Links to the Past
By Leonard Maltin
exclusively for Cinemania Online
It hasn't been a good year for pop culture icons. To lose Roy Rogers, Shari Lewis, Buffalo Bob Smith and Gene Autry within just a couple of months is staggering -- especially if you grew up with these people as a vital part of your life, as I did. The passing of Roddy McDowall, who still seemed youthful at the age of 70, is another devastating blow, because he was both a part of the past and a vital link to it.
I had several great interviews with Gene Autry over the years, but my most memorable encounter came when I was seated next to him at a dinner honoring Clayton Moore, aka The Lone Ranger, on his 80th birthday. When I told him I was about to go out on a book-promotion tour, he proceeded to tell me in detail about his regimen when he was on the road.
He explained that it was important to arrive in a new city no later than noontime, in order to attend a luncheon given by the Kiwanis Club or local Chamber of Commerce. Here he might be given the key to the city, which, if timed properly, would make the late edition of the local newspaper — or, in later years, the early-evening TV newscast. (This would have been arranged by his advance man some days ahead of time.) Then he would visit the children's ward at the city hospital and entertain the kids. That night would be his performance.
Whenever he was on the road, he had to arrange to get to the nearest major CBS Radio affiliate by Saturday in time to rehearse his live, weekly Sunday night broadcast, Melody Ranch. That might be KMOX in St. Louis, or WCCO in Minneapolis, or WBBM in Chicago. (If he was shooting one of his Westerns on location, he'd have to travel back to Los Angeles for the weekend, then return in time to resume filming on Monday morning.)
He maintained that schedule for the 17 years that Melody Ranch was broadcast on CBS (with a two-year break in the mid-1940s while Gene was serving in the Army Air Corps). And they call James Brown the hardest working man in show business!
Today, careers are measured in spurts. Gene Autry was awarded the first Gold Record ever pressed, back in the 1930s. He was one of America's Top 10 box-office stars in the early 1940s. He had one of the biggest-selling records of the 1950s, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and remained in the news (and the public consciousness) as owner of the California Angels baseball team from the 1960s onward. The use of his signature tune "Back in the Saddle" on the best-selling soundtrack to Sleepless in Seattle put him back on the record charts in the 1990s.
Sixty-five years in the public eye, with success in every conceivable medium of show business, is a record that will be hard to beat.
Roddy McDowall was a public figure for almost as long, though he was 21 years younger than Mr. Autry. He simply got an earlier start.
The star of such beloved films of the 1940s as How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka, McDowall was as much a movie buff as anyone watching those films. He cultivated and maintained friendships with many of the film and theater world's leading lights, both his contemporaries (like Elizabeth Taylor, who was 10 years old when they first worked together) and his elders (Ethel Barrymore left him much of her personal library).
He was extremely kind and generous about sharing his memories whenever I asked for an interview to celebrate one of those films. (He said that John Ford "played me like a harp" to get that performance in How Green Was My Valley. He remained close to his co-stars Maureen O'Hara and Anna Lee to his dying day. And he had nothing but warm memories of Lassie -- real name Pal -- who got to live with him at home, so their relationship on screen would seem genuine. "I loved that dog," he told me. "It was an extraordinary animal. In fact, it sort of affected me about all dogs afterwards, because I've never found one to be that receptive and uncanny. I knew the dog for quite a few years until he died, and I like to believe that every time I did see him, he knew it was me ... but I think he gave that same attention to everybody.")
McDowall never wrote an autobiography. That's *our* loss. Raised to respect other people's privacy, he refused to betray the confidences of his friends.
He even kept his final illness a private matter. When I spoke to him about the 30th anniversary of Planet of the Apes, in late August, he was using a cane and explained that he was suffering from sciatica. In fact, he was dying of cancer.
He approached his death with the same dignity and reserve he displayed in all other facets of his life.
Those are qualities one doesn't see very much nowadays in Hollywood -- or anywhere else, for that matter.
Any time a Hollywood legend dies, people say it's the end of an era. Losing so many formidable figures in such a short time gives real weight to that sentiment.