The million dollar face
behind the world's greatest ape
IT IS HARDLY the glamorous break Hollywood press agents like to dream up, but if Roddy McDowall had grown up a few inches taller in 1942, Elizabeth Taylor might not be where she is now ...
Liz can thank McDowall's late developing genes for her first leading role. They kept him at his diminutive 13-year-old height, while Marie Flynn, due to co-star with him in Lassie Come Home, just grew and grew. When she sprouted head and shoulders above him, the studio signed a tiny nine-year-old called Elizabeth Taylor to take her place.
"Poor Marie, I didn't hear a thing about her after that," McDowall sighs over his third bloody mary at a Beverly Hills restaurant. He and Liz have been close friends ever since, and his genes are still holding back the ageing process. He was 49 in September. Now a respectable 5ft. 10in., he looks 39, casual in white Gucci shoes and trousers, silk scarf knotted elegantly at the neck. A middle-aged Peter Pan with a lifetime's experience of filmland.
Roddy McDowall was four when his stage-struck mother shoved her delicate, wide-eyed son in front of the cameras to advertise breakfast cereals. He graduated to films and soon grew tall enough to play the spiky-haired, grubby-kneed Douglas in the Just William film in 1938.
When war broke out, McDowall's mother took him and his actress model sister Virginia from London to New York, where their uncle sponsored them. Within months, Roddy's ambitious mother had found him work and the press agents were writing about "refugee" Roddy and his flight from England.
"They used to write exotic rubbish about us, make up lies because our lives was so dull. They thought I ought to be a refugee waif, whereas I had made about 20 films."
The film the waif landed in Hollywood was timeless — How Green Was My Valley. He played Huw, the youngest son. He was 13, going on eight — "those genes again" — and the film made him an international star.
Despite his mother's efforts, young Roddy got the role almost by accident. "Mother heard they were testing in New York for a film called The Yearling. She dragged me along but they told her I was too English. However, Twentieth Century-Fox wanted a boy who could do a Welsh accent. Within days I was tested in Hollywood for How Green Was My Valley. It was a fabulous film. I still think it's terribly good; one of my favourites."
He worked almost non-stop after that, becoming the Tatum O'Neal of the 1940's and appearing with the top stars of the decade. "I had a marvellous time. It was great fun. I loved, adored, being a child movie actor," he says, fiddling with thick glasses in his top pocket.
Roddy McDowall's eyesight is so poor he cannot move anywhere without those thick glasses, or his soft contact lenses.
McDowall, like Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, represents a rare breed, a showbusiness brat still successful and still part of today's Hollywood hierarchy.
In Joyce Haber's gossip gospel The Users, a novel that barely manages to disguise a few famous Hollywood faces, McDowall is mentioned by name as an established Hollywood figure. He admits he mixes with the town's "chosen few", but he watches the society scene with a quiet cynicism and, like the chosen few, won't gossip outside his set and rarely gives interviews.
In addition to acting, McDowall is a respected portrait photographer. He worked for the magazines Life, Look, and Harper's Bazaar in the 1960's and published a coffee table book in America. That had 200 of the biggest names in showbusiness writing about one another under the portraits.
"Katherine Hepburn wrote about Lauren Bacall, Joan Sutherland about Lena Horne, Noël Coward wrote about someone, so did Stravinsky. It took me four months to pin down Elizabeth Taylor, six months to do Larry [Lord Olivier].
"The work was tremendously involved but a super thing to do. I had never done anything else, you see. I hadn't even gone into acting by choice. I had to do something else to prove myself.
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