McDowall Was a Treasure
Durable actor taken for granted in career spanning six decades

Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 1998

Gentle and modest, Roddy McDowall was famous for the durability of his friendships but rarely credited for the breadth of his acting accomplishments. A screen veteran of 60 years and more than 140 films, with credits spanning from Lassie Come Home to Planet of the Apes, McDowall, who died Saturday, was one of the last remaining links to Hollywood's golden age.

McDowall wasn't a big star, but he was famous for so long and seemed to change so slightly from year to year that we took him for granted. Offscreen, he was an occasional writer and avid photographer who recorded his famous friends -- but never betrayed their confidences -- in a series of well-received coffee-table books.

McDowall, born in England in 1928, made his first film in 1938 and escaped the blitz during World War II by moving to the United States in 1940, where he became a child star with How Green Was My Valley and Lassie Come Home. Here's a brief list of McDowall's films available on video:

-- How Green Was My Valley (1941, FoxVideo): John Ford's portrait of a Welsh mining family earned five Oscars, including best picture (beating Citizen Kane). McDowall plays Huw Morgan, the frail youngest son of Donald Crisp. Ford's production team spent six weeks constructing a Welsh mining village in the San Fernando Valley.

-- Lassie Come Home (1943, MGM/UA): McDowall's lifelong friendship with Elizabeth Taylor began with this tearjerker about a stalwart collie's devotion to the poor Yorkshire family that owns it. Crisp and Elsa Lanchester played his parents.

-- Cleopatra (1963, FoxVideo): McDowall rejoined Taylor in the scandal-plagued historical epic that brought his friend together with Richard Burton. McDowall, presumably, was Taylor's confidant during the film's protracted, over-budgeted location shoot in Rome.

-- Planet of the Apes (1968, FoxVideo): Roddy goes simian, emoting beneath mounds of monkey makeup and kicking off a franchise that spawned four sequels. A 30th anniversary collection of the five Ape films is available with restored prints and remastered THX soundtracks. McDowall returned for all but one of the sequels.

-- The Poseidon Adventure (1972, FoxVideo): Before James Cameron created Titanic, this was the campiest seagoing disaster flick of all time. McDowall plays a dining steward, but is overshadowed by the hamminess of Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson and Ernest Borgnine.

-- Funny Lady (1975, Columbia/TriStar): The sequel to Funny Girl has McDowall playing Bobby, a gay chorus boy befriended by Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice. "I could have done without all the insults Bobby had to endure from Billy Rose," McDowall said after the film, "although I must say James Caan did them very expertly."

-- Fright Night (1985, Columbia/TriStar): McDowall had one of the rare meaty roles of the later part of his career in this thriller about a teenager (William Ragsdale) who seeks the help of a TV horror-movie host and former actor (McDowall) to slay a neighborhood vampire. McDowall also appeared in Fright Night Part II in 1989.

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