NEW YORK -- Tea time.

Michael Caine takes a cuppa from the tea cart (English Breakfast) and scoops several cucumber sandwiches into one large hand. Highly appropriate fare, under the circumstances. For what was Michael Caine until July, apart from being charismatic and intriguing and one of the more admired actors on several continents? He was a Californian, a resident of a genuine Beverly Hills hill, a refugee since 1978 from the then-faltering film industry and stiff tax codes of the U.K.

And what is Michael Caine now, apart from being a dauntless flack for his new movie ("The Fourth Protocol," which opened last week)? A landed Briton once again, with an estate that fronts the Thames, that's what. Being back home is "mahvelous," he beams, settling amiably onto a sofa just as if he hadn't been wooing reporters all day long and was delighted to see another happen by. "Lovely."

In Caine's retelling of the Exile and the Return, the Labor government sounds like a Monty Python cabinet minister, an officious high-pitched whine emanating from a tinny loudspeaker. " 'We're now going to destroy the industry you're in, Michael.'

" 'Yes,' " Citizen Caine replies, humbly, to the whine.

" 'And you're going to have to go abroad to work.' 'Yessir. What else?'

" 'And you're going to earn a lot of foreign currency over there.' 'All right, then.'

" 'Digh-rect-ly you bring it into England, we're going to take 90 percent of it away from you to subsidize the unemployment we've created by destroying the industry you're in.' I said, 'Oh no you're not,' " Caine announces, with ruffles and flourishes. " 'I'm going to America!' "

Stirring stuff. But the decision to return, Caine admits, had been creeping up on him for some time, even as the Thatcher regime was making a homecoming financially less painful. "I got very homesick in the end," he confides. "Terminally homesick. I ached every day." Or, in the corrosive Cockney he refuses to relinquish, he iked every day.

The problems here, it turned out, were many and subtle. For one, Beverly Hills, pleasant as it was, proved unconducive to his mania for gardening. He only had two acres of potential garden ("and one was perpendicular") and was reduced to watching the citrus ripen. "I didn't understand the plahnts in California," he sighs. "I was too old to forgo the seasons. I'd ask the guy at the nursery, 'When do I put this in?' " Spring or fall are the usual recommendations for planting, but "the guy in L.A. always said, 'You put it in when you get home.'

"You have to put the daffodil bulbs in the freezer for five weeks" -- he's warming to his tirade -- "and the maid will put 'em in the stew, thinking they're onions, and poison the lot of you."

More seriously, Caine, who plans to set up an independent production company in Britain, thinks that "I don't have that kind of clout in America." As executive producer of "The Fourth Protocol" (along with chum and author "Freddy" Forsyth), he went hat in hand to several studios but couldn't score a deal; the film's eventual backers were British. "I was a failure as an executive producer," he laments. "I couldn't get any money out of L.A."

Some of the moneymen thought the movie anti-Soviet and ill-advised at a time when "Mr. Gorbachev was being very nice. And Mrs. Gorbachev was shopping at Cardin. Obviously the world was going to change," Caine relates, sardonically. One studio exec pointed out that "Goldie Hawn had just made a film called 'Protocol' and it bombed." He shakes his head. "I guess they thought a film called 'The Fourth Protocol' would lose four times as much money ... You cahn't make up stuff like this."

Curiously, Caine in California felt like "a little fish" even as an actor. All sorts of "indigenous American characters," from pool sharks to cowboys, were impossible. He thought it hilarious that an American director once wanted him to play a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. Audiences "can admire a foreign actor but they cahn't identify with him," Caine says. "You can never conquer the Midwest ... Burt, he's a good ol' boy. I'm not. I'm some pinko limey faggot."

Then, too, over the years, strange, sometimes unsettling habits had begun to form. Caine learned to drive a car at 49 and to play tennis. He took vitamins and virtually gave up his beloved cigars. "I got very California, I stopped eating red meat and all of that ... I found myself drinking Perrier with dinner! And eating things, I didn't know what they meant, like a-ru-gu-la and ci-lan-tro" -- species so alien Caine can hardly bear to pronounce them. "I thought, 'I've got to get out of here.' "

Fortunately, though, he fled before he'd acquired a personal trainer or a taste for sprouts. Some things ought not be tampered with.

It's been 21 years since "Alfie" proved that an actor who lacked chiseled features and sounded like a fish porter (as the men in Caine's family were, for decades) could still be a movie star, one of the busiest.

The sheer number of movies Caine makes is something of a Hollywood joke: The total hovers around 60 at this accounting and includes such dreadfuls as "The Swarm" and "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure." Five Michael Caine movies were released last year. Three more hit the screens this summer: "Jaws the Revenge" (not art, but it was shot in a pleasantly subtropical location), "The Whistle Blower" (which he describes as "a tiny little British film having a nice little success") and the spy yarn, "The Fourth Protocol." A neoscrewball comedy with Sally Field is due this fall.

