Ojai Valley’s Malcolm McDowell, now in his early sixties, with a full head of spiky silver hair, likes to tell the story of a recent evening when he drove from his home in Ventura County to a Hollywood screening.
He had just seen a special preview of a newly re-released version of his l971 film classic A Clockwork Orange at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
“As I was leaving, a guy—he must have been twenty or so—pointed to me and said, ‘I know you; you were in that film.’”
McDowell nodded as the young filmgoer added, “What part did you play?” Then, after a pause, he declared, “Oh, I know…you’re the guy who was stomped by Alex as he crooned Singing in the Rain.”
The stomper (not the stompee) smiles at the memory. “I’m 64, and when I made the movie I was in my twenties. So for me A Clockwork Orange is the only way to stop the clock.”
But today McDowell says he doesn’t even bother trying to turn the clock back. His movie and television career continues at a brisk pace after more than 150 roles on big screen and small. Villainy, it seems, has always been in his cinematic blood.
He was recently hired to play the mysterious Linderman in the hot NBC show Heroes. In the HBO hit Entourage he was, while not quite villainous, the conniving boss of the tempestuous agent Ari (played by Jeremy Piven).
But few moviegoers can ever forget his Alex de Large, the psychopathic young British hood with the single artificial eyelash and bowler hat who specialized in ultra-violence. Stanley Kubrick’s classic cinematic telling of Anthony Burgess’ powerful novel about a decaying society was the kind of part every young actor prayed for. The one that is iconic from the word go, which lasts as long as young people rebel and go to the movies.
That was more than 35 years ago, but McDowell has gone from bad to worse, turning in an impressive parade of guys gone wrong. His Emperor “Caligula” was into orgies and sleeping with his sister in the l979 movie of the same name. He was a vicious London thug opposite Paul Bettany in Gangster No. l in 2000. In the lightly viewed 2004 flick Evilenko he outdid Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter as a Soviet serial killer whose diet included more than 50 children. It was the kind of film that left moviegoers with little appetite.
These days, the Leeds-born, Liverpool-reared actor who has made his home in the Ojai Valley since the early eighties can play villains in his sleep. On a sunny afternoon, McDowell attacked an omelet in his favorite café near his home and talked about his penchant for nasties, although in a particularly mellow way, befitting of the bucolic surroundings.
“I don’t only play heavies, although I suppose I’m primarily known for that,” he agrees. “It’s not so much that I’m attracted to those roles as that I’m asked to play them. I’ve been lucky through my career to get good parts among all the crap. And believe me, there’s a lot of crap out there. But those bad guy roles are only half of my career.”
His Heroes role came along out of the blue, he says. “To be honest, I wasn’t following the series; frankly, I don’t watch much television, just sports and news. When they sent me the script, I spoke to my son (director Charles, 23) who told me, ‘Dad, it’s one of the best shows on TV.’ And then he tossed in the zinger: ‘What rock have you been hiding under?’”
But McDowell admits he still enjoys sinking his teeth into the heavy roles, particularly the character he played in Gangster No. l. “What a psycho that guy was,” he notes. “The part was my homage to Jimmy Cagney—always my favorite.”
Not surprisingly, a conversation with McDowell inevitably turns to his “Clockwork” caper. Unknown in the USA, he was hired by the late director Stanley Kubrick after impressing him as the rebellious schoolboy in director Lindsay Anderson’s l968 movie If.
“I was blown away when Stanley first showed me the finished film. But it wasn’t until it came out almost a year later that we realized it would have a life of its own. Some people wanted to ban it. They called me a fascist and the stories moved from the entertainment pages to the editorial pages. That’s when you know it’s a hit.”
The film has remained an evergreen; it simply doesn’t seem to date. McDowell’s explanation of the phenomenon is simple: “Every new generation of college kids rediscovers it, and that’s why it has become one of the truly great cult films of all time. Oh, sure, if you look at it today, Alex looks like my son. But that was me.”
After the film came out, McDowell says he was furious with his director. “He used me and then quickly dumped me. I was very angry at that. I thought it was a cruel betrayal. I had always had a close relationship with Lindsay Anderson and somehow I thought Stanley would become a friend for life. But that wasn’t his style. I felt used, and I hated him. Much later I realized that he was such an extraordinary filmmaker and his style was to swallow talent whole and then spit them out and go onto the next project.”
Besides his gig as the influential, white bearded Linderman in Heroes, McDowell has also acquired a new generation of fans who like his nasty ways as Terence, the feisty head honcho at a Hollywood talent agency who runs roughshod over his underling Ari Gold in Entourage.
Today when he’s not skipping around the world to tackle new movie and TV roles, McDowell plays the role of gentleman farmer on a 100-acre avocado ranch in Ventura County with his artist wife Kelley Kuhr and their three-year-old son, Beckett.
“I designed our house—it’s a compound in the middle of a wonderful oak grove. There are not many oak groves left in the area.” Both he and Kelley have an eye for real estate, and he says his wife enjoys finding houses, restoring and redecorating them, and then selling them. And while conceding that the housing market in Ventura County—as elsewhere in California—is in a bit of slump, he loves Ojai Valley, which he says is a lot more hang-loose and unpretentious than its northern neighbor Santa Barbara.
McDowell, who also has two grown children—Lily, 26, an actress, and director Charles—from his marriage to his second wife, actress Mary Steenburgen, says he finds the Ojai Valley a terrific place to bring up a family. When he travels to do a movie, he says, he misses those unique “pink moment” Ojai sunset views.
This summer, he went to the Cannes Film festival to unveil his film tribute to Lindsay Anderson. He had premiered it in Ojai last year. Between roles he tries never to miss a live viewing on TV of his hometown soccer team, Liverpool, and he relaxes by playing golf in Ventura County. He acquired a passion for the game after starring in the 2004 film Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. The movie tanked at the box office, but McDowell was hooked.
While young moviegoers may not recognize McDowell circa 2007 as the young, eye-lashed thug Alex, he has not bought into the Hollywood youth obsession. “I’m not one for getting under the knife to try and look 45 when I’m in my sixties,” he says. “I prefer the school of ageing gracefully.”
Of course he finds that easier because his villainy continues to pay him handsomely. “It’s kept me in work, and I usually get to have a good death. So I’ve got nothing to complain about.”