There have been any number of child actors who have made it through (or over) the difficulties of the adolescent gawkiness to the insecurities of the adult actor. But rarely has a child star made it; for stardom-status so strongly identifies the star with his/her individual projections, that to transcend a prepubescent identity is an achievement demanding a total commitment to the task, an adaptability, or more importantly, a suitability to a new social/time demand, and quite a bit of luck. No other child star has master this transition as successfully as Roddy McDowall.
Roddy McDowall is honest, if unduly modest, in reminiscences of his position in child-star history: "When I first came to Hollywood, everybody said, 'He's another Freddie Bartholomew,' but, of course, I wasn't. The thing that makes someone a star is that nobody was like them before, and it takes something else besides talent. Oh, I was famous enough, but I was never a great, colossal star."
Roddy was the screen's most defined "little man", a real-life demand adults frequently make on children, while reel-life acting out of these same demands is met with sadness for lost innocence; the child having been robbed of those too-brief days of little responsibility. From HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY in which the tender, sensitive RM is called upon to quit school and go to work in the mines, through the final expressions of his childhood career, he repeated this projection of shouldering responsibility before being prepared for it. It was his uniqueness and his universality.
World War II gave overwhelming external support to RM's particular projection, for everyone was having to make sacrifices, discover bravery, rely on will as a life-force, survive. RM's great, sad, expressive eyes suggested they had seen too much, far too soon. He was well-mannered; his proper English speech suggested the waif was not a natural role. But while crying for his victimization and loss, we liked him all the better for it. The delicacy which might well have worked against him was countered by an internal strength with which he conquered, or at least survived, the insensitive, frequently cruel, pressures of the external.
Roddy McDowall was born Roderick Andrew McDowall in London on September 17, 1928. His father, Thomas Andrew (Scottish) was an officer in the British Merchant Marines. His mother, Winifred (Corcoran), of Irish descent, was a frustrated actress (she appeared in 1948's KIDNAPPED), but apparently level-headed about success possibilities. When Roddy won an acting prize in a school play, teachers and friends urged her to "get Roddy in the movies". She pursued their suggestions without too much hope. But at the age of 8, Roddy made his first film (SCRUFFY, released 1938) followed by 16 more before coming to the United States.
There is evidence that only three of his films got a U.S. release, leaving little opportunity for the American buff to learn much about this early portion of RM's career. However, Denis Gifford's BRITISH FILM CATALOGUE indicates that of those 17 films, RM's name appears in the major credits of only four, suggesting minor roles in those remaining.
RM attended St. Joseph's College and Hanover Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1940 the family (there is an older sister, Virginia, who had a minor film/stage career) came to the U.S. to escape the dangers of the war. Talent scout Joe Pincus arranged for RM to test for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.
Perhaps it was Freddie Bartholomew's success which opened a few doors to the prospect of another English child-star. There is some wonderment at viewing the number of roles which were suited to "Master" Roddy. The "child" part of his American career spans from 1941's MAN HUNT through 1945's MOLLY AND ME -- 13 films of which ten are set in Europe, making acceptable his accent. 1942's ON THE SUNNY SIDE is about an English war orphan in the U.S., and is the first picture structured around him as star. The two remaining childhood films, MY FRIEND FLICKA and its sequel THUNDERHEAD, SON OF FLICKA, are anomalous to this part of his career in that they are distinctly American settings. Audiences do have a facility to make-believe after having accepted a star from repeated exposure; thus was accepted the British voice in the American west. Besides, who can resist a boy and his horse? Especially when they explore and conquer their mutual growing pains!
No one resisted a boy and his dog either. LASSIE COME HOME spawned a very lengthy film and TV career for Lassie, and all those dogs playing the role. "The original Lassie was a lot smarter than a lot of people I know. He was unbelievable. He remembered me four years later. The horses were different. There were six Flickas and nine Thunderheads. After that many, one loses rapport. I loved Lassie, but I hated the main Flicka horse. She was mean; kept stepping on my feet."
Of his 13 American childhood films, RM was the star of four: ON THE SUNNY SIDE, MY FRIEND FLICKA, LASSIE COME HOME and THUNDERHEAD, SON OF FLICKA. He shared that spotlight with Monty Woolley in THE PIED PIPER, and Woolley and Gracie Fields in MOLLY AND ME. Of the remainder, except for the greatly remembered HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, the roles were minimal in length. Although HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was cast for ensemble playing, RM had a distinct advantage in that the film was narrated from his character's point of view.
