McDowall's output not forgotten

      LASSIE COME HOME, 5 p.m.;
      WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER, 6:45 p.m.;
      LORD LOVE A DUCK, 9 p.m.;
      THE LOVED ONE, 11 p.m.

      all tonight on Turner Classic Movies

Mercury News Television Editor
Monday, October 12, 1998, San Jose Mercury News

ACTOR Roddy McDowall won't soon be forgotten by the millions who followed his screen career, which started in 1941, when he came to the United States from his native England to star in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley.

McDowall's Oct. 3 death from cancer, just a few weeks after word of his illness was made public, remains a shock to his fans and those of us among the TV press corp who saw him in July, when he was doing promotional appearances for the American Movie Classics cable network Planet of the Apes special.

McDowall looked fit and seemed in good spirits then, chatting about the five Apes films and the subsequent TV series. He worked in four of the five movies and starred in the series. His various Ape roles occupied him for most of a decade, and McDowall considered the experience a career highlight.

However, my favorite personal memory of McDowall dates to 15 years earlier, when I talked with him at a 1983 archival screening of How Green Was My Valley at the Director's Guild theater in Los Angeles. Though he was only 13, and unknown in the U.S. despite considerable experience as a juvenile actor in England, Valley made McDowall a very hot property in America.

"I became that little boy in the movie," McDowall told me in 1983. "It really affected my life."

What few remember, though, is that the actor almost didn't get the role of Huw Morgan, the collier's son through whose eyes the audience sees the whole story of a Welsh village being forever changed by industry. At that 1983 screening, writer Philip Dunne said they had narrowed the list of candidates to seven boys, five of whom resembled "perfect little Freddie Bartholomews," when suddenly "this strange-looking little character popped up on the screen."

Though many thought McDowall tested well, the casting director objected, because he thought McDowall was "wall-eyed." Dunne's original script followed the boy into adulthood, and handsome Tyrone Power was supposed to play the adult Huw. "They couldn't see him growing up to be Tyrone Power," Dunne said that night.

"If only I had," McDowall quipped with characteristic wit.

But John Ford overruled the casting director, and gave McDowall the part.

Though the obituaries mentioned McDowall's popularity among Hollywood colleagues, his acclaimed sideline work as a celebrity photographer and his devotion to film preservation, I felt his skills as an actor weren't celebrated quite enough.

Tonight, cable's Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel makes up for some of the oversights with a tribute to McDowall, who hosted TCM's Preservation Showcase series. Of the four scheduled films, two were mainstream hits -- Lassie Come Home (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). But the other two are cult favorites -- Lord Love a Duck (1966) and The Loved One (1963), both dark comic gems that perfectly showcase the sly, twisted sense of humor McDowall often brought to his adult work.

Those who want to see McDowall showing his extensive knowledge of film should pick up one or more of the six films in Republic Home Video's Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen series, which McDowall introduces.

One of the films in that series is Tam Lin, the only movie McDowall ever directed. It was a commercial disaster, filmed in 1969 and not released until 1971, but has some interesting work by his star, Ava Gardner, and the mostly British cast.

As a child actor, McDowall was truly endearing. Even the "kid" films he made after How Green Was My Valley -- including Lassie Come Home, My Friend Flicka and The Pied Piper -- still can be enjoyed more than half a century later.

Many of the "highlights" lists published with obituaries omitted McDowall's young-adult film Kidnapped, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson story. Filmed on a low budget for Monogram in 1948, it was one of several that McDowall actually co-produced in his late 20s.

Here are some other overlooked or underappreciated McDowall performances: The March Hare in Irwin Allen's 1985 Alice in Wonderland miniseries for CBS; his hilariously bent turn as TV horror-movie host Peter Vincent, on the track of a vampire in Fright Night (1985); the psycho sidekick to the eccentric creep who hires unemployed actress Mary Steenburgen to star in a "movie" in Arthur Penn's Dead of Winter (1987).