A Charming Chat with Blue Thunder's Baddie by Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier.
Malcolm McDowell Flying High - and Scared with "Blue Thunder".
He's the nasty villain, soaring into the skies with the hit chopper adventure. There's only one problem - he is afraid of flying.
In the summer blockbuster Blue Thunder, Malcolm McDowell isn't a particularly nice guy. He plays the part of Roy Schneider's nemesis, the evil Colonel Cochrane, one of the leaders of a secret para-governmental group which is attempting to establish a police regime based upon electronic spying. "Blue Thunder does have something serious to say," McDowell remarks, "like, 'Big Brother is always around, watch out for him'. But, basically, it's not a message picture. Let's call a spade a spade: this film is primarily entertainment."
According to the actor, his first reaction upon being offered the role was deadpan honesty and a confession to his agent. "I said to him," remembers McDowell, " 'Look, I'm terrified of flying, I can't fly, and I will not fly!' My agent answered, 'I told them that, Mal, and he said it's OK. They're doing it on the studio backlot.' " The truth, unfortunately for McDowell, proved to be somewhat different. The majority of Blue Thunder's spectacular aerial action sequences were actually lensed in the air. Director John Badham and other cast members have already commented, with a goodly dose of humor, on the actor's understandable horror during the flying stunts. McDowell concurs, "I was terrified. We started out filming it on the gimbel thing (a rig designed for the purpose) with the crew moving it around. Then, it was easy to look macho and all that, but it's all very different when you're really up there in the air! They had to retake my stuff several times because I was so scared. It gave them a good laugh." "Going under those bridges in the helicopter was simply terrifying. I didn't think we were going to make it. I asked the pilot, 'We are not going to go under it, are we? We don't have enough room under the bridge. I don't know how wide this thing is, and there is just not enough - oh my god! He scraped the paint!' I still get the old pollywoggles in my stomach when I watch that scene. In fact, I'll tell you, I still can't even look at some parts of this movie."
"It wasn't so much that I was scared for my life at any point, but it was just very uncomfortable all the time. It was all being turned upside down and thrown around. The first time we did a stunt, the G-force was unbelievable. We were following the big helicopter, so we were very close. The air was buffeting this tiny little Hughes craft all over the place. At the scene's end, I got out of the helicopter, ran to my trailer and threw up!"
Fortunately, McDowell's contribution to Blue Thunder isn't limited to looking macho while manning a helicopter. Cochrane is yet another of the memorable villains created by the British-born actor. Some critics have, however, remarked on the oddness of a British Colonel working for the U.S. Government. McDowell discards the objection. "I think audiences accept it," he says. "I get away with it because Cochrane is really just a specialist. Besides, it all comes out on the computer screen, 'Born in Luton, England, etc.' I was surprised that they offered me the part, because it was inherently American. But I added a few of my own little numbers, like 'Follow my leader,' 'Catch you later.' " Despite a long record of career villainy on the silver screen, McDowell doesn't feel that he has been typecast. "I did five films in the past 18 months, and Blue Thunder is the only one where I am really playing a villain, " he maintains, smiling villainously.
The 40-year-old actor's first job was not on stage, or in front of a camera, but in his father's pub in Leeds, England, serving drinks. He then became a traveling salesman for a coffee company. (McDowell later drew on this time in his life for creative inspiration in O Lucky Man!) Struck by acting bug, McDowell took classes and, after months of hard work, was accepted by the Isle of Wight Repertory Company.
The following year, the young actor became a member of the famed Royal Shakespeare Company, and began appearing on British television. His first movie role was in 1967's Poor Cow, starring Terence Stamp. Director Lindsay Anderson noticed McDowell's abrasive charisma and chose him to play Mick, the lead in If...(1968), a bizarre tale of the students's revolt in the British public school system. The association between actor and director has since been developed in two further sequels in what is sometimes termed the "Mick Trilogy": O Lucky Man! (1973) and the more recent Britannia Hospital.
The latter film, which also features a cameo by Mark Hamill, is a wild satire of the British medical system in particular, and British society in general. "I wanted Malcolm McDowell for Britannia Hospital," director Lindsay Anderson had noted recently," because he is part of what I would call my 'cinematic family.' A major star does not necessarily need to play in major roles. If Malcolm appears for a relatively short time, he does it with panache. Then, too, even if Britannia Hospital is in no way a sequel to If... and O Lucky Man!, it is necessary to have seen them to understand it. Britannia Hospital is actually in the same tradition as the previous two films. In some ways, it is their successor.
