Michael Caine lies tucked in bed, the quilt up to his chin placidly smoking a tattered Macanudo cigar.

Around him bustle sound men, light men, prop men, and script girl, the assistant producer, director Sidney Lumet, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon's stand-in. The set is a tiny bedroom in the gullet of a windmill, a scene where the plot of Ira Levin's "Deathtrap" turns upon itself like a worm with the colic.

The famous eyelids, so insolent in "The Ipcress File," so seductive in "Alfie," so effete in "Zulu," sink lower as the babble rises on all sides of him. The left arm, languid in a $2,500 Sulka robe and $500 Gucci pajamas, rises dreamily from under the covers and lifts the cigar away. The cigar looks tired. He has been lighting it and putting it down all morning.

"When can I get rid of this cigar, Martha? When's the next time I --"

"You can leave it when you go downstairs," says the script girl.

An alert prop man mutters: "He smoked in this picture yet?"

"Yes," the star calls out, "on the train."

It's not that Michael Caine has rabbit ears. It's just that he's a pro. Having made at least 40 movies since "Zulu" in 1964, having cut his teeth with 80-odd plays on the amateur stage and 150 more in repertory, he knows what to do next. He loves to work fast, and so does Sid Lumet, who calls him and everyone else "dollin'" and shoots so briskly he is known as "Two-Shot Lumet" in the trade. Two competent people: That's an army.

He doesn't just talk cockney. He brandishes it. He was born on the Old Kent Road in South London 48 years ago, the son of a Billingsgate fish porter and a charwoman. He was Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, with the nickname of Mike. (The other name came from a marquee advertising "The Caine Mutiny.") During the bombing of London in World War II the family fled their two-room flat with its antique gas lighting, moved to a Norfolk farm, later returned to the East End, where the cockney costermongers have always lived. It's all high-rises now, all homogenized.

Cockneys used to be considered cute, he said once, like Mickey Mouse. They were never cute to him. All the way back to his great-grandfather, Micklewhites had been fish porters. Not this one.

"At 10 I acted in a pantomine, I dunno what I did, but I won the prize, five shillings. I got a lot of laughs, lot of applause. I thought, 'This is rather good.'"

He says "a lah-a," "a bi,'" "fourteen": the brittle energy of cockney. It's a badge. The Early Battles

He is sitting in his dressing room three stories above the set in the venerable Pathe Studio building deep in Spanish Harlem, 106th Street. It is older than Hollywood, almost. People don't use it much anymore because it's too small, and besides, standing outside to hail a cab is a major adventure.

He is talking about slums. He is talking about poverty -- his own.

"Being poor, it's nothing you realize," he says, torturing the hapless cigar with a lighted match. "If you don't know anything else, it doesn't make much difference. If you don't realize that everybody doesn't live like this . . . It was never any worry to me."

He worked in a tea warehouse. A butter factory. An office. He washed dishes. He clerked in a hotel. He worked in a laundry, quit when he got a film bit part, but the film was put off six weeks and he had to borrow 400 pounds from his mother. ("But my mother never supported me, as some article said. No one ever supported me," he says with a certain edge.) He joined the Royal Fusiliers as a private, spent six weeks in the Tower of London, a bus ride from home, suddenly found himself in Korea for a year. Seeing combat, as they say.

"I saw as little as possible, I must say. I found out that everybody is different under stress, it brings about the total reverse of what you expect. It taught me never to put too much stock in people's appearance. Korea was a very good training ground for Hollywood."

The dressing rooms have no ceilings, and Dyan Cannon, next door, complains she can't hear herself think. "It's your stage presence, Michael . . ." $"Sorry," he shouts back. "I got to keep my voice up a bi' because I'm a long way from the tape recorder."

