Roddy McDowall, 70, Child Star and Versatile Actor
By MEL GUSSOW
New York Times, October 4, 1998
Roddy McDowall, who provoked tears of sadness, sympathy and joy from millions of moviegoers for his boyhood roles in How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home and other film classics of the 1940s, died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. McDowall, who went on to become a versatile character actor on screen and on stage, was 70.
The cause was cancer, said Robert Lantz, a friend.
Roddy McDowall's unaffected, poignant performances in his first Hollywood films brought him instant fame and respect as an actor. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, he made 130 movies and appeared in scores of plays and television dramas. He also found time to become a skilled photographer and to publish five books of his photos.
In addition to his work as an actor, he was known for the company he kept. He was a friend of the famous, beginning with Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he had an extraordinarily close relationship. They acted together in Lassie and also Cleopatra, and became friends for life.
Not only did he meet almost every artist of stature in movies and theater, but he also photographed most of them. Although he was one of Hollywood's great storytellers, McDowall never told tales out of school, one key to the longevity of his friendships. As he said, "I'm a great believer in the private existence of public figures."
In a business marked by competitiveness and cold-bloodedness, he was known as a man to be trusted. His sense of loyalty could be traced back to his earliest years, when he took heart and also a moral lesson from those idealistic films that first made his reputation. "The experiences as a child inside those movies were a particular life enhancement," he said. "The values had great influence in shaping my character."
Along with Ms. Taylor, McDowall grew up in the movies, and more than many actors who had been stars as children, he matured and maintained his equilibrium about his celebrity. Acting, he said, was "like being a fruit picker -- it's seasonal," and no matter how popular an actor is, he worries about his next job. His response was to keep working, sometimes accepting assignments that were beneath his talent, but generally finding something of value in whatever he did.
He tried not to concern himself with critical reaction. In his interview, he said he had once asked Noel Coward how he was able to survive rejection and vilification by the critics. Assuming a crisp Coward voice, he recalled the response: "It's perfectly simple. They're wrrrong."
He loved movies and was an assiduous collector, with a large library of films, tapes and memorabilia, including still photographs and autographs. His knowledge of the business was so encylopedic that if he so desired, he could have been a film historian. In his own private way, he was an historian, and among his many cinematic activities, he was actively engaged in the film preservation movement.
"My life has been absolutely demented by the moving image," he said. "I think movies must be preserved, because they're such an important part of our heritage. They have clocked absurdities and monitored style and have offered a moving account of 100 years, some of it fanciful, some of it accurate."
He regretted that he was too young to have been alive at "day one" of the movies when audiences were first transported into a world of the imagination. As he said, "I would have loved to have been part of the formation of this great art form, which nobody knew was an art form, except Lillian Gish."
Roderick McDowall was born in London on Sept. 17, 1928. His father was in the merchant marine and his mother, who had lived in the United States as a child, had always wanted to act in the movies. By the age of 5, he was enrolled in elocution classes. Two years later, guided by his mother, he was acting in his first movie, Murder in the Family. In that English mystery, he played the brother of two young actresses, Jessica Tandy and Glynis Johns.
Encouraged by his mother, he appeared in more than 20 movies, but because he was under 14, the age allowed under a child labor law, he had to be smuggled into film studios hiding on the floor of a car.
With the outbreak of World War II, he came to the United States with his mother and his sister. Within several weeks of his arrival he did a screen test for How Green Was My Valley. Lew Schreiber, the casting director at 20th Century Fox, disliked him because he was not, in the actor's words, "cute and adorable" in the Hollywood tradition. When the test came on the screen, Schreiber put his hands over the projector, and said to William Wyler, "You don't want to see this kid." But Wyler, who was scheduled to direct the film, insisted on seeing him, and hired the young English actor.
The movie was momentarily shelved, but young Roddy took time out to act in Fritz Lang's Man Hunt. Then John Ford decided he wanted to direct How Green Was My Valley and persuaded Darryl F. Zanuck to go ahead with the project. Ford kept the boy in the cast, and he was soon acting alongside Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara and Donald Crisp. As Huw, the youngest member of a Welsh coal-mining family confronting tragedy, he was a splendid combination of stoicism and sensitivity. The movie won five Academy Awards, including one as best picture of 1941.
The child star was quickly in great demand in Hollywood, appearing a series of family movies surrounded by horses and dogs -- in adaptations of the Mary O'Hara novels My Friend Flicka and its sequel Thunderhead: Son of Flicka, and in Lassie Come Home, in which he played Lassie's loving master and Ms. Taylor played a supporting role. He loved Lassie the collie and disliked Flicka the horse. "There were a lot of Flickas," he said, and one of them stepped on his foot. Although the original Lassie had doubles, there was, he said, "only one Lassie, who was an extraordinary dog."
He always rated How Green Was My Valley and Lassie Come Home very high, along with another, personal favorite, The White Cliffs of Dover, in which he fulfilled one of his dreams by acting with Irene Dunne.
At 18, he was still playing the role of a child. Realizing that acting as a boy did not bear "any relation to acting as an adult," he moved to New York to study acting. He made his stage debut in Young Woodley at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and was soon working on Broadway in Shaw's Misalliance and playing in Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival in Connecticut.
In 1955 he did three plays, The Doctor's Dilemma at the Phoenix Theater, The Tempest at Stratford (he played Ariel to Raymond Massey's Prospero) and No Time for Sergeants on Broadway.
Often he had to fight typecasting. After playing a Southern soldier in No Time for Sergeants, he had difficulty getting roles as Englishmen. After acting in Compulsion on Broadway, he was typed as a psychopath. That was followed by Look after Lulu, The Fighting Cock and the stage musical Camelot, in which he played Mordred.
He also acted on television, and after about five years he returned to the movies, eventually acting in movies as varied as Orson Welles' production of Macbeth (he played Malcolm both on stage and on screen), Cleopatra (he played Octavian) and the Planet of the Apes series of films.
His other films included The Subterraneans, The Longest Day, The Loved One, Lord Love a Duck, Evil Under the Sun, Fright Night, Dead of Winter, Last Summer in the Hamptons and The Grass Harp.
At one point, the actor who had once played such warm-hearted, well-behaved children was in demand to play villains.
As a collector of performances, he was outspoken about such favorites as Laurette Taylor and Bette Davis and also about actors who were trapped by their stardom. "Celebrity sometimes is the most dangerous component in the continuance of a career," he said. "Certain people are wildly talented but their legend becomes the currency in the marketplace." Among those underrated actors he named Mae West, Jean Harlow, Alice Faye, Alan Ladd and Tuesday Weld.
Last year, he was back on stage in New York as Scrooge in the musical version of A Christmas Carol, a role of the greatest distance from him and from the character of Huw in How Green Was My Valley, but one that he approached with his customary diligence. As always, he looked incredibly young -- until makeup transformed him into Dickens' elderly miser. He gave an assured performance as the centerpiece of an otherwise overblown production.
He is survived by his sister Virginia, who lives at the Actors Home in Los Angeles, where McDowall often visited elderly actors.
Although Roddy McDowall never turned his back on his childhood acting, it also became something to overcome. It was, he said, a "demon walking with you." He added, "My whole life I've been trying to prove I'm not just yesterday." The fact is he had to keep reinventing himself in his many guises as an actor.
But as a student of film he also knew that yesterday's treasure, like How Green Was My Valley and Lassie Come Home, was eternal. Because of all his personal attachments and his memories connected with those films, he had difficulty watching them again. In common with other moviegoers, he would weep at the grief of the little boy on screen.