Obituary of Roddy McDowall
Actor who survived the transition from a child star working with Lassie to make a mark as a chimpanzee in Planet of the Apes
( The Daily Telegraph )
RODDY McDOWALL, the English-born actor who has died aged 70, made a hit as a child star working with animals in Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka, and in middle age gained a new following as a chimpanzee in the Planet of the Apes films.
McDowall made a successful transition to adult roles without suffering the neuroses and drug addiction that plagued many child actors. "I think it was because I was never a really huge star," he said, "by the time I was 18 my career was fading and I think Hollywood was happy to let me go off to Broadway."
McDowall never willingly turned down a part and, apart from his stage work, appeared in more than 140 films. (His 100th was The Cat from Outer Space in 1978.) Few would rate Planet of the Apes (1968) as highly as How Green Was My Valley (1941), the film in which he made his name. But to a new generation McDowall was most familiar as Galen, the mild-mannered chimpanzee with a philosophical bent.
Neither the director nor Twentieth Century Fox held many hopes for a film in which the leading actors' faces were obscured by bendy replicas of the faces of chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. McDowall claimed that he accepted the role because he saw acting behind a mask as "a challenge to get the character over to the audience". He visited zoos to study the movements of chimpanzees.
The Planet of the Apes films met an enthusiastic response from a public that seemed to detect in them a deep mythic appeal. McDowall went on to star as the simian philosopher in four of the five Planet of the Apes films. They packed drive-ins all over America.
Twentieth Century Fox then sold the idea to CBS for television, and McDowall needed no persuasion to recreate the character. The series did not enjoy the same success on television, but it remained in profit for almost two years. McDowall was, he said, "deeply saddened" when it was axed in 1976.
Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall was born at Herne Hill, south London, on September 17 1928, the son of a Scottish merchant seaman and his Irish wife. She was a "frustrated actress" according to her son. At the age of eight he did well in a play at his school, St Joseph's, and Mrs McDowall decided to enrol him at the Hanover Academy of Dramatic Art. He made his film debut as an orphan in Scruffy (1938), and in the same year appeared with Will Hay in Convict 99.
In the first year of the war Roddy appeared in Just William and This England, a patriotic history ramble, retitled Our Heritage for Scotland. While working on his 13th film, Murder in the Family (1940) he was spotted by Darryl F Zanuck, who offered him a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. So he moved to America with his mother and elder sister.
In 1941 Roddy McDowall played opposite Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O'Hara in How Green Was My Valley. This dramatic black and white evocation of childhood in a Welsh mining village made a great impact and gave McDowall a leading place among child actors.
After this success, American studios made sure they milked the years of childhood still left to him. He was landed with the task of acting with animals in Lassie Come Home (1943), the mawkish tale of a lovable long-haired collie that is sold by its impoverished owners but travels across America to be reunited with them. On Lassie McDowall had the fortune to work for the first time with Elizabeth Taylor. They remained friends.
In the same year McDowall was cast as a boy trying to train a wild colt in My Friend Flicka. He looked back on these animal films with mixed feelings. "There were about four horses as Flicka," he recalled, "and they were all pretty jumpy and kept stepping on my feet. But the dog who played Lassie, he was a great dog. He still remembered me five years later."
Meanwhile, throughout the Forties, McDowall continued at a great rate to make such films as Thunderhead Son of Flicka (1945) for Twentieth Century Fox. "They knew our careers wouldn't last long," he remembered, "so they were desperate to get as many films out of us as possible." At 20 he was still being cast as a young teenager. "The child star thing became a demon walking with me," he said. "I was just an old, English child actor." He decided to leave Hollywood for Broadway.
Throughout the Fifties, he worked in New York theatre, and found he had to learn to act all over again, since an adult on stage had little in common with a child actor on a film set. There were parts in Shaw's Misalliance (1953) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1955), and at the same period the roles of Malcolm in Macbeth and Ariel in The Tempest.
McDowall also took on as much television work as he could, appearing in a vast number of such shows as The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Dupont Show of the Month and The Alcoa Hour.
This brought home the bacon, but McDowall did not abandon the stage or big screen. In 1960 he met Richard Burton when they were both playing in the Broadway production of the musical Camelot. They became friends, and McDowall was later to open a discotheque with Burton's wife.
In 1961 Burton and McDowall were bought out of their theatrical contracts to appear in the blockbuster film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor. The production was plagued with problems, made no easier by the increasingly public affair between Burton and Taylor. McDowall was remembered by the cast and crew for his diplomacy in remaining Taylor's confidant while still living with Burton and his wife.
Cleopatra marked the start of a series of "epic" films for McDowall. These included the huge war feature, The Longest Day (1962) and George Stevens' rambling treatment of the Bible, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), with McDowall playing St Matthew.
But in the late Sixties McDowall's career faltered again. One of the films in which he appeared, Lord Love a Duck (1966), was described as blending "vulgarity, pretentiousness, inept imitation, stupidity and such a proliferation of stomach-turning jokes as would take your average smut-pedlar a lifetime to assemble".
In The Curse of the Golem (1967) he played a madman who keeps his dead mother in the bedroom and persuades a monster to destroy Hammersmith Bridge.
Attempting to diversify, McDowall developed his interest in photography. While working on Cleopatra in 1961 he had sold shots of the stars to magazines. Now he enlisted the help of the photographer Richard Avedon in producing in 1966 a book of photographs. In Double Exposure, star photographs were printed opposite text written by other celebrities who were fans. Joan Sutherland wrote in admiration of Julie Andrews, and Edward Albee wrote about Judy Garland.
But in films, McDowall's career seemed to have dwindled away, until the unexpected success of Planet of the Apes.
Afterwards he continued to work hard, accepting parts in some truly dreadful films. He was a robot in Black Hole (1979); he had the one consolation of working with Peter Ustinov in Charlie Chan and the Dragon Queen (1981); and he shared in the disapproval of a critic who described Class of 1984 (1981) as an "unpleasant, calculatedly camp melodrama with a buzz-saw finale".
The following year he appeared once more opposite Ustinov in the lavish Agatha Christie whodunnit Evil Under the Sun, playing the sour, spinsterish author involved in a murder plot. In later years McDowall made a speciality as camp, frustrated bachelors.
When not working McDowall added to his huge collection of Hollywood memorabilia. On his first day on set in 1938 he had asked for the autograph of everyone from the star to the clapperboard operator. He continued the practice on every film he made.
He collected photographs, posters, handbills and magazines. "I've always been crazy about movies," he said.
"Even when I first started making them I'd find time to go to the movies two or three times a week." He also continued to take photographs, publishing a second collection, Double Exposure Take Two, in 1989.
1998 (c) Telegraph Group Limited