Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
McDowell, Malcolm (1943-)


Main image of McDowell, Malcolm (1943-)

Most actors go through life without playing even one iconic role. Malcolm McDowell achieved two within his career's first half-decade. And if Mick Travis in If... (d. Lindsay Anderson, 1968) and Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1971) have cast a long shadow over everything that he's done since, McDowell has always been cheerfully honest about his priorities: regular work is far more important to him than consistent artistic brilliance. In any case, as he told The Guardian in 2004, "it's easy to be good in a Robert Altman film. You try being good in Cyborg 3".

Born Malcolm Taylor in Leeds on 13 June 1943, he was educated at Cannock public school before turning down a university place in favour of working in his father's Liverpool pub, followed by a stint as a travelling salesman. The acting bug bit shortly afterwards, and he joined a touring repertory company, taking on his mother's maiden name in the process. Moving to London, he worked briefly with the Royal Shakespeare Company, secured a few minor television roles, and then joined the Royal Court Theatre just in time to be asked to audition for If...

Despite his lack of big-screen experience (the previous year, a brief appearance in Ken Loach's Poor Cow didn't make the final cut), McDowell secured the lead role of public schoolboy-turned-firebrand revolutionary Mick Travis, beginning a creative partnership with director Lindsay Anderson that he always regarded as his closest. Shown at the Cannes Film Festival the year after it had collapsed in chaos as a by-product of the student protests that were convulsing France in May 1968, If... brilliantly captured the mood of the times, won the Palme d'Or and established McDowell as the poster child for several generations of student radicals. It also established him as a uniquely compelling actor, the piercing intensity of his blue eyes offset by his not-quite-handsome, not-quite-ugly features and the general impression of coiled-spring tension: one felt that he could erupt at literally any moment.

Three years later (with Joseph Losey's Figures in a Landscape intervening in 1970), McDowell was cast in the lead role of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' pessimistic tale of violence and (lack of) redemption. Not only was Alex, a vandal, thug, rapist and murderer, about as anti-heroic as it's possible to imagine (his veneration of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven notwithstanding), all his dialogue was scripted in Nadsat, invented post-Cold War teenage slang that fused American and Russian. McDowell succeeded brilliantly on both counts, making inspired use of his flat Yorkshire vowels to add conviction to what could have been a dry linguistic exercise, while giving Alex a gleeful brio that made the character all the more unsettling to watch, especially when his near-constant voice-over invites audience approval of his various crimes.

He then reunited with Lindsay Anderson, writer David Sherwin and the character of Mick Travis for O Lucky Man! (1973), a film directly inspired by McDowell's own early career as a coffee salesman. This picaresque Candide-like journey, through early 1970s Britain and its attendant political, economic and social corruption, contained much of McDowell and Anderson's best work, though its wild ambition (and three-hour-plus running time) made it deeply unfashionable in a British film environment that was rapidly retrenching into conservative conformity. The third and final Mick Travis film, Britannia Hospital (1982), was critically savaged and a commercial disaster (it was released in the wake of the Falklands victory, not the best time to premiere an all-stops-out satirical assault on everything Britain stood for), though it did offer the distressingly unforgettable spectacle of McDowell as a naked patchwork quilt of assorted parts in a modern variant on the Frankenstein myth.

After playing leads in assorted British films (George Macdonald Fraser's Victorian rogue Harry Flashman in Royal Flash, d. Richard Lester, 1975; a cynical, embittered WWI airman in Aces High, d. Jack Gold, 1976), he was cast in the title role of Caligula (US/Italy, 1979). This started life as a highly prestigious project, with an original screenplay by Gore Vidal, a cast that included Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud and a then-enormous $17 million budget, but ended up as one of the cinema's most notorious follies. Although McDowell was perfectly cast, and it's still possible to glimpse Vidal's original conception lurking in the final version amid the gratuitous producer-added (hardcore) sex and violence, some promising early material rapidly degenerates into witless tedium.

But by the time Caligula belatedly opened, McDowell's career had completely changed gear. When making what he envisaged as a brief trip to Hollywood to star as H.G.Wells in Time After Time (US, 1979), he met and married his American co-star Mary Steenburgen (his second wife of three) and relocated to California, where he lives to this day. His early years in the US were beset by personal problems, but his workrate then soared, and it's been a rare year since the late 1980s that he hasn't notched up at least half a dozen credits, usually in villainous character roles. As he freely acknowledged, most of these have been in second-rate dross, but a few gems stand out, above all his unforgettable one-line cameo in Robert Altman's The Player (US, 1992) which revived all the menace of his best work in an appearance lasting mere seconds. Altman would give him a bigger role a decade later, as the artistic director of a ballet in The Company (Germany/US, 2003).

He still occasionally filmed in Britain. On television, he dominated the four middle episodes of Peter Flannery's masterly Our Friends in the North (BBC, 1996) as Sixties gangland kingpin Bennie Barratt, and then played an older version of Paul Bettany in the underrated Gangster No.1 (d. Paul McGuigan, 2000) as a man whose rise to power has been conducted entirely through brutality, with none of the diplomatic niceties mastered by his main rival. He then worked with Get Carter director Mike Hodges in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (UK/US, 2003), playing yet another swaggering gangster ultimately reduced to a broken shell. When promoting the latter in Britain, McDowell gave a series of moving one-man shows about his relationship with Lindsay Anderson, to mark the tenth anniversary of his mentor's death.

Michael Brooke

* Check out Malcolm McDowell's Screenonline/BT Archive Interactive Guide to Free Cinema featuring a personal tribute to Lindsay Anderson.

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Britannia Hospital (1982)Britannia Hospital (1982)

Lindsay Anderson's unhinged satire of Thatcher's Britain

Thumbnail image of Clockwork Orange, A (1971)Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's dazzling and disturbing vision of near-future Britain

Thumbnail image of Our Friends in the North (1996)Our Friends in the North (1996)

Epic portrait of four Newcastle friends, spanning the 1960s to the 1990s

Related collections

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)

Director, Producer, Writer, Critic