Dave Karger
May 09, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There is such a thing as a free lunch — and Michael Caine is eating it. Sitting in a trendy Manhattan brasserie, the 64-year-old actor is being treated to enough gratis grub to feed the entire crew of his new ABC miniseries, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. ”This is embarrassing,” says Caine, brandishing his fork.

In fact, Caine’s plate has been full for some time. He’s partaken of roughly 80 films, tasted the fruits of the Academy (with his Oscar-winning portrayal of a philandering husband in Hannah and Her Sisters), and sunk his teeth into some juicy TV characters (such as South Africa’s former president in the recent Showtime movie Mandela and de Klerk) — in addition to maintaining a 24-year marriage with wife Shakira and fathering daughters Dominique, 40, and Natasha, 23. But before diving into his Leagues role — as Jules Verne’s villainous Captain Nemo — Caine harbored some reservations. ”You think that with a TV project you could wind up doing [Leagues] with a pink submarine in a bathtub,” he jokes, before adding ”But then I saw the special effects on [the 1996 NBC miniseries] Gulliver’s Travels with Ted Danson, and I thought, ‘Wow. They can do this.’ ”

Ultimately, the production’s $15 million budget and the chance to play a legendary megalomaniac proved too tantalizing to turn down. ”I knew they were going to pull out all the stops,” he says. ”I [usually] do a lot of naturalistic stuff, but with this [role] I could go nuts.”

Caine’s lunacy was evidently catching. ”The first time I had to work with him I became a stuttering fool,” says Patrick Dempsey, who plays oceanographer Pierre Arronax in Leagues. ”He would yell at me every now and then. It seems like it’s bravado, this big bluff. But once you get inside there, he’s very sweet.”

And getting sweeter. Toward the end of the meal, Caine’s waitress (who, ”like, just watched Blame It on Rio with my boyfriend over the weekend”) drops three unasked-for, industrial-size desserts on the table. Caine eyes the confections as if they were a banquet of acting roles. ”Two forkfuls of each,” he says, ”and then we’re done.”

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