Actor Roddy McDowall Succumbs to Cancer

10/03/98 07:20:56 PM
By Kevin Thomas (c) 1998, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Roddy McDowall, who like his near-lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor, was that rarity, a child star who successfully made the transition to adult actor, died of cancer Saturday. He was 70.

McDowall had a six-decade screen career that also encompassed theater and television. He became a versatile character player, whose work moved from Shakespeare to horror pictures.

McDowall was one of the most respected members of the entertainment community for serving on the boards of key industry organizations and for donating his time and talent for good causes.

And he was famous for his friendships, especially with Taylor. He had an appreciation of fellow artists that was extraordinary in its compassion and insight.

After Army Archerd announced McDowall's illness Sept. 18 in his Daily Variety column, the actor received countless calls, letters and visits from such close friends as Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Dominick Dunne, Tuesday Weld and Michael Douglas.

A gifted photographer, McDowall published four volumes of Double Exposure, collections of photos of actors accompanied by remarks by friends and admirers, with royalties donated to the Motion Picture and Television Fund. McDowall was also a noted collector of vintage films, movie memorabilia and maker of home movies of his friends. Only recently he completed a collection of photos of contemporary stars posed against a series of murals featuring vintage stars serving as camouflage for a construction site at Warner Bros. Studio.

Evacuated to the United States during the London blitz of 1940 with his mother and older sister, McDowall made his American film debut in a key role in Fritz Lang's classic spy thriller Man Hunt (1941), in which he helped Walter Pidgeon escape the Nazis. That was followed by one of his most memorable films, John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), in which Pidgeon played a minister encouraging the young McDowall's struggle to overcome a crippling accident.

Starring roles in 1943 in My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home (with Taylor) established McDowall as one of Hollywood's most popular young actors, vulnerable yet resilient, and well-mannered in the tradition of British-born screen children.

At 20, McDowall played Malcolm in Orson Welles Macbeth, moving on to Broadway and television in the '50s, collecting a Tony and Emmy. The screen career that followed encompassed everything from Cleopatra to Funny Girl to Lord Love a Duck and was highlighted by his recurring role as the simian scientist Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, three of its sequels and its TV series. McDowall participated in the 30th anniversary celebration of the original Planet of the Apes in August.

Throughout his life McDowall remained trim and dapper and was a witty, enthusiastic raconteur. He photographed Mae West for Life magazine -- and then had her over for dinner with Bette Davis and Beverly Sills.

He was a frequent dinner guest of director George Cukor, spoke eloquently of Cukor at a Directors Guild memorial for Cukor but could not be persuaded to write about the countless celebrities he had known in his long career, considering it a violation of their privacy. "That would be like dining out on them at their expense!" he exclaimed with a twinkle.

When McDowall was making a TV movie with Barbara Stanwyck he arranged for Lang to visit the set. Lang, who could be notoriously tough on actors, for years had felt guilty about being too hard on Stanwyck, as deeply as he admired her, during the filming of Clash by Night, and his final years were warmed by Stanwyck's kind, forgiving welcome. McDowall's efforts were by no means restricted to the famous, and he recently visited a beloved retired studio publicist to talk to her about the possibility of moving to the Motion Picture Country House.

McDowall was a longtime board member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which earlier this week announced that it was naming its photo collection in his honor.

McDowall, who never married, is survived by his sister, Virginia McDowall of Los Angeles.

AP-NY-10-03-98 2019EDT