Roddy McDowall Dies at 70
Film, Stage and Television Actor

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 1998; Page B06

Roddy McDowall, 70, the film, stage and television actor whose career included almost every theatrical form, from the musical to the melodrama, and from Shakespeare to science fiction, who acted in Cleopatra and was renowned for Planet of the Apes, died yesterday in Los Angeles. He had cancer.

A friend of Mr. McDowall told the Associated Press that the actor, whose illness was diagnosed in April, died at his home in Studio City.

The British-born Mr. McDowall, who was taken with the performing life in childhood, made films in England before he was 10. Hollywood contract in hand, Mr. McDowall arrived in the United States by ship during the early days of World War II.

In his teens, he went on to act in heartwarming children's favorites, such as My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home. Later came appearances in lavish spectacles (Cleopatra) and in tense thrillers (The Poseidon Adventure). He sang on Broadway in the original production of Camelot and won a Tony Award for another play.

In recent years, he made many television appearances and also was seen in horror films, including Fright Night and Fright Night Part 2.

In 1985's Fright Night, Mr. McDowall acted the role of the host of a television horror show, an outspoken foe of vampires. One of his best lines in the film involved his observations on changing tastes in horror. "The kids today", his screen character opined, "don't have the patience for vampires. They want to see some weird slasher running around and chopping off heads."

During Mr. McDowall's adult career, perhaps the most popular of his films, among film critics and filmgoers, were those in the Planet of the Apes series.

The flagship of the series, in which actors donned prodigiously elaborate makeup, appeared in 1968, and starred Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter. The films depict a futuristic Earth in which men have become creatures of a lower order and apes rule. As one of the most prominent cinematic citizens of that simian world, Mr. McDowall returned to the screen in Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

In Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Mr. McDowall delivers an oration triumphantly detailing how the apes rose to dominate.

After being bred as pets, the apes began to raise their consciousness. "They learned the art of corporate and militant action. They learned to refuse. Of course," Mr. McDowall's character said, "they just grunted their refusal.

"But then on a historic day which is commemorated by my species . . . there came Aldo. He did not grunt. He articulated. He spoke a word. . . . He said, 'No!' "

Roderick Andrew McDowall was an 8-year-old schoolboy in his native London when he made his British film debut. The picture, Murder in the Family, was followed by You Will Remember, The Outsider, Just William, Hey, Hey, U.S.A. and This England.

Years later, he said: "As far as I know about myself, I've never wanted not to act."

Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck was said to be sufficiently impressed by Mr. McDowall's innocent air and precise diction to sign him to a contract. That brought Mr. McDowell, his mother and his older sister to the United States among the passengers in a transatlantic convoy in 1940.

It was not Man Hunt, his first U.S. picture, that established his appeal here. That was done in How Green Was My Valley, in which, under the direction of John Ford, he portrayed a sensitive Welsh boy.

Later in the '40s came My Friend Flicka, Lassie Come Home, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Keys of the Kingdom.

Because Mr. McDowall, who stood 5 feet 9 and weighed about 150, long retained a youthful appearance, he said, "I was playing 14-year-old parts until I was 23."

Concerned about typecasting that limited his horizons, he left Hollywood for a time to study stage acting in New York. During this period during the 1950s, he acted in Julius Caesar and The Tempest at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut. He appeared in New York in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, and in 1957 won plaudits on Broadway in Compulsion, based on the Leopold-Loeb case.

He also acted opposite Andy Griffith in No Time for Sergeants, a popular Broadway comedy. He won his Tony Award for stage acting in Jean Anouilh's The Fighting Cock, in which he portrayed the son of a French war profiteer.

While in New York, he also made numerous appearances on the dramatic shows, many of them live, that characterized television of the period. One of those roles won him an Emmy Award in 1961.

Since the 1930s, few actors have worked more. But Mr. McDowall could never allow himself to become complacent. "I still have the actor's disease," he once said. "I always think I'll never get another job."

An accomplished photographer, he published five books of pictures.

He is survived by a sister, Virginia.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company