September 01, 1980 12:00 PM

They were strangers when they met in July 1978. Arkansas-born Mary Steenburgen had never even seen Malcolm McDowell of Liverpool on a movie screen, not in If or O Lucky Man! or as Alex the droog in the celebrated A Clockwork Orange. McDowell had missed Steenburgen’s movie debut as Jack Nicholson’s co-star in Goin’ South.

By September, Mary and Malcolm were in love; by January, living together. Today they are looking forward to a wedding, probably in the next month or two, and a baby, expected in January. “At first I thought, ‘Well, it’s not the right time,’ ” says Mary. “But when it was definite, I felt tremendous, as if I had been given a gift.”

For some time now she has felt that her luck was running good. For Goin’ South, Nicholson picked her from a crowd of unknown hopefuls, and her notices were enthusiastic. Then she went into the cast of Time after Time, and met McDowell, 37. Click.

He was married at the time to actress-publicist Margot Dullea (Keir’s ex), “a woman I respect enormously,” but, he says, “I was frustrated, not a happy human being. I buried myself in my work. With Mary there was a mystical sense of something rather special.” Agrees Steenburgen, 27, “I never had a soulmate before.”

The wedding, once McDowell’s divorce is final, will be small and private. (“I’ll wear white,” says Steenburgen. “There’s purity in my heart.”) It will also very likely be on a Monday—McDowell’s only day off. Since June, he has been playing Jimmy Porter, the frustrated candy shop owner in John Osborne’s acclaimed Look Back in Anger, at Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre. “Porter is a ranting, raving, self-pitying person on paper,” says McDowell. “You have to make him more likable.” Reviewers approved of McDowell’s interpretation, and the run of the play has been extended. He took a similar approach to Clockwork’s Alex—trying to make a vile hoodlum seem human—and director Stanley Kubrick compared McDowell’s onscreen resourcefulness to that of the late Peter Sellers “at his greatest.”

Steenburgen meanwhile has been working on her role as the little woman. With a Cuisinart and a set of stainless steel pans given her by Malcolm, she has learned to cook and is now also playing a resourceful housewife in the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s best-seller Ragtime. Her turn-of-the-century dresses for the movie should hide Steenburgen’s expanding figure. “They adjusted the costumes,” she says with a smile.

Steenburgen will also be seen in Melvin and Howard, due out in December. It’s about Howard Hughes and stars Jason Robards; she plays the wife of Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat in the movie), a gas station owner who insisted he was a Hughes heir. When she filmed the role in blistering Las Vegas last spring, McDowell was at her side. “The most important thing to Mary and me is to be together,” he says.

In his rebellious youth, Malcolm might have hooted at such lovestruck sentiments. His parents, Charles and Edna Taylor, ran a pub, the Bull and Dog, outside Liverpool. (At the age of 20 he changed his name to McDowell, his mother’s maiden name, because there was another actor in England named Malcolm Taylor.) One of three children, McDowell was sent to boarding school at 13. “I had been sopping up beer behind the counter with the locals,” he admits. “I found it difficult to adjust to a disciplined society and became fairly unruly. Every Monday night I was beaten with a cane or a slipper.”

After graduation at 18 he became a traveling coffee salesman in Yorkshire, beginning an odyssey described in O Lucky Man! (which he co-scripted). “I had these cards from the chap before me,” he recalls. “They’d say things like: ‘Mrs. Smith, catering manageress. Likes Ironside. Has three kids, Jeanie, Arthur and Philip.’ I’d go in and say: ‘Did you see Ironside last week, Mrs. Smith?’ ‘Oh, and how are Philip’s tonsils?’ I’d get a sale that way.”

Weekends McDowell went home to the Cavern in Liverpool, a local dive where the Beatles were making their start. One night he phoned a girlfriend at the home of her elocution teacher. “You have a marvelous voice,” said the teacher. “Do you want to be an actor?” McDowell began taking acting lessons from Mrs. Harold Ackley, 82—”She offered me cigarettes and sherry at 3 in the afternoon. I thought that very civilized.” Soon he participated in a national acting competition, which led to summer theater on the Isle of Wight and two spear-toting seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “David Warner was playing Hamlet,” Malcolm recalls. “We’d all take his cast-off groupies.”

McDowell was doing Twelfth Night in London when he auditioned for director Lindsay Anderson’s If in 1968. “His acting reflects his personality in its superficial aggressiveness,” says Anderson of McDowell. “His Look Back in Anger character presents a rough face to the world, but that belies the sardonic wit hiding behind a kind of vulnerability.”

McDowell needed all the psychological armor he could muster for his role as the crazed emperor in Robert Guccione’s X-rated Caligula. During the filming in 1977, Malcolm’s father visited the set. “In one scene, I had to pee up against a marble pillar and say something like: ‘I am Rome. Wherever I am Rome is. Let’s go to Cairo.’ Dad was bowled over. ‘That’s what I call bloody fantastic acting,’ he pronounced. ‘They say “Action!” and you pee.’ ” McDowell otherwise calls Caligula “an outrageous betrayal. I was paid handsomely,” he adds, “but Guccione cut 20 minutes of hard-core porn into the film. It looks like we were in a conspiracy.”

Steenburgen has trod a more decorous path. Daughter of a Missouri Pacific Railroad conductor and a secretary, Mary lived a dreamy youth in North Little Rock. “I’d read books in trees,” she recalls. “I never heard people call me.” By age 16, she was acting in school plays. At 19, she quit Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., to join New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, and in 1976 she and a few friends founded an improvisational theater group called Cracked Tokens. She was waitressing at a Manhattan crepe restaurant in 1977 when she auditioned for Goin’ South. “I answered those voices inside,” she recalls. “They said: ‘This is yours.’ ” When Nicholson agreed, she made two phone calls, one to her parents, one to the restaurant “to tell them what they could do with their crepes.” One of her biggest fans is Malcolm’s mentor Anderson, who says, “She’s one of the very best young American actresses. She and Malcolm suit each other.”

The couple share a Hollywood house decorated with Ozark quilts and American primitives and an apartment in a Manhattan brownstone. After the baby is born, they hope to co-star in a movie based on Thomas Mann’s allegorical novella about Italian fascism, Mario and the Magician. “I’ll never give up my career for any man, woman or child,” says Steenburgen. “I don’t believe in selflessness.” But the baby will be close by. “Anywhere we go, the kid comes, too,” she declares.

A likely destination is England. Since 1976 McDowell has been investing in forest lands in Sussex; he’s already taught Mary to love the copper beeches, swamp cypress and English oak. “There are deer and cuckoos and bluebells,” she says. “It’s beautiful. We want a house there someday.” She pauses, and sounding like a woman in love, adds, “We’ll call it Magic House.”

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