She laughs. Across the hall Christopher Reeve laughs in his cubicle too. Heavies & Heroes

Michael Caine does not visibly whirl, but he is a dervish. He played the heavy in last year's Brian de Palma chiller "Dressed to Kill" and the hero in the Peter Benchley adventure story, "The Island," which sank like a stone. This Friday he's scheduled to open in the Washington area in "The Hand," about a cartoonist who loses a hand in an accident. This summer will see "Escape to Victory," yet another thriller, and "Deathtrap" is set for a Christmas debut.

"I never really know what's going on," he says deadpan."I just sort of get up in the morning and go and do it. A very mundane approach to my work. I don't do stunts or appear on talk shows. I used to until I went home one day and caught a recording of my own voice saying absolutely nothing. If what you're doing is any good, people will find it out. You didn't see anybody from the cast of 'Star Wars' having to promote it on TV."

What is it like to work on a movie that is clearly going to be a dog?

"Well, you don't go out with it, you don't publicize it. If it's a failure, no one will see it anyway. And when you're doing it, you're not really aware how bad it is."

If "The Island," for instance, had come at the end of a spate of proper, bland films it might have scored. But it appeared just when audiences had had for the moment their fill of frontal throat-slittings.

"I have a very long-term view of critics on things like this," he adds. "It was always based on the idea that the pirates would work or they wouldn't and they didn't." The Great Escape

"Actually, you have the most fun on the bad ones. I did a terrible picture called "The Marseilles Contract,' and it was filmed in Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and St. Tropez. I got my family out of England for a whole winter." Springing Into Action

A few minutes ago, Chrissy Reeve stalked off the set with studio blood streaming down his bare chest. Now he is back, damp from a shower, a towel over his shoulder, and he bursts into the tiny bedroom. Caine is tacking ruffles onto the four-poster with a staple gun.

He has to wear embroidered slippers, 10-E, but suddenly they're too small. ("He's been eating at Elaine's again," someone mutters. "It always goes to the feet first." Caine glances over. "It's those Concordes, y'know. They swells 'em.")

The high-ceilinged loft is absolutely jammed. Four sets, including kitchen, living room and porch of an Easthampton beach house, stand back to back amid rows of huge lights, giant blue gels resembling huge sheets of cellophane, trash cans, director chairs, camera dollies, murals of Long Island marshes, pulleys, boom mikes and a barber chair. Rivers of cable, strapped down with silver gaffer tape, flow along the floor and plunge through ragged holes in the plaster walls. Nails are left sticking a half-inch out of two-by-fours so they can be pulled easily.

Three bells jangle. Work stops everywhere on the floor. "Settle down, kids," calls the assistant director. One bell. "Stand by. Here we go." The clapper claps, recording scene and take number. A voice murmurs into a mike, "We're rolling, we're rolling." Long pause while Lumet examines the setup. "And . . . action!" he calls crisply.

Reeve: "What's gonna happen if that Madame ten Dorp comes back?"

Caine: "I don't see why she should . . .Cripes!"

He leaps off the bed and rushes down the staircase.

That's the scene. Usually the stage-trained Lumet only needs one take. He rehearses for weeks, even the camera angles. This bit they do three more times because Reeve isn't happy with it. Between takes, he gets his torso sprayed for that freshly showered look. Someone brushes Caine's yellow hair. He remains unperturbed.

Back to the dressing room. The Realist

Michael Caine belongs to a new generation of British actors, with solid skills and the cool realism the dogged resilience of someone who has felt the wet through his shoes. He's not one of those plummy Etonians whose first brush with the stage came when their nanny took them. "I didn't have a nanny," he mutters. "I had a mother." The voice goes up a touch. "I've got a nanny next door." Dyan Cannon yelps with laughter.

He wasn't trained on Shakespeare but on "Getting Gertie's Garter" and "Up in Mabel's Room" and a mad variety of parts, learned in a few days, from country bumpkins to Aussie generals. Repertory in the provinces, like vaudeville, is a hard teacher but a thorough one.

