Peter Bellwood’s quirky, brilliant talk with Ojai’s favorite villain
Malcolm McDowell: What are we waiting for? You clown! You can’t figure it out!
Peter Bellwood: Yes, I can. We’re on. Peter Bellwood here, interviewing Malcolm McDowell in bright sunshine, overlooking a golf course …
McD: Shouldn’t you turn that thing on?
B: Right. (clicks on tape recorder)
Er … how are you?
McD: Extremely well.
B: I’m happy to hear it. And you’re between jobs at the moment?
McD: Is that a delicate way of asking, ‘Are you out of work?’
McD: I am, as a matter of fact.
B: Something’ll turn up. Incidentally, your CV’s amazing, goes on for 4 pages!
McD: It just means I work a lot, which doesn’t necessarily cover the quality of the work …
B: But your integrity was never compromised, of course.
McD: No, no … I mean, I’ve got kids, I can’t afford to retire! They’re great kids, all five of them. My sons with Kelley — Beckett, Seamus and Finn. And Lily and Charlie, who were also brought up in this valley, I’m happy to say.
B: When did you move to Ojai?
McD: 1982. I got a call from Guy Webster, who knew I was looking for a ranch. This is when I was married to Mary Steenburgen, and Guy mentioned Ojai. As an Englishman, I mistook what he said for ‘Ohio,’ which I thought was too far away, so when he called to say there was a piece of land and I should drive up and have a look, the Ohio confusion was sorted and I went up and checked it out. There was nothing on it. It was a cattle ranch, I think, which had one of the last groves of live oaks in Southern California, I was told. So I put in an offer that same day, and later we built a barn, a huge barn.
B: Why did you move from LA?
McD: We just wanted to give our kids a happy childhood in a beautiful place. It’s a different kind of existence. There’s nothing wrong, bringing children up in LA. It has some incredible schools … And L.A. has other wonderful attributes of which I like to partain, like trying out new restaurants. But the traffic …
B: ‘Partake,’ I think you mean.
McD: ‘Partake,’ sorry. Not ‘partain.’ Thank you. Actually, I’ve made up a new word which encompasses both of them.
B: You and Steve Sprinkel both — !
McD: So, once I’d partained —
B: And you’d never heard of Ojai before?
McD: No. And, you know, when you drive into this valley, it’s like a great weight’s lifted off your shoulders. I still feel that. We’ve got a few tricky ways of getting to L.A. One of them’s Pacific Coast Highway. You drive south on empty PCH (except in rush hour), no high-rises, spectacular views of the ocean, gamboling dolphins. Can you imagine that, if it was in the south of France? It would be ruined, hideous high-rises, ghastly architecture. Somehow, they’ve managed to keep it under control.
B: Malibu fights that battle all the time. Edge from U2 wants to build some gigantic place on top of the Santa Monica Mountains.
McD: Did you bring that up to show how hip you are to the current scene?
B: U2’s been around forever, Malcolm. And you do realize it’s been 50-odd years since the Beatles?
McD: When I lived in Liverpool, I strolled into The Cavern one night and heard them. That was before Ringo, who started out with a band called Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. The Beatles changed the landscape for all of us. Early on, you know, they didn’t sing their own stuff.
B: They loved American blues —
McD: And Liverpool being a port — I can’t remember if it was a cousin of John’s or Paul’s, was a steward on the Canadian-Pacific ships, and he brought Chuck Berry records and other stuff over from the States, and that’s when they first heard it … Anyway, Guy did me a great favor, getting me up here. The whole family, in fact. And I haven’t left this valley since.
B: You meet a better class of Englishman up here, too.
McD: Really? I must’ve missed that. We’ve known each other since ‘69 in southern Spain, haven’t we? Granada, where I was doing that Joe Losey film, “Figures In A Landscape…”
B: With Robert Shaw.
McD: Right. And you’d come over to brown-nose him.
B: I don’t like that. Brown-nose. It’s disgusting. I was there with director Onna White to sign him for a Broadway musical I’d written based on Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry.”
