Malcolm McDowell, 60’s and 70’s icon


Ah, the vagaries of typecasting. Following the 1971 release of Stanley Kubrick’s pioneering adaptation of novelist Anthony Burgess’ dystopian masterpiece A Clockwork Orange, actor Malcolm McDowell seemed poised to succeed Laurence Olivier as the most revered British thespian of his day. As Alex DeLarge, the chillingly sadistic miscreant whose appalling indifference to the monstrosity of the rapes he perpetrates leads to the equally monstrous raping of his own free will, McDowell managed to appear by turns thoroughly detestable and wrenchingly pitiable. Instead of opening doors, however, his mesmerizingly menacing performance cast a spell that Hollywood producers and directors never quite recovered from, and the unfailingly charismatic Brit spent the better part of the next three decades compiling a résumé that had “B-movie heavy” written all over it.

Nearly a quarter-century removed from his career-defining Clockwork role, McDowell regained a measure of his youthful notoriety as the chief villain of 1994’s Star Trek: Generations; he was the subject of a rash of Internet death threats after his death-dealing Dr. Soran helped William Shatner’s Captain Kirk personally experience the final frontier. Though the movie didn’t exactly revitalize his career, it did serve to confirm his easy mastery of the narrow range of emotions Hollywood has seen fit to entrust him with. McDowell himself seemed to have grown resigned (though not entirely unhappily) to his fate, when he told one interviewer, “If you do something like A Clockwork Orange you never escape it. Never. I don’t fight it anymore. I just do it.”

The youngest child and only son of a pub owner, McDowell was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, and raised both in Leeds and Liverpool. Hopeful of helping him to rise above his working-class roots, his parents enrolled him in an exclusive private boarding school in Kent, an experience young Malcolm found profoundly disenchanting. Though an excellent student, the pub owner’s son was almost categorically ostracized by his upper-class peers. Looking back on his school days, he later remarked, “When you begin to get privileges and become a senior boy, it’s a pleasant sort of existence — not much work to do, a little cricket, a little Rugger, everyone lackeys around for you. But that was after six years of sheer hell.”

Malcolm McDowell

With Helen Mirren in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man.

Though he had the opportunity to attend a university in Sussex, McDowell elected instead to take work waiting tables for his father, a vocation he soon tired of. He spent the next several months in Yorkshire, working as a coffee salesman in the employ of Chase and Sanborn, an American company. During that period, he learned that his girlfriend was taking elocution lessons from an 82-year-old, blind retired actress, one Mrs. Harold Ackerley. Curious, McDowell attended a class himself, and was captivated by the teacher, who soon convinced him that acting could offer him both a respectable living and a measure of professional dignity. Thus inspired, he studied briefly at the London Academy of Music and Art, soon finding work with repertory companies on the Isle of Wight and in Devonshire.

A little over a year later, in 1964, the aspiring actor took work with the venerated Royal Shakespeare Company; it was during the 18 months of his tenure there that he first crossed paths with several other up-and-comers, namely Patrick Stewart, Timothy Dalton, and John Rhys-Davies. Openly and vocally disdainful of nearly every aspect of RSC life, McDowell quickly departed, and later devoted much of his post-Clockwork publicity to taking scathing shots at his former employ, ultimately labeling the company “the worst theater in the whole of the world.”

Following his departure from the RSC, the disgruntled young thespian worked as a messenger and appeared in several television series, including Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, and Coronation Street. He landed his first recurring series role in Sat’day While Sunday, which also featured Dalton, and thereafter landed a small part in his first big-screen outing, Poor Cow. His one scene called for him to march through soaking wet resulting from a torrential downpour and get it on with actress Carol White. The entire episode wound up decorating the cutting room floor after unseasonably warm weather made it impossible for the director to shoot any matching exteriors of the rainstorm, and, thus, McDowell’s feature-film debut was delayed until 1968, when he landed a plum role in If?, director Lindsay Anderson’s controversial endorsement of schoolyard rebellion.

After witnessing McDowell’s riveting, uncompromising performance in If?, venerated filmmaker Stanley Kubrick vowed that he would not move forward with his planned adaptation of A Clockwork Orange until he could be assured of casting the fiery young actor in the movie’s lead role. Upon Clockwork’s release, McDowell’s lasting fame was assured, but fortune proved more elusive: eight years passed before his next major commercial success, director Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 trans-dimensional thriller Time After Time, in which he delivered what was even then a rare heroic turn, portraying author H.G. Wells to David Warner’s Jack the Ripper.

A high-profile performance as the titular Roman emperor of the X-rated Caligula, a film financed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and based on a script by Gore Vidal (who ultimately angrily disavowed any participation in the project and successfully had his name removed from its credits), marked a return both to controversy and villainy for McDowell in 1980. That same year, he divorced his first wife, actress Margot Dullea, to wed his Time After Time leading lady, Mary Steenburgen, with whom he subsequently had two children. Though he rebounded from Caligula with fine turns in Cross Creek and Blue Thunder, McDowell finished out the ’80s and limped into the ’90s languishing in such little-seen and woefully titled duds as The Hateful Dead, Dangerous Indiscretion, and Exquisite Tenderness. He parted from Steenburgen (who subsequently got hitched to Ted Danson) in 1990, and wed his third wife, painter Kelley Kuhr, the next year.

Still working at a great pace McDowell pops up in everything from episodes of CSI to supplying the voice of Dr Monty in Black Ops 3. He got a star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame in 2012.