Roddy McDowall: from Child Star ...
Roddy is a Scotsman (though born in London's Herne Hill) and his family came from the actual Scottish border country where The Ballad of Tam-Lin was filmed ... but although only twelve miles or so from his parent's home town, he was never able to fit in time to get across to it for a short session of nostalgia. On another occasion his nostalgic feelings had led him back to his old school in the London suburb of Upper Norwood, but everyone he had known there as a boy had gone.
Roddy looks extremely boyish and it is surprising to think that it was as far back as 1940 as a boy of 12 that he was evacuated to America with his mother and sister at the request of his father who was fighting in France. Before that time he had appeared in several British films, among them Murder In The Family (his first), Just William and Tell England. Once in America, he was soon in films again, his Stateside debut being in Man Hunt (1941), followed by his unforgettable performance as the little Welsh boy in How Green Was My Valley (also 1941), a role which had many people thinking Roddy himself must be Welsh. My Friend Flicka followed in 1943, after which he appeared in two films with a young girl who was to become a lifelong friend.
This was Elizabeth Taylor who, like Roddy, had gone to America from England at the start of World War II and in 1943 (at the ripe old age of 11) appeared with him in Lassie Come Home and the following year in The White Cliffs of Dover. When I asked him if he and Liz Taylor were good friends, he summed it up in one word: "Luckily".
They worked together again some twenty years later in Cleopatra, in which Roddy appeared as Octavius Caesar, one of his favourite film roles. He had previously played this part in the American Shakespeare Festival, appearing later as Ariel in "The Tempest". Another Shakespearean role was that of Malcolm in the Orson Welles Macbeth, which he told me was a photographed stage production and was pre-recorded. I asked how he had fared with the famous actor-producer-director and once again he summed it up in one word: "Happily", adding that it had been a great experience to work with him.
"Do you think child actors of today are different from those of your time?" I asked.
"Child stars today don't exist," he replied .... and when I instanced Mark Lester and Jack Wild (who Roddy was surprised to learn was much older than he appears), he said they were lucky to be in as many films as they are, although they were negligible compared with the number in which Roddy appeared as a boy. He made twelve films in five years, including five in each of the years 1941 and 1942.
"The life a child actor was so short," he said, "that producers crowded them into as many films as was humanly possible."
I said that his own "little boy" roles had always seemed more down-to-earth than those played by the slightly more "sweet" Freddie Bartholomew ... but he didn't entirely agree, instancing how excellent Freddie was in Captains Courageous, Little Lord Fauntleroy and David Copperfield ("one of the best films ever made"). He was also full of praise for Shirley Temple ("the mind boggles at such talent") and Jackie Cooper ("a boy of that age acting in such an adult way"). This admiration for the work of others extends to today, for among Roddy's "greats" are Dustin Hoffman ("verything he does"), Robert Redford, Dirk Bogarde and famous director George Cukor.
All of which, I think, goes to show what an unassuming and modest person Roddy McDowall must have been then and still is today. In some respects, this must have paid dividends, because everyone seems to have liked Roddy, not excluding the famous "dragon woman" of Hollywood columnists, Louella Parsons, who through the pages of the Hearst newspapers and magazines for which she worked wielded immense power over the destinies of stars. When Roddy first went to Hollywood, she gave him a rosary and a prayer book ... "and she has always been nice to me," he said. "We went to the same church."
Another example of Roddy's modesty is his attitude to the roles which have come his way. "That was a part I enjoyed," he said, "in That Darn Cat". (A Walt Disney film of 1965).
"But it wasn't a big part," I said.
"The size of the role never worries me," he laughed. "Who wants to be in every scene?" He has recently played quite a number of what he calls "vignettes" in
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