complete collection of aftershave lotions until it was almost impossible to move in my bathroom.
“I had been earning £10,000 for fifteen weeks – a situation for me with my background was beyond belief.”
Now doubtless he’ll be taking a keen interest in TV’s remake of his breakthrough hit.
Actor Joe Cole of Peaky Blinders fame plays Palmer, while actress Lucy Boynton is Jean and Tom Hollander has the role of Palmer’s strict boss Major Dalby.
The drama should provide a timely reminder of how worrying 1960s’ Cold War nuclear tension was… just as the West is facing terrifying renewed Russian aggression.