RM did his share of "as a child" parts, playing the younger self of such distinguished adults as Tyrone Power in SON OF FURY, Gregory Peck in THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM and Peter Lawford in THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER. Of his childhood films, RM isolates HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, THE PIED PIPER, LASSIE COME HOME and THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (the latter because "I was in love with Irene Dunne") as the most meaningful.
1946 (age 18, looking younger) marked the beginning of a series of rather inconsequential films which saw him through a teenage period, although in actuality he was 18 to 24 years old during this time.
The only film of unusual interest during this period was Orson Welles' rather minor MacBETH, which allowed RM his "first adult role" according to the film's promotion. This period (HOLIDAY IN MEXICO through THE STEEL FIST) does represent RM's decision to further his commitment to his career, in that he is credited as Associate Producer on six of them. Most are adventure films more suited to (say) Joel McCrea or Patrick Wayne. If RM has had a period defined by the now-popular phrase "identity crisis", this was it.
Although roles were plentiful, he became discouraged with his inability to overcome the child-star image, now a stigma. He voiced the age-old actor complaint: type-casting, and took off for New York to study acting with Mira Rostova and David Craig and to gamble on a future "adult" career.
It is hindsight observation, but one which may well sum up his decision to strike out in new directions (and then, after all, he was still the "little man" braving the future): "In acting, as in life, you are not really your own master until you can afford to fail. You must get to feel so strongly about your convictions that you will be willing to take a chance on failing. If you don't feel that strongly about any pursuit, abandon it, for you will never accomplish much of a lasting nature or satisfaction."
The rewards were manifold: he worked the Broadway stage repeatedly in the 1950's in a variety of roles, of which most long-ranged in memory are MISALLIANCE (1953), NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS (1956); COMPULSION (with fellow child-star Dean Stockwell) (1957); CAMELOT (1960 - original cast recording Columbia KOS 2031), though there were many others. "There have been 22 plays in all, starting with YOUNG WOODLEY at Westport, Conn. in 1946, ending with THE ASTRAKHAN COAT (1967)." He won Broadway's Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor in 1960 for Jean Anouilh's THE FIGHTING COCK.
He played Octavian in an American Shakespeare Festival production of JULIUS CAESAR (a role assumed again in the 1963 film CLEOPATRA), and Ariel in THE TEMPEST, "the first male to do the role in more than 80 years". He repeated this role in a TV production (1960), creating his own elaborate makeup. TV was, and has continued to be, an accessible medium to him, having guested on practically every series, as well as starring in single dramatic productions, e.g., HEART OF DARKNESS (1958), BILLY BUDD (1959), IN THE GARDEN (1961). TV's Emmy Award was added to his collection for Best Supporting Actor in NBC's NIGHT WITHOUT HONOR (1960).
"Live TV was extremely important to me during this period. It provided opportunities for experience and role variety that existed nowhere else." His TV credits are exhausting; he garners two full pages in James Robert Parish's ACTOR's TELEVISION CREDITS. At this writing he has just appeared as the psychiatrist in a two-hour TV version of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET and has completed a telefeature and a Snoop Sisters segment.
"I am perpetually fascinated at getting a chance to do something different. That's why I didn't miss making movies for 8 years. THE SUBTERRANEANS was a wonderful part, but unfortunately not too many people saw it." His return to films in the 1960 vehicle THE SUBTERRANEANS was inauspicious, that film being supported by neither audience or critics. It really wasn't until 1963's CLEOPATRA that the adult RM found a movie audience. Out of that great monster plagued by mishaps and sensation, came a critical reception to RM, and seemingly he alone came away with uncompromised rewards from that multi-faceted epic in movie history.
"Well, that's not correct. Rex Harrison was very highly praised. I was in on that conflict about the advertising. I just didn't hit the papers as frequently as Rex."
He has worked steadily since, perhaps too steadily in that some of his choices of vehicles seem more motivated by haste than taste. "I absolutely adore movies. Even bad ones. I don't like pretentious ones, but a good bad movie, you must admit is great. Perhaps 'good-bad movie' needs further explaining. Some people view all films the same way. But, of course, there is, say, good Bette Davis and there is bad Bette Davis, but you still like her. I just saw an old George Arliss film which was full of great declaratory speeches. It was dreadful, but wonderful at the same time."
