This critical analysis came from a fellow-actor, Richard Harris, an acquaintance of Caine for 36 years, though possibly no longer a friend. Harris had in turn been described by Caine as a drunk.
Critics sometimes insult actors, actors occasionally insult critics, but the spectacle of actor insulting fellow actor is a most rare one. Yesterday it happened with no holds barred.
The source of the verbal affray was a remark by Caine in an interview a few weeks ago when he was talking about some of his "friends" and co- celebrities from the Sixties. He said: "Terence Stamp did drugs but I never did.The British actors were all drunks - O'Toole, Harris, Burton - but at least it takes 25 years to kill yourself with it."
Yesterday Harris gave his considered response. In a three-page letter to the Sunday Times he laid to rest forever any lingering ideas about actor solidarity. "I take great exception to anybody who in print attacks his fellow actors," he said. That noted, he let rip.
"If Caine had indulged in a few trips to his local boozer via a taxi rather than breezing past the common man (whom he repeatedly reminds us that he is) in his fleet of chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces, accompanied by his dresser and PR man, and instead of sipping dry sherry with the royals, making the Queen occasionally laugh (a meritorious task) he might have achieved a modicum of immortality in his own career, instead of being part-owner in a series of dreary restaurants, each boasting his own reserved table. Such an accomplishment surely rates him a slim column in the Michelin Guide, but hardly a line in the Theatrical Who's Who."
Having stated the general principle behind his anger, adding that many great actors indulge in drink on a voyage "where they might touch the gods to ignite their craft", Harris then gets a bit personal.
Caine, he says, "Once claimed to be England's Cary Grant but time proved the evaporation of that prophecy, having neither the charm nor the required sex appeal. He now sees himself as England's Gene Hackman. Hackman is an intimidating and dangerous actor. Mr Caine is about as dangerous as Laurel or Hardy or indeed both, and as intimidating as Shirley Temple."
And in a climactic flourish which parodies the catchphrase popularly associated with Caine, Harris concludes: "It is commonly known that he was traumatised into petty tantrums of disbelief when Hopkins, McKellen, Jacobi and Stephens were elevated to knighthood, to his exclusion, but, after all, he did achieve the title he had diligently worked for, 'Farceur du Salon' of Beverly Hills - and a lot of people know that."
Neither man was available yesterday to discuss the row. One West End impresario, who did not wish to be named, said he was not altogether surprised. Harris, he said, saw himself as a serious theatrical actor and may have resented Caine whose success has been in populist films, and who has not acted on stage.
Letters, page 12