That time when Sir Michael Caine asked us to join him for lunch
And it caught us completely off guard
When I first started to work at Alliance Films in the early 90s and discovered that, on occasion, I would be working with film actors and directors – I thought it was kind of exciting and cool, and a little surreal. That said, it didn’t take long at all for me to realize these three things:
Celebrities really are just accomplished artists doing their job.
We are equal to celebrities in that we are also accomplished in our respective vocations and we have jobs!
Sometimes (sadly, more often than not) celebrities come with a lot of personal baggage, inflated egos and/or silly demands. They also often come with soul-crushing personal publicists who can be very challenging and difficult to work with (more on that in a future post!).
That last point was and still is a pretty big one for me. It didn’t take long for "working with celebrities" to fall very quickly to the bottom of the list of what I liked most about my job, and I ceased being star-struck after about a minute of working in the business. That said, there still were a handful of exceptions as time wore on…
Michael Caine was one of the exceptions
In those days, we were based out of the Hotel Intercontinental for the 10-day duration of the festival. On average, each year we would represent 15-25 films during the festival – and with each film, at the very least, we would bring the director of the film to Toronto to attend the premiere and to do press. And, most often at least one actor from each film would come in as well. We typically booked six hotel rooms for the festival period, and removed the beds so we could use these rooms for celebrity/media interviews.
Our working office was set up downstairs on the second floor of the hotel in a large banquet room that was outfitted with rows of linen-covered banquet tables divided into individual work stations. I think there must have been about 12 of us working out of that room at any given time. It also functioned as our press office, a place where media would come to inquire about the films we were working on, or to be directed to where their pre-arranged interviews would take place upstairs. It was a very busy space.
Michael was in Toronto for a couple of days. For his first day, he had back-to-back Canadian press interviews in our rooms upstairs, followed in the evening by the premiere screening downtown as well as a dinner with the US + Canadian film executives. On really busy days like that – we didn’t have a lot of dialogue with the talent, other than the basics of going over their schedules, introducing them to the media, making sure their needs were taken care of and that they got to the theatre and scheduled events on time.
On his second day at TIFF, he was scheduled to work with the US team doing US and international interviews and we didn’t expect to see him again. But, around noon on that day – he suddenly appeared in the doorway of our suite. It turned out that he only had a half day of press, which he had just completed, and he wondered if we wanted to go and grab “a spot of lunch” with him.
I remember feeling completely caught off guard in a deer-in-headlight kind of way. Michael Caine was asking us to lunch.
Of course we, my colleague Julia Caslin and I, agreed to join him even though we had a ton of work on our plate and I personally was a little nervous. After all - he was a cultural icon and the idea of sitting and trying to speak intelligently with him for a couple of hours was very daunting, to me at least.
As we walked into the restaurant and asked for a table for three – you could see people staring and heads starting to turn. Part of me desperately wanted to lean in to those stares with:
“I know, right? Can you believe this?!?”
But as our lunch progressed – I quickly stopped seeing him as an idol, and started to see him for what he was, just a very, very lovely accomplished man. He couldn’t have been more unassuming or down-to-earth and the conversation could not have been more relaxed. Within minutes, it felt was as though we were casually lunching with an old friend.
Julia and I had both worked on a couple of his previous films, The Cider House Rules in 1999, for which he earned his second Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role, and Austin Powers in Goldmember in 2002 (he hilariously played Austin’s father Nigel Powers), so it was really interesting and fun to talk to him about both roles as well as his current one in such a relaxed setting – just the three of us. I even got to ask him about the genesis of his voiceover in my favourite Madness song “My Name is Michael Caine” 😊
As we finished our meal and were waiting on the bill, we asked him what his plans were for the rest of the day. He said that he might just walk down to the Eaton Centre to look around and after Julia and I both gasped at the thought of this lovely man being swarmed in the Eaton Centre, we suggested a number of other things that might be a bit more interesting. We even offered to arrange for a car to take him to see Niagara Falls as it wasn’t far from Toronto.
That’s when he said something touching that really struck me and has stayed with me ever since, and I’ve adopted the practice in my own life with my husband, Tim:
“My wife and I have a pact - many years ago we made a promise to ourselves that we will never experience a special part of world for the first time apart from each other”
And with that, he turned down our offer with grace. He and his wife Shakira were married in 1973 and are still together and will be celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, clearly they are doing something right.
We parted ways and wished each other well and I’m not really sure what he ended up doing with his spare time in the city, but he was perfectly content to do his own thing.
On celebrity worship…
I find the subject of celebrity/idol worship fascinating. A writer I’ve grown quite fond of, Gabby Bernstein, has interesting insight on the concept. She states that idolizing someone reinforces the illusion that we are separate from others, a trap that I definitely fell into with him that day. She touches on it in this blog post from 2018, here is an excerpt:
The concept of “special” is based on anything we make an idol of. The ego has all kinds of ways of convincing us that people are special. When we perceive that someone is better than others, we’re thinking with separation. We’ve forgotten that we are all one, and we’ve bought into the ego’s thought system of “better than” and “worse than.”
In thinking on it, I still am tempted to say that Michael Caine is a very special person, though, perhaps not in the idol sense of the word.
He clearly doesn’t see himself as special and he’s not ruled by ego as so many celebrities are. We witnessed him treating everyone that he met with great respect - he was kind and incredibly humble. It was an honour to meet him and I am so grateful that I was able to share that experience with my colleague - we’ll never forget it nor will we forget how he made us feel. And this grounding experience made future idol encounters, like my one with Sir Anthony Hopkins, much less intimidating. It was the perspective that I needed.
I thought about closing this post off with one of my favourite Michael Caine quotes, delivered in his Academy Award-winning role of Dr. Wilber Larch in The Cider House Rules:
"Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
Then I thought this humourous one from his role of Nigel Powers in Austin Powers in Goldmember might be more fun:
“There are only two things I can't stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other people's cultures, and the Dutch.” 🙂
But in the end, I decided to sign off by simply saying thank you to Michael and congratulating he and his wife on the remarkable milestone of their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary this year. Cheers 🥂 !
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