When a remake of the top 1960s spy film, The Ipcress File, hits the big screen, Michael Caine recalls the day spy bosses called him to meet a Russian agent
Image: Alamy Stock Photo)
The bell rang at the struggling Sixties actor’s London apartment. Strange, because he was alone and wasn’t expecting anyone.
He had been researching a role in a Russian spy film that would change his life.
But when Michael Caine opened the door, this fictional Cold War world collapsed into his reality.
Two sly looking spies in suits stood outside his door and showed him their MI5 identification cards.
They wanted to know exactly why the shocked actor met with a sinister real-life Soviet agent.
“They checked all his contacts in London and I was named as one of them,” said Michael, now 88, reflecting on his groundbreaking 1965 film The Ipcress File – which will now hit our TV screens in six-packs. part of ITV drama.
“The word ‘contact’ made me nervous. I had read enough thrillers by then to know it meant spies.”
Alamy Stock Photo)
But Caine convinced the Spooks that 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 film role he worried about was going to be an embarrassing flop. Unnecessary as it turned out. The film – based on a bestseller by Len Deighton about a soldier-turned-spy with a troubled past investigating the disappearance of a British scientist – was a smash hit.
And it went from a failed actor so poor he had to brush his teeth with salt to a Hollywood-acclaimed multi-millionaire.
Alamy Stock Photo)
Michael said: “All my life I’ve spent doing dirty shirts one more day and hiding holes in my socks. I couldn’t afford toothpaste, shampoo.
“I slept in dirty sheets because I didn’t have money for laundry.”
But all that changed the day he had dinner at a London restaurant with fellow actor Terence Stamp – who footed the bill. James Bond producer Harry Saltzman sat nearby, who asked him to join him at his table.
Alamy Stock Photo)
Dave Benett/Getty Images for Burlington Arcade)
By now, Caine – the son of a cleaning lady and a fish market porter – had appeared in a number of little-known films before taking a big step forward in 1964’s fight film Zulu.
He describes his conversation with Saltzman as “the two minutes that changed my life.” The producer engaged him, saying, “You could be a big star – you’ll look good on 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 falling out with his hired driver, who told him the plot was a “load of c***” and quipped, “Then what’s this movie Ipcress, salad about?”
It remains the only time the star has ever fired anyone. Saltzman wanted Palmer to be the “antithesis of James Bond” and just an ordinary guy with a boring name.
He portrayed him as a working-class scoundrel living in a Notting Hill dormitory, but there were fears Palmer would appear too soft to take on communist spies. The script called for him to buy his own groceries and seduce Sue Lloyd’s character, Jean Courtney, by inviting her over to his home for dinner – a stunning reversal of gender roles at the time.
Caine said, “In that scene I had to make her an omelet using the macho trick of breaking two eggs at once with one hand – very spectacular. But I couldn’t do it because it’s very difficult. So we had to use the hands of Len Deighton, who could.” Upon release, the film was acclaimed for showing a different side of the swinging ’60s. It won a BAFTA.
The following year, Caine’s career took off when he was cast as the womanizer Cockney in the film Alfie, a romantic comedy that made him an international star.
The married father of two, who turns 89 this month, has appeared in over 150 films which have grossed around £5billion.
But he’ll never forget the aftermath of Ipcress when the money rolled in — and he was able to stop brushing his teeth with salt. “With my newfound wealth, I went completely insane, buying tons of shirts, sheets, towels, socks, tubes of toothpaste, bottles of shampoo, and an entire collection of aftershave lotions until it was almost impossible to fit myself in my bathroom move.
“I had made £10,000 in 15 weeks – a situation that was incredible for me with my background.”
Now he will no doubt be very interested in the TV remake of his breakout hit.
Peaky Blinders actor Joe Cole plays Palmer, while actress Lucy Boynton is Jean and Tom Hollander plays the role of Palmer’s strict boss, Major Dalby.
The drama should be a timely reminder of how worrying Cold War nuclear tensions were in the 1960s… just as the West faces a terrifying renewed Russian aggression.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/mi5-paid-ipcress-file-star-26394624 MI5 paid a visit to Michael Caine, the star of the IpPress file, after he met with a real Russian spy