The good movies garner honors; Caine was nominated for an Oscar three times before winning one last year as the comically besotted adulterer in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." But the duds aren't held against him much, either; some core of dignity seems to endure, even in "Ashanti." The Kevin Costners come, the John Travoltas go. Meanwhile, The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann led off a recent review of "The Whistle Blower" with the comment, "Few things in life are as dependable as the acting of Michael Caine."

In both "The Fourth Protocol" and "The Whistle Blower," the veteran takes on a new role, though one he knows well offscreen: the devoted father. The mingled tenderness and exasperation he feels for Nigel Havers in "The Whistle Blower" almost -- but not quite -- erases the initial shock that Caine can now credibly play a man with a 28-year-old son. (Though in real life, as they say, Caine's daughter from his first, brief marriage is 30; he and his wife Shakira have a 14-year-old, Natasha.) Maturity, Caine sighs. "I've got that, if anything." He's 54.

And grown women still want to crawl into his lap. A few years back, an Esquire article explored the troubling matter of what the contemporary woman wanted in a man and came up with a two-word prescription: Michael Caine. When someone showed him the magazine, "I was as mystified as you must have been," Caine says to the reporter (who was actually not mystified at all). "It sounded" -- he pauses -- "surprising." How could someone who'd played psychopaths, "murdering transvestites, a lot of off-the-wall people" be the sex symbol of the era?

But when he thinks about it, as apparently he has, he thinks he knows what women see in him. "Confidence," he says promptly, leaning forward. "They meet so many men who are not confident ... I'm not handsome and I don't have a great body and all, but a woman will know that she can cry on my shoulder without my cryin' on hers. Women meet so many men who want mothers. I've already got a mother."

In fact, his mother, Mrs. Micklewhite, gets the credit for the manly shoulder. "It's almost Victorian, really ... When my father went off to war in 1940" -- when Maurice Micklewhite, later to be Michael Caine, was 7 and his brother 4 -- "she said to me, 'Right. Your father's gone; now you have to look after me.' "

This was untrue, Caine hastens to add. "She's tough as old boots; she doesn't need anyone to look after her. But she made me feel that I was taking my father's place."

(A brief interruption: The waiter presents the tea tab; the reporter signs the receipt. Caine can hardly contain his glee. "You could see the admiration in his macho Spanish eyes!" he giggles. " 'Michael Caine and he's lettin' the girl pay! Good for 'im!' ")

Devoted fatherhood, of course, is very In these days. Some kind of strength-without-machismo quality is at work here, plainly. In any restaurant gathering he's the man to whom the wine list is tendered, Caine admits. On the other hand, he was pleased to get a letter from a gay activist praising his sensitive portrayal of Maggie Smith's bisexual husband in "California Suite." On screen he can convincingly bring Soviet intelligence to a standstill single-handed and cuddle his 10-year-old -- in the same movie, "The Fourth Protocol." Caine points out, with some pride, that someone "asked Woody why he cahst me {in "Hannah"} and he said because I was a leading man who could be vulnerable." He even cooks. And doesn't brag about it. "When people ask me what I like to do I say it quickly," he says, "because it sounds rahther boring."

What it sounds like is a fantasy, a computer-generated composite programmed by some yearning female, a creation that's attractive but too good to be real. Happily, all that's required to undermine this notion is a conversation about almost any aspect of Dear Olde England, with which the Prodigal Actor can fairly be said to have a love-hate relationship.

He'll have 10 acres to transform, to plant with hedges and potted shrubs and waterlilies. His daughter will have an English education. He'll see his old mates and be able to speak at proper Cockney speed, instead of the comparatively lumbering pace required to be understood by American ears.

On the other hand, will he survive the highways? Angelenos are much better drivers, he insists. "The English are the politest race in the world. You put them in a car and they become ignorant pigs. Monsters! You could die of old age trying to pull out of a side street."

The class system he's railed at for much of his life endures, as does his muted anger at it. He was destined to be a laborer, escaping at the last moment (he was 30 before he landed a major film role); of the circle of young actors he came up with, several have committed suicide. When he returns, landed squire or no, he feels it all again. "For all my riches and alleged fame and glory," Caine says, "that doesn't alter a lot. The snobbery really dies hard."

He tells of trying to hire an English couple to be caretaker and cook at his new country house. "I've been told straight to my face -- by staff, who are workin' people like me -- that they'd only work for nobility, that they weren't informed of my nature before the interview took place. Meaning my status as a Cockney.

"That's why I retain the accent," says Caine, very sweetly, very menacingly, not at all the man you'd hand a wine list to. "To shove it down people's throats."