Versatile McDowall dies at 70
Legendary thesp spanned 6 decades of H'w'd
By RICHARD NATALE, October 5, 1998
British-born actor Roddy McDowall, who began his career in the 1930s as a child thesp and continued working for six decades, died of cancer Saturday in Studio City. He was 70.
Well-known and well-liked in Hollywood, he was a passionate film lover and boasted one of the finest personal collections of old films and movie memorabilia. He also served on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and lent himself to the efforts of the National Film Preservation Board.
McDowall was a popular child actor throughout the 1940s, when he appeared in such films as How Green Was My Valley, The Keys to the Kingdom, The White Cliffs of Dover and Lassie Come Home.
Shortly after completing his first adult role, as Malcolm in Orson Welles' Macbeth, McDowall largely abandoned Hollywood to work on stage and live television. He won a Tony in 1960 for a short-lived Broadway production of The Fighting Cock and also garnered raves for Compulsion and the original Broadway production of Camelot.
Returning to films in the '60s, he appeared with friend Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and settled into a character-acting career in such films as Inside Daisy Clover, The Loved One and Lord Love a Duck. His portrayals of Cornelius, the sympathetic chimpanzee in the Planet of the Apes series, were particularly noteworthy.
Television audiences may remember him as the Bookworm in the Batman series, but McDowall popped up everywhere in movies and television, working constantly in hundreds of films, series and TV movies. He most recently voiced Mr. Soil in Disney's upcoming animated pic, A Bug's Life.
McDowall's other career was as a celebrity photographer -- he published his first collection, Double Exposure, in 1966 -- and his death comes just days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to name its photo archive after him.
Two years ago, McDowall returned to the stage for the first time in more than a decade, in a touring production of Dial M for Murder, and he received rave reviews as Scrooge in a holiday stage production of A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden.
McDowall was a link to Hollywood's golden era. As a young actor he attended the famed MGM school on the lot, sitting through classes with other young stars like Elizabeth Taylor. He knew all the studio secrets -- the scandals, the furtive affairs, the deals. He could walk the lot and relate where legendary films were shot and where famous battles between stars and their directors were fought.
Since he grew up with the stars, he ultimately became the keeper of their secrets. At any given time, he was dining or corresponding with the legends. He knew how to find Jean Arthur after she had gone into seclusion. He knew what had happened to Leslie Caron. He stayed in touch with silent screen stars like Alice Terry and Louise Brooks. When asked a question about film lore he could not answer, he would reach the George Cukors or Vincent Prices or other remarkable resources of that era.
Retained by MGM as a producer in the mid-'80s, McDowall ferreted out long-forgotten screenplays that had been developed during the Mayer-Thalberg era. "Some of the best material that never got made was developed for the mistresses of executives or producers," he explained. "Usually the projects would get abandoned because the relationships ended, but they were great stories nonetheless."
He was born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall on Sept. 17, 1928, in Herne Hill, London. After winning an acting prize in a school play, he landed his first starring assignment in 1938's Scruffy, which was followed by Murder in the Family and more than a dozen other British films, including The Outsider, Dead Man's Shoes and Just William.
A new Freddie
After his family was evacuated during the Battle of Britain in 1940, he was signed by 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who saw him as a new Freddie Bartholomew. He made his American debut in Man Hunt, but his performance in John Ford's Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) led to stardom and a long-term contract. He followed it with an equally winning role in Lassie Come Home, where he first met the young Elizabeth Taylor, who was to become a lifelong friend.
He transferred his affections from a collie to a horse in My Friend Flicka and its 1945 sequel, Thunderhead, Son of Flicka. Other juvenile appearances included The White Cliffs of Dover, The Keys to the Kingdom, The Pied Piper and Kidnapped.
As Malcolm in Orson Welles' baroque production of Macbeth, McDowall crossed into adulthood, even forming a production company with co-star Dan O'Herlihy. But his early adult films for Monogram Pictures were forgettable titles like Black Midnight, Tuna Clipper, Big Timber and Killer Shark.
Throughout the '50s he resided mostly in New York, where he found a home on the Broadway stage and in stock. He starred with Ethel Barrymore in Shaw's Misalliance in 1953 and later that year in Escapade.
Off Broadway he appeared in The Homeward Look and The Doctor's Dilemma. At the American Shakespeare Festival in 1955 he had starring roles in Julius Caesar and as Ariel in The Tempest, which he would repeat for television in 1960. Returning to Broadway, he starred in short-lived productions of Diary of a Scoundrel and Good as Gold before striking gold opposite Dean Stockwell in Compulsion, a stage version of the Leopold and Loeb trial based on Meyer Levin's bestselling novel; the comedy No Time for Sergeants (in which he also appeared on television); and the musical Camelot, in which he played Mordred. Though it closed quickly, McDowall's work in Jean Anouilh's drama The Fighting Cock was remembered at Tony time in 1960.
He was also prolific in early television on such anthology drama series as Playhouse 90 and The Hallmark Hall of Fame. He starred in productions of The Good Fairy, Heart of Darkness and Billy Budd. His performance in Not Without Honor won him an Emmy following the 1960-61 season.
By the end of the '50s, he was ready to return to films and appeared in Midnight Lace and The Subterraneans, The Power and the Glory, The Longest Day and Taylor's belabored and long-in-production Cleopatra, which was finally released in 1963.
Thereafter, McDowall worked steadily, mostly in supporting roles in films like Lord Love a Duck, The Loved One, That Darn Cat, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Inside Daisy Clover, and 1968's Planet of the Apes, as well as most of that film's theatrical and television sequels.
His passion for photography led to his highly praised Double Exposure (and its three sequels, the last of which was published in 1993), as well as a brief stint as a photo adviser to Harper's Bazaar.
He also tried his hand at directing the ill-fated Tam Lin (aka The Devil's Widow) starring his close friend Ava Gardner. Though filmed in the late '60s, the pic was not released until 1971.
In 1987 McDowall served as executive producer on Goldie Hawn's romantic comedy Overboard, in which he also appeared.
A familiar face
At times practically omnipresent, McDowall popped up in dozens of movies, including The Poseidon Adventure, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Evil Under the Sun, Funny Lady and numerous TV movies like The Elevator, The Immigrants, The Memory of Eva Ryker, This Girl For Hire and Mae West.
Nor was he averse to guest-starring roles in TV series like Batman, Mission: Impossible, Night Gallery, Wonder Woman, Murder, She Wrote, McMillan and Wife, Dream On, Matlock and Remember WENN.
More recent work includes 1995's Last Summer in the Hamptons, The Grass Harp, It's My Party and TV movies like Dead Man's Island. He recently completed voiceover work for A Bug's Life, Disney's latest animated feature.
In August of this year, he was elected president of the Academy Foundation. He had previously served on the Academy's board and on the board of the Screen Actor's Guild.
He was also involved with the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Actors Home, where his sister Virginia, who survives him, lives.