Race to the Finish

April 23, 2010

You’ve heard the phrase about eyes being windows to the soul?  Well, the first thing you notice about actor Malcolm McDowell is his eyes.  In fact I first noticed them earlier in the week before we sat down for our interview.  I was at the Palliser Hotel in Calgary and he was staying there ahead of his appearance at the Calgary Comic Expo.  I was in the middle of a different chat with Ryan Stiles, in town to perform with Whose Live Anyway?, when McDowell walked across the lobby to meet associates.  In a black pea coat and white scarf, Stiles and I couldn’t NOT notice him.  His eyes you see coming from so far away that you are convinced he is a man of ubiquitous purpose.

Stiles went up to him and introduced himself.  I saved myself for our interview two days later.   McDowell did say he watched Whose Line on TV and he was a fan.  They explained each other’s presence in Calgary and then we all went our separate ways.

My interview opportunity happened on a Saturday afternoon in between Malcolm McDowell’s appearances on the floor of the convention.  I waited in a 2nd Floor meeting room and his assistant came in with the actor in tow.

McDowell’s eyes are all output.  You can’t even begin to see into his soul because his eyes are too busy looking into your’s.

“You have 12 minutes,” the assistant ordered.

12 minutes, I thought.  How specific.

“Ah, 12 minutes!” McDowell shouted. “Plenty of time to sum up a 47 year career.”

I already had a feeling that he might conspire with me to stretch that time a little.

You don’t get to chat with a Malcolm McDowell very often so I was mindful of two things.  One, to not waste his time with questions he’s answered too often before. And Two, try and engage him with things he enjoys outside of acting.  I mean, press junkets are boring gauntlets to run for the people who run them.  We, the media, might be getting a small thrill from an exchange we’ll remember for a long time.  For an actor, say, they will have forgotten our names almost as soon as we have mentioned them.

So, in 12 minutes, my goal was to make it entertaining for him.  In 47 years, he must have a story or two to share.

He did.

We started by acknowledging our surroundings at the Palliser Hotel and how hotels and pubs were a constant in Malcolm McDowell’s upbringing.

MALCOLM MACDOWELL:  Indeed I was brought up in hotels and pubs.

Pubs, particularly, are not very nice places for children. I went to sleep with the chinking of glasses and laughter in the distance. But it’s nice to get into a hotel occasionally that’s a nice as this, a very elegant hotel and a surprise.

RUSSELL BOWERS:  When you travel for work or for appearances, how much does hotel life like home?

MM:  Listen, if you agree to do these conferences, it’s best to put a smile on your face and your best foot forward. It’s nice to get out occasionally and meet the fans who’ve supported my career thru the decades… and were getting up there now, so 2 or 3 times a year I am happy to do it.

People like to have an opinion, they tell you what they liked or didn’t – not that it matters to what you’ve done, or will do – but often they are just fans and very pleasant. Touch wood, I’ve never really had a bad experience at one of these things.

RB:  Are there moments when you do come away with something surprising during a fan interaction?

MM:  Absolutely! There’s always something that somebody brings you to sign that you’ve never seen or is an extraordinary piece of artwork. At the last convention I did, an Italian poster collector brought me the most incredible Italian version of a Clockwork Orange poster, which he gave me. He had others, so I didn’t feel too bad about taking it. Of course, he got me to sign all the others. I’m having the poster backed on canvas and framed because it’s so beautiful.

RB:  What do you recall about the day that Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick came into your life?

MM:  Well, he asked to see me. I was a shooting another movie close by on Else Street and I went to see him during my lunch hour. We spoke and it was really just small talk. Then at the end he said, “I’ve got a book I’d like you to read.” I could see his hesitation, he didn’t want to say the title out loud.

So, he said, conspiratorily, “Have you ever heard of Clockwork Orange?”


“You haven’t?”


“Well, it’s kind of an underground book. Every rock group loves it.”

The Stones and Mick Jagger, I learned later, owned the rights for a time and actually were going to do it, but wouldn’t have involved Kubrick, of course. And I’m glad they didn’t.

But a lot of their early recordings, there’s a lot of nadsack stuff going on, real horror show stuff. Mick Jaggar was a great fan of that and subsequently I knew him reasonably well and he loved the movie. Clockwork really was rock and roll and it makes me very proud to think of that, actually.

RB:  Mick’s been known to dabble in acting.

MM:  Yes, he has. On occasion, been rather good, I’d say. I still think his best film was one early in his career called Performance. It was directed by Nick Rogue and Donald Camel. And in a way, Mick played himself. It was very bizarre but he was extraordinary in it.

RB:  He had a cameo in The Bank Job just recently.

MM:  Yes, he was one of the producers, so a little cameo, RE Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps is required from the mega-star rocker associated with the production. I liked The Bank Job, I thought it was a terrific movie, incidentily.

RB:  One of the other roles that you’re most closely associated with is as “The Man who killed Kirk.”

MM:  Yes, I am, indeed. I only did one Star Trek and I guess I did THE one.  I turned the part down a couple of times, because the money was so bad, but they did get the money up eventually.

I said, “So what!? I didn’t give a damn about Kirk! It’s a part. Pay me. You’re going to make millions out of it.”

“Well, we could get anybody to do it.”

I said, “Then go ahead. Get anybody.”

