Born in Leeds, England, Malcolm McDowell had a private school education at Cannock, but didn’t attend college even though he was accepted to a Sussex university. McDowell began his acting career in repertory, appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company for two years. His theater work includes the Royal Court’s 1975 production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which later moved to London’s West End. In the United States, he was seen on the New York stage in Look Back in Anger and In Celebration, and in Los Angeles in Hunting Cockroaches at the Mark Taper Forum.
Before acting, he first worked as a waiter in his father’s pub in Liverpool and then moved on to become a coffee salesman before working as a messenger.
On television, McDowell co-starred with Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates in Harold Pinter’s The Collection, and had the title role in CBS’ Arthur the King.
In 1967, McDowell landed his first film, Poor Cow. Before McDowell’s scene was cut, it had attracted the attention of director Lindsay Anderson, who cast the 25-year-old actor as a prep-school rebel in If… (1968). Director Stanley Kubrick was likewise impressed by McDowell’s ability to project working-class insolence; Kubrick starred the actor as futuristic street gang leader Alex in the controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). While Alex dished out plenty of violence and brutality, he got back as good as he gave in the scenes wherein he was “cured” of his aggressiveness; at one point, poor McDowell spent several shooting days bound in a straitjacket, his eyes pried open by surgical clamps. Since then McDowell has had a phobia about using eyedrops.
McDowell has been able to shed his earlier punkish image in favor of sensitive, introspective roles, such as that of H. G. Wells in Time After Time (1979) and Maxfield Perkins in Cross Creek (1983).
McDowell kept himself busy in the ’80s and ’90s in both film and television. He made a cameo appearance as himself in The Player (1992) and was seen in Star Trek: Generations (1994), Tank Girl (1995), Richard Benjamin’s Milk Money (1994) and Morgan Freeman’s Bopha. In 1998, he accepted the role as Mr. Roarke in the TV series Fantasy Island. He continues to work steadily, in projects such as I Spy (2002) and Hidalgo (2004).
McDowell has had a fistful of marriages. In 1975, he married actress Margot Bennett. Five years later, he got divorced and married another actress, Mary Steenburgen. From this second marriage, he fathered two children: Lily Amanda and Charles Malcolm. This marriage would last 10 years, and in 1991 he married again, this time to Kelley Kuhr, with whom he has a child.