Roddy McDowall loved stage, film, and the `Apes'

Boston Herald 10/06/98
by Paul Sherman

Roddy McDowall is perhaps best remembered for a role in which he wore a mask: Cornelius in Planet of the Apes.

But in a telephone interview last month with the Herald, he donned a mask of another sort. While discussing the "Apes" phenomenon, he never let on that he was suffering from terminal cancer.

McDowall died Saturday in Southern California at age 70.

At the time, McDowall was hard at work, doing a full schedule of publicity for the 30th anniversary of Planet of the Apes for the cable channel American Movie Classics. McDowall also was the host of Behind the Planet of the Apes, an AMC documentary on the Apes phenomenon.

In the documentary, McDowall appeared to be his usual, boyish self.

During the Sept. 1 interview, conducted while McDowall was in New York, the expatriate Englishman spoke of his fondness for Apes.

"I was very excited about it because it was so unique a situation," he recalled of the original project, first related to him by a producer during a chance meeting on an airplane. "It seemed so audacious and credible and original."

McDowall - who played one of the chimpanzee scientists who befriends Charlton Heston's astronaut - became the person most associated with the Apes series. That's ironic, since he wasn't in its first sequel due to a scheduling conflict: he was directing The Devil's Widow, his only directorial effort.

"There'd been a sequel to My Friend Flicka," he said, referring to a boyhood role, "but you didn't expect anything to have a sequel back then."

McDowall reprised scientist Cornelius in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and played Caesar, Cornelius' son, in the last two Apes movies. He then was Galen in the Apes TV series, a less-remembered role he surprisingly called his favorite of the three.

The brief time allotted for that phone interview prevented much discussion of other aspects of McDowall's career. His other movies included John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, Orson Welles' Macbeth, Cleopatra, The Poseidon Adventure and Fright Night, and he worked extensively in the theater and 1950s live television.

But McDowall, who voices a character in November's animated feature A Bug's Life, spoke more about such subjects when in Boston to promote the 1987 movie, Dead of Winter.

He called acting "the only profession on earth where the moment you've done something you may never work again. You're out of work the moment you've said the last line in a film."

Perhaps that's why McDowall also became a renowned photographer, often documenting Hollywood. In the 1950s, he left Hollywood after being typecast as a juvenile. He came east and played varied roles on TV and stage, and continued to bounce back and forth between movies and theater.

"There's something absolutely marvelous about doing something on the stage where you're able to build slowly from the ground up," he said. "With a movie, it's immediate and it's fresh and it doesn't have to be burdened with re-creating it over and over."

AMC airs an eight-hour salute to McDowall's career tomorrow. Starting at noon with McDowall's guest appearance on Remember WENN (which repeats at 7:30), it includes the movies My Friend Flicka at 12:30, Thunderhead, Son of Flicka at 2, Midnight Lace at 3:30 and Behind the Planet of the Apes at 5:30.

A&E will show Biography: Roddy McDowall: Hollywood's Best Friend on Thursday. It includes never-before-seen home movies, outtakes from some of his famous film roles and interviews with his many friends.

And on Monday, Turner Classic Movies will show the 1943 classic Lassie Come Home at 8 p.m., followed by three other films with McDowall: The White Cliffs of Dover, Lord Love a Duck and The Loved One.