MONTREAL – Being bad has been good for Malcolm McDowell.
In a career that’s seen him bring a slew of movie bad guys to creepy life, he’s been credited with redefining the modern screen villain and forever changing the way we look at the cheery tune “Singin’ in the Rain” because of its link to a sociopathic rapist.
He also sent a collective gasp through “Star Trek” fandom when he realized every Trekker’s nightmare — he killed the fabled Capt. James Kirk.
Evil as he may be on screen, even McDowell remembers that last one with a tinge of wistfulness.
“Poor old Captain Kirk,” he said in a telephone interview from California with The Canadian Press. “It was sad, really. Honestly, the producers should have given him a much better sendoff than they did.”
Kirk, played by Canadian William Shatner, met his end at the hands of Dr. Tolian Soran, McDowell’s evil mad scientist character, in 1994′s “Star Trek: Generations.”
Besides its outer space derring-do, the film was meant to pass the “Star Trek” franchise torch from the original crew of the USS Enterprise to that of its spinoff, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” led by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). It’s since been rebooted again with Chris Pine as Kirk.
McDowell will be in Montreal on the weekend, giving a panel and screening “A Clockwork Orange” at the Montreal Comiccon. Shatner and Stewart will also be there but McDowell isn’t sure they’ll appear together.
The 69-year-old jokingly says Shatner has grumbled at him, “You shot me in the back.”
“The truth is, that’s what happened. They should have given him a glorious death. If they’re going to kill one of the icons of American television, then get rid of him in a beautiful way. I was very disappointed that they didn’t come up with something a little better.”
McDowell described Montreal-born Shatner and his co-star Leonard Nimoy as charismatic actors who kept the “Star Trek” franchise alive, something he believes should have been acknowledged.
“We shot it twice,” McDowell said of Kirk’s death scene. “It was feeble, I thought, because I thought he deserved better.”
However, McDowell says with relish he has become “notorious” for the role, although it’s only one of many that have put him on the map in his nearly 50 years on the big and small screen.
Take Alex, the ultraviolent protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark “A Clockwork Orange.” Film historians and critics credit McDowell’s 1971 performance as setting the template for the modern screen villain.
“I think I did,” he said, describing Alex as “an anti-hero who is an immoral character who everybody loves. That’s the sort of dichotomy of it. I don’t think the screen anti-hero/villain had ever been like that before.”
One person who did take note of “Clockwork” was legendary Hollywood dancer Gene Kelly, who had made “Singin’ in the Rain” famous with a joyful dance number in the film of the same name in 1952. It was, to say the least, different than McDowell’s interpretation.
McDowell recalled meeting Kelly at a Hollywood party in the early 1970s shortly after he came to the United States from his native Britain. A studio official approached Kelly with McDowell in tow and tapped him on the shoulder to introduce him.
“He turned around, looked at me like I’d crawled out of a rock, looked me up and down, turned on his heel and walked off,” said McDowell, who shrugged off the rebuff.
The actor, who said he relies a lot on intuition and staying fluid when he interprets a role, said he actually improvised the immortal scene in “Clockwork” as a tribute to Kelly’s indelibly upbeat performance.
“I kind of used it in a different way because my character is euphoric at that moment. Of course, he is raping and it did bastardize his (Kelly’s) thing. From his point of view, he probably thought I cheapened it. But really, the truth is I improvised the scene and literally it (the song) came out. I didn’t even think about it.”
McDowell added he met Kelly’s widow 40 years later who told him that Kelly hadn’t been angry at him but at Kubrick because the director didn’t pay him for using the song.
“Of course he never paid him,” McDowell said with an incredulous laugh.
McDowell has several movies in the works as well as his appearances on the TV lawyer show “Franklin and Bash.” He’s also slated to guest star in a few episodes of the comedy “Community” although he says he’ll be more of a straight man to the regular cast.
McDowell credited a lot of influences in his acting career, including greats like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Albert Finney. He’s also a big fan of James Cagney, who made his mark as a big-screen gangster in the 1930s.
“I always loved his energy and his spark. He was always a live wire.”
Nowadays, McDowell likes the bad boy style of Ryan Gosling and laments the death of Heath Ledger, who offered a chilling portrayal of The Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
“Heath was extraordinary,” McDowell said. “He was very influenced by ‘Clockwork,’ which is nice to know.”
McDowell says often a movie is only as good as its villain.
“Usually, they’re fabulous parts.”