This attitude (well understood by any film buff) coupled with the fact that many projects get severely altered from paper to film may explain his involvement with such films as THE COOL ONES; IT; ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO; PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, and three too many APE pictures.
"Wait a minute! That's editorializing. I always approach a project with hope. Things get changed sometimes, or it doesn't work out as you expect. As to the Ape pictures, I think the whole cycle a remarkable project. They are all well executed, and are superior within their genre. And IT, well, I always wanted to do a horror picture."
What has emerged most strongly in the adult RM, however, is consistency and professionalism. He can be counted on to be good, no matter the role (e.g., his non-developed role in INSIDE DAISY CLOVER given dimension solely by his presence and ability) and frequently a really smashing display of baroque uninhibitedness (SHOCK TREATMENT, LORD LOVE A DUCK, THE ADVENTURES OF BULLWHIP GRIFFIN, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE). His range is broad, he is unafraid to tackle a role/character which may be disliked by the audience, his future duration possibilities as an actor unlimited.
"The role in DAISY CLOVER was originally a very exciting one. No dialogue. I wanted to do it badly enough to ask Disney to hold back on BULLWHIP GRIFFIN. In the final editing, however, there is so little left that you really can't understand the character. As to the others: SHOCK TREATMENT should have been great; I love LORD LOVE A DUCK; BULLWHIP GRIFFIN doesn't belong with these others, it never really got off the ground; LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE - John Hough is not a good director, he's wonderful! This could have been just a routine film, but it's not."
In 1968 he encountered one more challenge, an opportunity to direct. He made TAM LIN, starring Ava Gardner. (RM refers to it as THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN, seven reviews referred to it as simply TAM LIN.) It ran into financial problems and was not released until 1971, and was not well received.
"That's not quite correct. It got both good and bad reviews. For instance, Judith Crist liked it very much, and Pauline Kael hated it -- and so it went. It never did open in New York. It was released in test areas twice, it was retitled, I did all the press work on it, but the distributors simply didn't know how to handle it. I suppose it will show up on television one of these days. I could go on and on about this film, but well, it's in the past."
Far greater glory has been gleaned from his important avocation of photography, a hobby explored successfully enough to allow for another career, should he so choose. He has served as advising editor to Harper's Bazaar, as well as contributing major pictorial spreads to such important publications as Life, Look, Vogue and Ladies Home Journal. His subjects have included Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, Charles Chaplin and Laurence Olivier. The latter provided him obvious satisfaction as there is unmistakable enthusiasm in his voice when discussing it.
DOUBLE EXPOSURE, a collection of his photographs, was published by Delacorte Press in 1966, and proved to be a photographic intimacy with the super-unapproachables with verbal commentary by the ultra-inaccessibles. As Ruth Gordon said: "He has more friends than anyone I know. I don't know anyone who has such a following, except maybe Queen Elizabeth."
Part of this popularity might be explained by his respect for others: "I adore Fred Astaire, Spencer Tracy, Tommy Steele, Horowitz, Olivier, Merman, Sophia Loren, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Cary Grant... the best do something that seems so effortless you think you can do it too."
He is a voracious collector (books, tapes, records, movies, movie ads, movie magazines, stills, autographs, etc.) attesting to the love and respect he has for his peers and profession as well as long-lived fanism. "Very early I got turned on to what makes a superstar: time and talent have wedded to make them. Jackie Cooper was the best child actor ever."
RM has never married; nor has he been plagued by the devils that seem to pursue many child stars as they adjust to adulthood. He has committed his life to his career and its periphery, which in itself might intrigue some psychiatrists, but happily benefits the audience.
No interviewer or journalist fails to mention "brave little Master Roddy" when doing a piece on the personable, accomplished Mister Roddy. He evidences no hostility or regrets: "You become inhibited as you grow up, and whether as a child or just a star getting older, you've got to find another way of coming around to that 'thing' you had at the start, which was natural. For instance, it would be marvelous if I had the concentration I had as a child.
"I enjoyed being in movies when I was a boy. As a child you're not acting... you believe. Ah, if an adult could only act as a child does, with that insane, playing-at-toy soldiers concentration!
"The problem for a child actor is to overcome one's initial success. The bigger it was the more difficult it is to overcome.
"All I'm trying to do now is the best I can with what I'm doing. I hope I can keep working as long as possible."