Roddy McDowall, dressed in a crisp white shirt, maroon tie, gray slacks and polished black shoes, looks perfectly at home in his suite in Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The 58-year old star of more than 100 films, 20 plays and thousands of television shows during his 51-year career recently spoke of his various occupations during a 90-minute interview.
What became apparent during the discussion was that McDowall is much more comfortable talking about other stars and other movies than he is speaking about himself and his films.
"The movies are important, I'm not," he said, rather matter-of-factly in an accent that still suggests his early years in England. "Hollywood is interesting. The history is fascinating. It's much more important than a single film or personality."
McDowall laughed. One of his first memories of the myth and reality of Hollywood occurred in 1944, when the then 16-year-old actor was studying U.S. history at the MGM school on the back lot. Together with classmates Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, McDowall was taken on a field trip to the set of "Wilson," MGM's movie on the life of President Woodrow Wilson:
"The teacher took us to the White House set. The White House tour was funny. Here we were in Hollywood and everyone was pretending that we were actually in Washington. Even as kids, we knew it was silly." McDowall laughed.
"But the funniest thing was that, years later, on a tour of the actual White House, I couldn't tell the difference. The set for the movie was so accurate-right down to the doorknobs--that you really couldn't tell the difference between the make-believe and the real."
McDowall, who has literally grown up in the movie business, is currently starring with Mary Steenburgen in Arthur Penn's "Dead of Winter," a movie, quite coincidentally, where the plot hinges on illusion and reality.
"I've spent all my life in love with the wonderful magic of the movies," he says.
Born in London, on Sept. 17, 1928, McDowall was evacuated from England in 1940 during the Blitz. His parents brought him to the United States where his mother's love for motion pictures rubbed off on her son.
McDowall's first film, "Murder in the Family" (1936), was a low-budget English mystery made when he was 8. It wasn't until he was selected by John Ford to play the child in "How Green Was My Valley" (1941) that his career took off. He furthered his career as a child star opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Lassie Come Home" (1943) and as the major star of "My Friend Flicka" (1943).
McDowall was once discouraged over the typecasting that went along with being a child star. "Once they think of you as a child star, it's tough to break down the stereotype."
McDowall decided to make the transition from the movies to the stage in the early '50s by leaving Hollywood for New York.
His plays included "Misalliance" (1953), "No Time for Sergeants" (1956), "Compulsion" (1957) with Dean Stockwell and the original "Camelot" (1960). On television, he appeared in live dramas from the so- called Golden Age.
About the experience of acting in the legendary movie "Cleopatra" (1963), McDowall said, "I simply loved being surrounded by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison. . . I could go on and on." But McDowall is the first one to admit that his career isn't always one of big stars and hits.
But, even with his flops, he has gone into each picture with what he calls the "proper" attitude.
"I know that there have been bombs. God, I know it better than anyone else. But, I must say, I've gone into each film with a certain dedication to the material and a level of professionalism."
McDowall is also acutely aware of his inappropriateness for particular roles.
"I know my limitations. I know that intellectually I'd love to play Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' but I'd be laughed off the stage. And rightly so."
McDowall laughed at the idea of it as he stood up.
"Can't you just imagine me down in the streets yelling 'Stella! Stella!'" he laughed even harder. "God, the critics would have a lot of fun with that one."
McDowall reached for his suit coat. He was going to a formal dinner sponsored by the Boston University Library, the repository for his extensive collection of movie memorabilia.
"Hollywood has no memory," he said. "If it were not for places such as the Boston University Library, everything would be lost. And, if we lost our touch with the history of movies, we'd have lost a lot."
McDowall poured a glass of water. "That's one thing you should remember. The movies are bigger than any of us." Then he left.
©1987 Chicago Tribune Company*
February 20,1987 Friday, SPORTS FINAL EDITION