‘Clockwork’ Past, McDowell Hones His Comic Timing
Malcolm McDowell is back in school.
The British actor made an indelible impression in Lindsay Anderson’s controversial 1969 film “If . . . ,” as Mick, the smirking, rebellious upperclassman at a rigid boarding school.
Twenty-seven years later, McDowell is now a member of the academic establishment. As Rhea Perlman’s nemesis in the new CBS comedy “Pearl,” McDowell’s Stephen Pynchon is a brilliant, pompous humanities professor who makes life a living hell for his students, especially Perlman’s Pearl Caraldo.
“Pynchon,” McDowell muses, “is a bit of a monster. I think he’s really mean. He has such an ego!”
On a recent lunch break, McDowell is relaxing in his dressing room on the KTLA lot where “Pearl” films. Though his hair is now white, McDowell still possesses that famous smirk. He’s far less intimidating than his screen image.
Resting comfortably on his sofa is an antique teddy bear. “I got that bear from England,” McDowell explains. “My wife saves them. She did the room. She did the paintings. She did the lamp.”
Adorning the white walls are portraits by his wife, Kelly, of Anderson and Stanley Kubrick, who directed McDowell in the landmark 1971 film, “A Clockwork Orange.”
“Lindsay Anderson’s really Stephen Pynchon--very, very much inspired by him,” McDowell offers. Not only did the late Anderson direct McDowell in “If . . . ,” “O Lucky Man!’ and “Britannia Hospital,” they were also close friends.
“He was always very, very good with actors, very supportive of actors and made sure that they felt confident,” McDowell says. “But when you got past that and became his friend, if you said something stupid, he would let you know about it: ‘Don’t be so ridiculous. Good Lord. How old are you and you don’t know that? Did you have an education or anything?’ ”
Pynchon’s only saving grace, McDowell says, is the fact that he’s a great teacher. “How many teachers do we remember?” McDowell asks. “Just the ones who really inspired us.”
McDowell laments he never attended college. “I was so sick of education and being at a closeted [private] school,” he says. “I just couldn’t wait to get out. I got a place to go to university in Sussex, but I said, ‘That’s it. I want to earn my own money.’ I couldn’t take it anymore.”
As for Mick, McDowell believes he would have easily survived Pynchon’s class. “He was always very good with masters,” McDowell says. “He’s not a fool, Mick. He would play the game.”
McDowell is busy learning how to play the sitcom game. “I just live the life of a monk, basically,” he says with a smile. “I come here and I have to learn lines all the time. Theater is a piece of cake. With this you have to slogger these lines to get them in because I have huge chunks of speeches. It has to look sort of effortless.”
Working with the former “Cheers” star Perlman has helped him immeasurably. “We are both professional and hopefully we know what we are doing,” he says. “She’s a wonderful actress and, of course, she has been doing this quite a while and she knows this whole thing backward.”
It was fate, McDowell says, that lead him to “Pearl.”
Creator-executive producer Don Reo was looking for actors to do a reading of the pilot script. Though he wasn’t in the market for a series, McDowell agreed to the reading.
“I was going to do it on my day off and then I was off to do a film in Toronto. When the script came, I said: ‘My God, this is a fantastic character.’ ”
McDowell, Reo says, “was the first and only choice” for Pynchon. “Here he came and he was fantastic. I mean, who knew this guy was funny? This is flat-out big-time comedy and he’s knocking them out of the park. He’s just spectacular. He just stepped right in, and it fit him like a glove.”
Though McDowell was hesitant at first about taking the part, he knows he made the right decision. After playing anti-heroes and villains, most recently in the movie “Star Trek Generations,” the actor knew this was his opportunity to show his funny side.
“People in [Hollywood] don’t know that I am a comic,” he says, “and that I have comic timing.”
McDowell acknowledges that it has taken him years to live down his anti-authoritarian image from “If . . . " and “Clockwork Orange,” the 1971 film in which he played Alex, the odious hood who wore a bowler hat and was passionate for Beethoven. Originally rated X, the violent social satire, based on Anthony Burgess’ novel, followed the adventures of Alex and his gang as they raped, beat and robbed helpless victims. In one harrowing sequence, Alex raped a woman to “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“It was ridiculous,” he says of the reaction. “I was just an actor. I kept saying: ‘I am a working actor. What is this nonsense?’ I have been living down ‘Clockwork Orange’ ever since. I am thrilled to have been part of it. It’s such a great film and it was a great time, but at times it got all a little boring. That’s why doing this show is good for me because at least I can show people that there is another string to the bow and all of that.”
Coincidentally, a new 35-mm print of “A Clockwork Orange” will be opening for a seven-day run Thursday at the Nuart in West Los Angeles in honor of the 25th anniversary of its release.
The movie, he recalls, made the editorial pages. “People were scared about what it was saying: Is life really going to end up like that? My God, has it ever. It is worse than that. Gangs and drugs, it’s all part of life, isn’t it now?”
McDowell was a young stage actor doing a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at the Royal Court Theater in London when “If . . .” changed his career forever.
“I went to see Lindsay for the audition,” McDowell recalls. “I suppose I impressed him. Frankly, I think I sort of had the look he wanted. I sort of had the right attitude. We got on very well.”
McDowell was called back for a second audition, which he says went amazingly well.
He received the news that he landed the movie role as the curtain was coming down on a performance at the Royal Court.
“The assistant stage manager came up and said, ‘Miriam Brickman'--she was casting--'is on the phone for you; take the call by the stage.’ Lindsay Anderson was like a god. For a young actor to have a lead in his movie, it was almost unbelievable. I have never felt that feeling I felt when she told me.”
McDowell breaks into a grin when asked about “Ink,” the CBS sitcom starring his ex-wife, Mary Steenburgen, and her current spouse, Ted Danson.
Originally, “Ink” was to air Mondays after “Cosby.” But when the series ran into trouble and was temporarily pulled from the schedule, “Pearl” was given the cushy slot. On Oct. 23, “Pearl” will move to its permanent home, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.
“Life is full circle, is it not?” McDowell says. “I am amazed by the whole thing. I knew Mary and Ted were doing a series. I never knew who they were doing it for, and then this thing with Rhea came up. It’s very strange the way things have gone. I am sure they will get it right. I hope they do, because my kids [Lilly and Charlie] are living with them. I don’t want unhappiness in that household. I want them to be thrilled and excited. There’s plenty of room for all of us.”
* “Pearl” airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2). “A Clockwork Orange” plays Thursday through Oct. 10 at the Nuart, Santa Monica Blvd. at the 405 Freeway. For information, call (310) 478-6379.