RB:  Having taken the role of Dr. Soren, what do you think you brought to the role that nobody else could have.

MM:  Well, it was a good part. He was a very intelligent man, rather blinkered outlook in life. God knows what his family was like. Pretty miserable, I should think. Good God! And his poor kids. An abusive parent if ever there was one.

Of course, we don’t have to see that side of him. All we see is the meglo-maniac on a mountain. It was fun, and I enjoyed working with Patrick Stewart.

I hadn’t seen Patrick for a few years, and we were at Stratford-on-Avon together in the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was in 1965, and I like to say, Patrick was playing old men, even then! (Laughs) I don’t think he likes me saying that. He’s a fine actor of course, and it’s very strange and bizarre the way that careers go. I mean, that fact that a very fine classical actor should end up doing one of these populist, Hollywood TV show.

But that is the life of an actor and it’s opened up great doors for him, movies, starring in MacBeth on stage and things like that.

RB:  Did Star Trek open any doors for you?

MM:  No.

No, in fact I think, the opposite. I didn’t get one thing from that.

I know that Ricardo Montalban got wonderful kudos for playing, from what I read everywhere, the best heavy of the whole series and he was, for all I know. But I don’t think he got much work off it it either and that’s the way we guage things. I got way more kudos from playing on a TV show called Heroes and that was huge, seen by millions every week. So, doing television is really way more powerful in a sense than doing movies, even hit movies. Especially if it’s a hit show with kids, like Heroes or Entourage.

RB:  A lot of film actors don’t do television, but you obviously have. What attracts you to a TV role?

MM:  Honestly, it has nothing to do with the medium. It’s still a camera. Who cares? I go where the part is good.

I honestly think some of the best writing in any medium is done on television. Entourage, for instance, is a comedy and the best written show on television. It’s been on 8 years, and tends to fluxtuate, but in general it’s suburb.

But Hereoes, I never understood what it was about, but the bits they gave me were well-written, that’s all I’ll say.

I’m starting a new one called Franklin & Bash. It’s a wonderfully written show and I’m hoping it’s gonna be a big hit, but who knows? It’s cable, so people will have to find it. It’s a comedy about a law firm, a little Boston Legal but not, and it’s a conservative law firm and I’m the head of it.

RB:  At this point in your career, how much do you feel you have advice or tips to pass to a younger generation of actors?

MM:  I wouldn’t dream of being being so presumptious as to pass on “tips.” These young actors, most of them are really fantastic and way ahead of where I was at their age.

When I was a young man working with great actors like Gielgud and Olivier, I would just watch them with a certain fascination, not to copy, but to be inspired by their persona. They had amazing careers and I used to go and sit in the Old Vic and watch Olivier do all those plays in the early days of The National Theatre, and see his performances as this giant of the stage. What an amazing man.

And having worked with him, at that point he couldn’t remember his lines, and I felt frustrated for him. Old age takes its tole and especially if you like your drinks, it attacks the memory cells.

RB:  Peter Sellers used to parody that in some of his recordings. “A case of the dries.”

MM:  (Laughs) Yeah, I remember that.

I knew Peter Sellers and he was amazing guy, amazing talent but a complete manic-depressive, you know. I had dinner with Peter on many occasions many times and he wouldn’t say a word with his head practically falling into his soup. Then for he’d wake up and come alive and be amusing for 10 minutes, then woosh, go back into his shell. Very bizarre that comedians do that.

RB:  There’s a story from his time on The Muppet Show. He told the writers that he would do anything they want except The Wall segment, where Kermit would chat with the guest as themselves, not in character. He said, “I’ll do anything you want, play any character, but don’t make me play myself.”

MM:  Wow. That’s probably because he was very uncomfortable with who he was.

He told me once, “Malcolm, I could walk into a room with 40 beautiful women and there would be ONE woman in that room who would be poison for me. I would walk straight up to that woman and ask her to marry me.” And that’s pretty much what he did.

RB:  Are you still a big fan of racing?

MM:  Well, as you know, I’ve always loved cars from way, way back. When my dad had a pub in the Park Hotel, it was near a race course where they ran Formula One. That’s where the Grand National takes place now, one of the great steeple-chase races for horses.

But I’ve been watching this year’s Formula 1 and it’s rather interesting with Schumacher back and getting beaten by these young bucks, and that’s great. It’s a fascinating season.

RB:  Have you ever done Top Gear?

MM:  No, I’ve never done it, and I do like that show. They are hilarious! But I’ve never been in England long enough to do it, but maybe next time I’ll do the circuit and have some fun.

I think Michael Gambone did it and spun out several times, so I could beat him.

RB:  Top Gear did name one of the corners of their track after him.

MM:  Why? Because he made a complete charlie of it? Well, if you can get a corner named after you, you’ve made your mark, let’s face it.

But my great heroes were Sterling Moss and Jim Clarke.

The greatest driver I ever saw was Jim Clarke, the best of the best.

Sterling, too, was this great maverick race driver, like the ones you read about in comic books. He’d stall on the grid, be pushed into his pit, and work while the rest were half a lap ahead, then he’d jump in, zoom off and then one by one, reel them in and win the race!!

THAT was Sterling Moss.

RB:  We could talk for hours, but it’s been a privilege to know your work, and I wish much more of it to come.

MM:  Thank you Russell. I hope so.