McDowell agrees, "Britannia Hospital is really Lindsay's vision. There was no central character in the root form as it was written, but I still love the movie. To me, Lindsay can do no wrong. They didn't have enough money to pay me, so I did it as a freebie for him. I wouldn't have missed it for the world." Although McDowell feels that Britannia Hospital is an outstanding example of film-making - a view shared by many American critics - the British critical response was less than favorable. "Nothing surprised me about England," the actor says. "It is what I would expect from an island race. The English were out fighting the Falklands War, being very brave, and here comes an anti-British movie. Strangely enough, it's one made by someone who has not been seduced by Hollywood at all, but who has stayed and worked in his own country."
"People went to see If... because, at the time, everyone wanted to knock the public schools. They didn't go to see O Lucky Man!; we got roundly roasted about being anti-this and anti-that. Britannia Hospital was a combination of everything, they hated it. Except the London Times critic, who said it was a piece of great British filmmaking. I think it will eventually be accepted and loved - probably when Lindsay is dead. Then, everyone will say what a great artist he was!"
Between If... and O Lucky Man!, McDowell appeared with Robert Shaw in Figures in a Landscape, The Raging Moon, and eventually in 1971, in Stanley Kubrick's classic adaptation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. The character of young, amoral, ultraviolent Alex brought worldwide fame to McDowell, and turned him almost overnight into one of the leading stars of the British cinema. Other films followed: Richard Lester's Royal Flash ( adapted from the George MacDonald Fraser novel) in 1975, Voyage of the Damned and Aces High in 1976, and the infamous Caligula in 1977. Two years later, McDowell etched a memorable portrait of Nazism in The Passage. "That movie contains some of the best work I've ever done," he announces. "I managed to pack into a dozen scenes with the whole period of Nazi tyranny in a convincingly evil way."
In 1979, Malcolm McDowell became a hero again. As inventor/author H. G. Wells, he trailed Jack the Ripper through 20th century San Francisco for Nicholas Meyer's delightful fantasy, Time After Time. While on the set, McDowell met his co-star and wife-to-be, Oscar-winning actress Mary (Ragtime) Steenburgen. As the gentle and bemused Victorian Wells, McDowell's refined, upper class accent was perfect. "I used to talk like the Beatles," says the actor, demonstrating his abilities by repeatedly changing accents in mid-conversation. "But now I'm like a chameleon. I drive down the M1 (British motorway) and my accent changes depending on where I am. If I'm in London, I'll speak cockney. In Cross Creek, I played the great editor, Maxwell Perkins with an American accent. The point is to make people believe you. How you do that is up to you."
Now living in the United States, the British actor starred in Paul Schrader's Cat People as Nastassia Kinski's feline brother, Paul Gallier. Although the film was not a commercial success, McDowell's performance, as usual, was applauded by critics. McDowell has also teamed with Lindsay Anderson for the director's off-Broadway restaging of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. "It was a kind of crossroads for me as an actor, " McDowell explains. "At the end of the play, the whole audience was in tears. I could hear them sobbing, and that gave me an unbelievable thrill!"
After confronting his tears of flying in Blue Thunder, McDowell completed a rock-n-roll flick, Get Crazy, once again co-starring with Daniel Stern and directed by Allan (Heartbeeps) Arkush. As a change of pace, the actor took up Excalibur, to portray Arthur the King. The three-hour telefilm, featuring Candice Bergen and Dyan Cannon, will premiere on CBS later this fall and play theatrically overseas. McDowell's latest role is as a rock performer dealing with a 13-year-old paternity suit son in Tin Soldiers. Colonel Cochrane. H. G. Wells. Mick. King Arthur. Flashman. Though McDowell has played dozens of heroes and villains throughout his career, he doesn't have a specific favorite role. "Every time you do a film, you have the capability to believe it's the greatest thing you've ever done," he says. "But, in fact, every film has its little reasons why you love it, even dumb films. And I've done some real clunkers. But I don't regret anything I've done. I never regret anything, because having the capacity to fail is very important. That's how you grow, it keeps your feet on the ground."
"I've got a long way to go. I've got 30 more years and I haven't done my best work yet, by far. I've always tried to base my career on longevity, rather than on a flash in the pan, because, at the beginning, that's what happened to me. I was a big success in three films in a row, and then the British film industry collapsed overnight!"
Malcolm McDowell pauses to consider Blue Thunder and critical reaction. Although the chopper adventure collected both smash boxoffice receipts and some negative reviews, the actor states he won't be affected. "I've done my work the best I could, and if you don't like it, tough," Malcolm McDowell says. "I made up my mind not to read reviews. Ever since I did that, I've had some great reviews, and I can't read them, which is unfortunate! But I felt great, because I don't get emotionally involved in a picture anymore. I'm an actor - and what I do is up on the stage or on the screen - and it's the best work I can do for now."
Article ©1983 Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier. All rights reserved. Originally appeared in Starlog, September 1983. Reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Lofficier.