His first real chance came in "Zulu," the epic story of the astonishing Battle of Rorke's Drift, South Africa, 1879, where 140 men, 30 of them invalided, held off 4,000 Zulus for 10 hours. Caine played Lt. Gonville Bromhead, based on the actual person, who won one of 11 Victoria Crosses awarded there. The part could have been done as a caricature aristo nincompoop, but Caine more of less stole the picture with his succinct portrait of a man rising to an occasion.

In his first scene he is riding down a hillside, gorgeous in burnished helmet, scarlet jacket and gray cape spread regally back over the horse's rump.

"That was my entry into movies," he says. Pause. "And I fell off. The horse was a Basuto pony, and as I brought it toward the camera the sunshine glinted and the creature went straight up in the air. I hurt myself rather badly. The first shot you see was done by a propman in my uniform."

It was his perfect, nasal upper-class accent as Bromhead that caught the ear. Caine's ability to sound like almost anyone opened all sorts of roles to him. He can do American ("basically a 16th-century West Country accent") but doesn't usually bother because, as he says, an actor can get too fascinated with the mimicry and forget to act.

"What I do is use American vernacular, elevator, sidewalk, things like that, I say 'skedule' instead of 'shedule' and 'PERmit' instead of 'perMIT.' I'm usually in a picture without any other Englishmen, and I'm never explained. I'm just a guy."

Which itself is an Americanism, for a "guy" in England is a stuffed Guy Fawkes effigy.

Later came "Alfie" the womanizer, a role that brought his fee up to a quarter-million-plus percentage, and "Hurry Sundown" for Preminger, "Women Times Seven" for De Sica, "The Last Valley," "Kidnapped" and "Sleuth" and "A Bridge Too Far" and "California Suite" and "Ashanti" and all the rest. The Glow of Success

One reason he is so watchable is that he is not afraid to reveal himself. In "The Man Who Would Be King," he was clearly having a lovely time, for he liked the director, John Huston, and he was playing opposite Sean Connery, a friend for years. Their close camaraderie glows on the screen.

"It was the kind of thing, if you had a line and your back was to the camera, Sean would say, 'Let's turn it around,' so you'd get a better shot. That doesn't happen very often in this business." Movie Mechanics

There is a problem with a mike hidden in the windmill gears on the bedroom ceiling. The man at the camera can see it. It is moved, taped back. He can still see it. "Let's get a smaller mike," says Lumet. Everything stops while the technicians hunt up the new mike. The stars return once more to their dressing rooms, their progress noted by walkie-talkie so they don't have to stand around waiting for an elevator.

In the room a case of Perrier stands by the door, three bottles of grapefruit juice on the table. Six-foot-one and lean, he lolls in his camp chair. An opened script lies on the floor by the sofa. A knock on the door, an aide's voice: "Mr. Caine, in the next scene you wear -- "

" -- me dressing gown and me slippers. Thank you." The cigar achieves an anemic ribbon of smoke.He bag lunch is waiting, but he doesn't touch it because the interviewer and photographer haven't been fed yet. It is almost 3.

Four years ago he realized the movie business had left England behind, "so I thought to myself what the bloody hell am I doing sitting here . . . "

He left his mansion in England -- a far cry from the London flat he used to share with Terence Stamp and composer John Barry -- and moved to another mansion in Beverly Hills with his second wife, the Guyana-born model Shakira Baksh and their daughter Natasha. Like so many Britishers, he loves the heat and unbuttoned quality of Los Angeles. ("New York is just like London except faster and higher.") He has a garden and lives quietly "up there in the hills with the deer and coyote and squirrels and rabbits and God knows what, but still five minutes from Gucci's.

But he misses England. He travels a lot to London and Paris, where he worked once, undiscovered.

"America is where all victims of injustice go," he drawls in the mocking voice of Harry Palmer, the truculent anti-hero of "The Ipcress File" and "Funeral in Berlin," the closet idealist. "I'm the first immigrant ever to go to America a millionaire and come back broke." A bark of laughter.

The cigar has died at last. On the dresser, two more Macanudos await their ordeal.