McD: Obviously it worked. Your brown-nosing was a complete success!
B:Yeah, but later it became clear Robert couldn’t sing. Getting back to your movie, I remember one day, I was on a hill next to Losey and his cameraman, who was setting up a shot. You and Robert were far off down a gully, hands tied behind your backs, chopper pilot hovering overhead, waiting for his cue — and suddenly you started leaping about and yelling.
McD: Yeah. The shot before, I’d had to throw up, and we’d faked it with lots of Campbell’s Farmhouse soup. Some of it was still stuck to my lip. And a bumble bee landed on my mouth and stung me, which immediately sent me into a flying trapeze act. I couldn’t do anything because my hands were tied. I was even bashing my head against the rocks — I couldn’t get it off!
B: Losey had no idea …
McD: No, and Robert was laughing his ass off — as was his wont — and I was carted away to hospital.
B: Amazing you remember all this.
McD: Well, my memory’s not so bad.
B: I’ve always been impressed how you can learn so many lines. Way back, I was the lead in my daughter Lucy’s play, “The Paper Castle,” and learning it was torture. Brilliant performance, though, I think you’ll agree.
McD: Was it? I don’t remember. It’s just practice over the years, learning lines. And in a movie, of course, you have to know it so well you forget about it, it has to be instinctive. Sometimes, that instinct fails, and you go, ‘Where am I?’
B: Years ago, an English actor named A.E. Matthews, still working in his 90s, was in this play. A phone rings onstage which he’s supposed to answer. And the instant he picks it up, he forgets his line. So he turns to the actor nearest him, holds out the receiver and says “It’s for you”! There must’ve been times, though, where you could just smoothly move into improvising.
McD: I love improvising. I’d rather do that, anyway. Of course, a lot of writers don’t like that — do you?! I must say, I’m impressed you’re not looking at notes, doing it off the top of your head. Second nature to you, right? You do it all the time.
B: It’s just a conversation. D’you have a particular memory of “A Clockwork Orange?” It was a defining movie for you.
McD: Well, I think before Clockwork, there hadn’t been an anti-hero in a movie who was immoral. The only one I can recall is Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” So in a way we were breaking new ground. We didn’t think about that, we just did it … working spontaneously. Even if you’re improvising, you’ve got to memorize the text.
B: How old were you when you did that movie?
B: How soon after “If?”
McD: 2 years or so. In some ways, “If” was a better movie than “Clockwork.” Lindsay Anderson was an incredible director. I began with the best.
B: After “Clockwork, “you did “O, Lucky Man?”
B: Had you started writing it?
McD: Way before, after “If” opened — which by the way won the Grand Prize at Cannes.
B: And you were living in London?
McD: Yes. I left Liverpool when I was 19, went off to rep, the Royal Shakespeare Company — it took me four years to get a film. Of course, it seemed like forever.
B: You were in Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast, when I was 20 miles north, in Scarborough.
McD: My father was in the RAF, in Bomber Command, he was a navigator, he flew out of Driffield. So my mother and her sister, my aunt, took over a small hotel — very “Fawlty Towers” — and had deposed Polish Army generals staying there, and everything was on the black market, fantastic! I was born in Leeds, moved when I was 6 weeks old to Bridlington, and lived there till I was 6. Then on to Liverpool, my father running a pub or hotel, and that’s the way it was.
B: What was his name?
McD: Charles Thomas Taylor. Tom Taylor.
B: And you changed your name because there already was a Taylor working as an actor.
McD: Yeah … the bugger! And what really pissed me off was that he gave up acting after a year, but it was too late — I’d already switched to my mother’s maiden name. My father never forgave me …
B: So what brought you to America?
McD: I came over to do this movie, “Time After Time.” I fell in love with Mary in San Francisco, she was my co-star, so I just moved my whole operation here. We lived in New York, I remember, because I went off to do “Look Back In Anger” at the Roundabout Theater. We got married in New York, actually, and that’s where Lily was born. Mary had subsequently done “Melvin & Howard,” for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Great movie, directed by Jonathan Demme, Jason Robards as Howard Hughes, what an actor. Then back to the Coast.
