The Critics: Film studies

( Independent on Sunday )

I never met Roddy McDowall, and now it's too late. But I spoke to him several times on the phone, enough to appreciate how remarkable and self-effacing he was. We talked first in 1992. I had just published a book called "Showman", a biography of David O Selznick, and I had used a photograph in the book - of Selznick with his young daughter, Mary Jennifer - that I had found in the family archive in Austin, Texas.

In fact, it was one of Roddy's pictures - he was a tender photographer to his Hollywood friends for years - but I had never known that or given him credit. So I was nervous when I called to apologise. He wouldn't hear of nerves, or hurt dignity, or fee. He was just happy to be in the book, and he wanted to talk ... about Selznick and the whole business of recounting the sometimes sad lives of the great ones.

Over the years, he was always true to those goals. No one writing about Hollywood in recent years failed to benefit from his stories and his insight. Like most people in this trade, I had urged him, "But you must do a book. You know so much." There was never a chance of it. Roddy knew plenty, but only because he was trusted to be faithful and discreet. So, much as he liked to talk, he never spread gossip or betrayal. He never sought to make himself more grand or important because of what he knew. Yet he would guide you. When I did a book on Orson Welles, he said he preferred not to talk about him - he had played Malcolm in Welles's film of Macbeth - because, it seemed to him, Welles had been an unpleasant and even cruel man.

Of course, Roddy McDowall was much more than just someone who had been in inner circles for nearly 60 years. He was an actor of great skill, mischief and uncommon love for the profession. He was a photographer, a maker of home movies and a collector of memorabilia: his collection will enhance some lucky museum. He was a spirited defender of film preservation; and he was a loyal friend to Hollywood veterans, some of whom had slipped away from fame or wealth.

He was a London kid, born in 1928, the child of a sailor and of a woman who had lived in America once and yearned to be in pictures. The child - Roderick Andrew - played in several British movies in the late 1930s, but once the Blitz set in, the mother jumped at the crisis and took her son back to America. Soon after he arrived, he auditioned for the role of the boy, Huw, in the coming film of Richard Lllewellyn's novel, How Green Was My Valley. William Wyler cast him, but then when the project was delayed and John Ford took over as director, McDowall was retained.

McDowall was sharp-faced, clearly intelligent, chilly in his pride, and a kid who believed in masking his feelings (just like real kids). There are scenes in the film in which older actors seem to learn restraint and stealth from the child. He was so emphatically honest in that film, and a kid who sometimes looked like a little old man (it was observed in life how, close to 70, Roddy still had a child's open face).

How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture, and it established Roddy in the age of great child actors (Freddy Bartholomew, Dicky Moore, Dean Stockwell, Margaret O'Brien, and Roddy's very best friend, Elizabeth Taylor). Roddy and Taylor were together in Lassie Come Home, and he also appeared in Fritz Lang's Man Hunt, in My Friend Flicka, The Keys of the Kingdom, and as David Balfour in Kidnapped.

By 20, McDowall was slight, elegant, and too youthful-looking. It made him awkward casting, what with that English accent. If he had been a little heavier or darker, he might have made a villain. So he broadened his range - doing Young Woodley on the stage, playing Ariel to Raymond Massey's Prospero, and being one of the young killers in a stage version of Compulsion. In pictures, he had a way of playing valuable small roles in adventurous films: he was Octavian in Cleopatra, a prolonged shoot in which he tried to look after Liz Taylor; he was with Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover and Tuesday Weld in Lord Love a Duck. He would be Cornelius, the wise, vain and crotchety chimpanzee in all those Planet of the Apes films.

He directed one film - Tam Lin or The Devil's Widow - with Ava Gardner. It was not a success, but it is an intriguing, maverick picture, with a Celtic sense of the occult. He acted in a cult fright film, The Legend of Hell House, and he did good work over the years in The Loved One, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Dead of Winter, Last Summer in the Hamptons and The Grass Harp. Only in 1997, he had a real personal success on Broadway playing Scrooge - the kid who had once been such a perfect Tiny Tim.

There's no need to exaggerate. He was not a great actor or a challenging photographer. He was a superb, tactful support. His talent had so much to do with friendship and the feeling that his society - Hollywood - was especially in need of decency and an urge to protect others. As such, he was out of fashion - just think how many bonanzas he had declined when asked to spill the beans about Liz. Roddy was a faithful courtier; volumes of secrets have passed with him. And he was never deterred if, now and then, the idiots he guarded blabbed for the attention of it all.

A friend of mine - someone who knew McDowall far better than I did - told me that a few weeks ago, he had heard how seriously ill the actor was. So he'd called him, trying to think of something good to say on the answering machine. But Roddy had answered in person, and swept away all doubt or uneasiness with wanting to know how the caller was. A great novel - or a poem - might be written about the 70-year-old who had made such an art of being a little off to one side, making sure the light fell where it should. I shudder to think how some people will manage without him.

(c)1998 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.
DAVID THOMSON, The Critics: Film studies., Independent on Sunday, 10-11-1998, pp 5.