Alex at the Alex
Malcolm McDowell on ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at Glendale’s Alex Theatre
By Carl Kozlowski 03/25/2014
Most actors spend their entire careers hoping for an iconic role that never comes. Malcolm McDowell has three to his credit.
Whether portraying maniacal sociopath Alex in the futuristic dystopia of 1971’s “A Clockwork Orange,” author H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper in the time-travel thriller “Time After Time” or the man who kills William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in “Star Trek: Generations,” McDowell has made an indelible impression on audiences around the world with his steely gaze and booming voice.
For three consecutive weeks starting Tuesday, the veteran thespian will be honored by the Alex Theatre with a screening of each of these films, followed by a discussion about them moderated by other stars with whom he has worked. The events are presented by Glendale Arts in conjunction with Prospect House Entertainment.
“It’s wonderful. I’m very grateful, and I just hope the fans come out,” says McDowell, speaking by phone from the set of his TNT cable series “Franklin & Bash.”
“They picked these three because they’re a good spectrum. ‘Time After Time’ is a wonderful film and Mary Steenburgen and I met and married from that film and we had two wonderful children, so it means a lot to me personally.
“And I worked with [actor] David Warner on ‘Generations,’ who’s been my friend now for 45 years,” adds McDowell. “It’s a good movie, with a really wonderful job by British director David Carson. It had the theme of the new cast taking over from the old, and it was fun to work with Patrick Stewart, whom I had worked with in theater. It’s fun keeping in touch through the movies with old friends.”
McDowell has many more memories to share about each of these films, particularly “Clockwork Orange,” the 1971 Oscar-nominated film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which propelled him to worldwide notoriety for his role as an ultraviolent youth in a future British society. Featuring surreal scenes involving rape and murder, with an underlying story about how far society should go in reprogramming deviant minds, it became a worldwide sensation and set him up for a lifetime of roles playing killers and crazies.
The son of a Royal Air Force pilot and hotelier, the 71-year-old McDowell began taking acting classes while at Cannock House School and worked as an extra with the Royal Shakespeare Company before attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. His career started with a bang when he quickly landed a major role as a rebellious student in the Lindsay Anderson movie “If….”, which is how Kubrick first noticed him and asked him to play Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.”
“First, I was offered the part by Kubrick and if you’re offered any part by Stanley Kubrick, if you’re smart you’ll say yes immediately,” says McDowell. “I read the book and was confused when I first read it. I read it again and realized what an incredible story it was. The third time I realized it was an incredible part. He offered it to me and that’s how that started.
“I’m not a Method actor,” he continues, referring to a form of acting training in which performers are taught to never break character throughout the run of a production. “I’m from the English school of acting where we go home and leave the part on the set. We start in theater and don’t have a big film industry, though BBC makes TV fairly large. We’re used to the process of working on a part, which doesn’t mean living it. I don’t have the problem of having to beat up my wife in order to get into being a thug.”
McDowell did take on one of the biggest thugs of all time, Jack the Ripper, in the fanciful 1979 film “Time After Time.” Despite wildly glowing reviews and some terrific test screenings with audiences, the movie bombed, creating one of his greatest career frustrations — a feeling exacerbated by what he found in the Warner Bros. studio records on the film’s marketing.
“Out of curiosity, I asked if I could see the market research on what they were selling the movie on,” he recalls. “I read the questionnaire that they were asking audiences. Have you ever heard of HG Wells? No. Have you heard of Jack the Ripper? Most said yes. So they sold the movie as a Jack the Ripper kind of movie so people thought it was a slasher movie when it’s really a love story and a thriller. Most people in the posters were geared toward the violence of Jack the Ripper, which is against what the movie was and that hurt us, simple as that.”
However, nothing could prepare him for the oddest fame of all: being on the receiving end of the wrath of Trekkies. As the killer of the iconic James T. Kirk in “Generations,” he recalls receiving an extraordinary level of complaints from those obsessed super-fans.
“I did get some grief when ‘Generations’ first came out, and the Internet was in its infancy then,” recalls McDowell. “I was told there’ve been death threats against me on the Internet. So, when I went to New York to sell the movie with Patrick Stewart and Shatner, I had two ex-LAPD officers following me around. But at the conventions I’ve been to since, they’ve all been very nice, and are pretty wonderful really. It is a very extraordinary phenomenon. Let’s face it, pretty amazing. The fans have forgiven me for killing him. I said I freed him up to go do ‘Boston Legal’ and win an Emmy.”
Malcolm McDowell will screen his film “A Clockwork Orange,” followed by a post-show discussion with a special celebrity guest, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Admission is $15. He will screen and discuss “Time After Time” at 7:30 p.m. April 8 and “Star Trek: Generations” at 7:30 p.m. April 15 with the same details. Visit alextheatre.org or call (818) 243-2539.