B: Were you as star-struck as I was when I first got to L.A? I was driving about in a daze … Sunset Boulevard, Malibu …
McD: Oh, God, yes! I think every Englishman who gets out here goes through that. If you live in England and love movies, Hollywood’s where your imagination goes to, and when you saw “Singin’ In The Rain,” I defy anybody not to come out and start dancing down the street with an umbrella!
B: I always wanted to live in America.
McD: Americans to me have always been a very generous people. Open, warm, friendly. The opposite of the southern English — closed, miserable, uptight, emotionally constipated.
B: Apart from that, absolute sweeties! Why were you attracted to Ojai?
McD: Well, I love small towns. I love beautiful small towns. It’s the one place I can come, I’ve got friends here, I’m just not bugged, you know? I can stroll around, be anonymous, do what I want to do …
B: People must recognize you, though.
McD: Yeah, they do, but they’re respectful, friendly, laid-back. There’s a sort of vibe I feel that this is probably what L.A. was like back in the ‘20s. I remember having an old studio driver, we were cruising down Sunset, and he said, ‘You know, when I first started, these were all orange groves.’ The history of LA’s so amazing — the discovery of oil and the start of the film business as we know it. There’ve always been English movie stars here. The first great one was Charlie Chaplin. And I used to love visiting long-gone places like the Brown Derby. Now, I’ve got three small boys with my wife, Kelley, who’s a wonderful designer. She’s done eight houses in Ojai, and they’re all pretty special. Two of them have movie stars living in them right now. This one we’re in’s her real masterpiece, we’ll have it finished by next year, pool and everything. All re-done in the old Spanish style. Another thing about Ojai — it’s very driveable down to LAX, hour-and-a-half or so. Of course, traffic’s a problem. I hate traffic. I’d rather have my teeth pulled out by wild horses.
B: Or have a root-canal. You’re having one today, you said.
McD: Thanks for reminding me — you bastard!
B: Let’s talk about your passion for golf instead.
McD: Golf is great. I’m not saying I’m an ace golfer …
B: You’re a helluva long hitter, I’ve seen you do it.
McD: Yeah, but I got to golf rather late in life. I do love it, and I love to play with the boys. They love it, too. It’s such a magical course, the Ojai Valley Inn, built by George Thomas, a Scot who came over. He built Riviera, L.A. Country Club, some of the finest courses in Southern California. Also, one of the great golf writers lives here — Mark Frost, author of “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and a biography of Bobby Jones.
B: You were in a golf movie, weren’t you?
McD: “Stroke Of Genius,” yeah. And “Golf In The Kingdom.”
B: So what’s up next?
McD: “Mozart In The Jungle,” Amazon Studios series. Sex, drugs and symphony in the world of New York classical musicians — great stuff! And I’m working on producing and starring in a film, “Monster Butler.” It’s like “A Clockwork Orange” forty years on, based on this real-life English butler to the toffs who was a con man and serial killer. Smart, charismatic, larger than life — and a complete nutter. Sings “Big Spender” in prison in full drag as the convicts whistle … Gary Oldman loves the script, wants to play my buddy, Wiggy — a taxidermist with “anger issues.” It’s dark, funny, scary, outrageous.
B: And who wrote this immortal work?
McD: I dunno. Some hack called Bellwood …
B: Thank you so much!
McD: We’re raising money right now, so we’ll see …
(Long pause. Birds twittering. Heat rising)
McD: Well, I think we’ve had enough, haven’t we — ?
B: I certainly have. I’d like to thank you for your patience, your style and your general McDowelly demeanor. It’s been fun.
McD: And I’d like to thank you. You’re a dear friend, a great writer — I suppose you can never hear that too often — and a thoroughly decent chap.
B: Obviously you’re a man of taste and perception.
McD: Actually, I was talking about myself.
B: You usually are. Can I have your autograph?