I do a terrible Malcolm McDowell impression.

I know that because I’ve spent the last week recounting, to my more patient friends and family, my phone conversation with the legendary McDowell, recipient of this year’s Mid-Life Achievement Award at the 14th annual Maine International Film Festival, which runs Friday to July 24 in Waterville.

Slightly gravelly with age (he’s 68), his northern English accent bristling with intelligence, humor and maybe just a hint of the charismatic menace from “A Clockwork Orange,” “If.” and a hundred more films, McDowell’s voice is warm and enthusiastic.

“It’s nice of them to put it that way,” McDowell joked about the “mid-life” part of the award he’ll receive at a screening of his 1973 film “O Lucky Man!” at Colby College on Saturday. “It’s a great honor, and that’s why I wanted to come and say thank you.”

McDowell’s been to Maine before — he visited the late Lindsay Anderson, director of “O Lucky Man!” and a longtime friend, when Anderson was shooting “The Whales of August” (1987) on Cliff Island and in Portland.

“Unfortunately, I can only stay for four days, which is a great shame,” he said. “I’d love to have brought the family. Maine’s such a beautiful place; an incredible coastline, lobsters and seafood.”

McDowell went on to tell a few funny stories about the then-aged Bette Davis’ antics on the set of “The Whales of August.” (Trivia note: Davis also had an affinity for Maine, having lived in Cape Elizabeth in the 1950s.) It’s clear he still loves the movies, and loves to talk about them.

And while his career runs the gamut from classic (“A Clockwork Orange”) to notorious (“Caligula”), to the well, questionable (“Firestarter 2: Rekindled”), McDowell has never been left wanting for work in the entertainment industry.

Since his big-screen debut in “If.” (1968), he’s done everything from playing leads in feature films to scene-stealing villains on television’s “Heroes,” voice-overs on animated films and TV shows, and even a live-action role in the “Wing Commander” video-game franchise.

His fans can watch him currently on a new TNT television show, “Franklin and Bash,” at 9 p.m. Wednesdays. He plays Stanton Infeld, patriarch of Infeld Daniels, one of the top law firms in Los Angeles.

But of all his work, McDowell is especially proud that the MIFF is showing “Never Apologize,” the utterly winning, funny and heartwarming film of the one-man show he performed about Anderson.

“Lindsay was an extraordinary talent, and man,” said McDowell warmly. “I had the feeling that people were beginning to forget Lindsay, and I was very dismayed. When you look at his films (‘If….’ ‘O Lucky Man!’ ‘This Sporting Life’ with Richard Harris), he’s as important a director as Stanley Kubrick, if not more so.”

“Never Apologize” concludes with McDowell re-enacting a deathbed conversation between Anderson and legendary filmmaker and Portland native John Ford, about whom McDowell stressed, “there are many great directors, but very few poets. John Ford was both. So was Lindsay.”

Of course, no celebration of McDowell’s work would be complete without Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), his most famous film, and one which McDowell said “can take care of itself.”

Asked about the enduring popularity of “Clockwork” with successive generations, McDowell posited that the film remains “a rite of passage for young people. In retrospect, the political element of government being big brother, taking over our lives — young people can totally still get that. But the real poignant bit is the freedom of choice; that’s why it hasn’t dated.”

McDowell is also excited that festival-goers will get the opportunity to see another little-known film, 1991’s “Assassin of the Tsar,” which he recommended to the MIFF directors. In the Russian-made film, McDowell plays a modern-day mental institution inmate who believes himself to be the man who killed Nicholas II and the royal family.

“It’s amazing! The history is amazing, too; it was made right after the (Berlin) wall came down,” McDowell said. “The director’s father had access to KGB records, knew the real story. It’s a brilliant film that no one’s seen. You can’t get it, it’s not on DVD. It has fans, but hasn’t been seen, so I thought this would be an opportunity to share it.”

The last of his films showing at MIFF is the campy sci-fi comedy “Tank Girl” (1995), in which he plays a post-apocalyptic villain versus Lori Petty’s titular punk heroine (and her mutant kangaroo army). While McDowell seemed momentarily surprised at its inclusion, he agreed that screening it at the Skowhegan Drive-In was just right. “It’s meant to be seen at a drive-in. That’s a very good way to put that.”

Not that McDowell is ashamed of the work. Quite the contrary — he considers such roles to be great fun.

“It’s fun to play parts like that occasionally,” he said. “The secret to playing a villain is not to play them as bad; that’s too one-dimensional and boring. If you can play them with a certain amount of charm, it’s better. A film’s only as good as the heavy.

“I used to joke I get six scenes to make the whole world hate me. If I had a choice, I would choose the heavy every time — you don’t have to be there until dawn, there are usually some good scenes and a great death.”

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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