Roddy McDowall

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Roddy McDowall
McDowall at the 1988 Academy Awards
Born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall
(1928-09-17)17 September 1928
Herne Hill, London, England
Died 3 October 1998(1998-10-03) (aged 70)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Lung Cancer
Occupation Actor, photographer, director
Years active 1938–1998

Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude "Roddy" McDowall (17 September 1928 – 3 October 1998) was an English actor, film director, photographer, and voice artist. His roles included Cornelius, Caesar, and Galen in the Planet of the Apes film and television series. He began his long acting career as a child in England, and then in the USA, in How Green Was My Valley, My Friend Flicka, and Lassie Come Home, and as an adult appeared most frequently as a character actor on radio, stage, film, and television. He served in several positions on the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Selection Committee for the Kennedy Center Honors, as well as contributing to various charities related to the film industry and film preservation.

Early life and career[edit]

McDowall was born at 204 Herne Hill Road, Herne Hill, London, the son of Winifriede Lucinda (née Corcoran), an Irish-born aspiring actress, and Thomas Andrew McDowall, a merchant seaman of Scottish descent.[1] Both of his parents were enthusiastic about the theatre. He had an older sister, Virginia, who was a sometime actress.He attended St Joseph's College, Upper Norwood. [2]

Appearing as a child model as a baby, McDowall appeared in several British films as a boy. After winning an acting prize in a school play aged nine, he landed his first major movie part in Scruffy (1938).[3] His family moved to the United States of America in 1940 due to the outbreak of World War II in Britain. McDowall became a naturalized United States citizen in 1949,[3] and resided in the United States for the rest of his life.

He made his first well-known film appearance at the age of 12, playing "Huw Morgan" in How Green Was My Valley (1941), where he met and became lifelong friends with Maureen O'Hara. The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and made him a household name.[3] He starred in Lassie Come Home (1943), a film that introduced a girl who would become his lifelong friend – Elizabeth Taylor. He then appeared as Ken McLaughlin in the 1943 film My Friend Flicka. McDowall went on to appear in several other films, including The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) with Gregory Peck, and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). In 1944 exhibitors voted him the number one "star of tomorrow".[4]

Adult career[edit]

McDowall in Lassie Come Home (1943)

McDowall continued his career successfully into adulthood, a rare event for any child star. By the mid-1940s, released from his studio contract, McDowall turned to the theater, taking the title role of Young Woodley in 1946 in a summer stock production in Westport, Connecticut. In 1947, he played Malcolm in Orson Welles’s stage production of Macbeth in Salt Lake City, Utah, and played the same part in the actor-director’s, now acclaimed film version in 1948.[3]

He then appeared in several roles for Monogram Pictures, a low-budget studio that always welcomed established star names. Apart from Kidnapped (1948), an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, the McDowall Monograms were contemporary outdoor adventures; he made seven features for the studio until the series lapsed in 1952. At an awkward age, and with no other decent movie roles forthcoming, McDowall left Hollywood to hone his craft on the Broadway stage, notably in "The Fighting Cock," "No Time For Sergeants," and Camelot with Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, and in television through the 1950s and 1960s. He also appeared on scores of broadcast radio programs during radio's Golden Age.

Having won both an Emmy (1961, for NBC's Sunday Showcase) and a Tony Award (1961 in "The Fighting Cock") he appeared in such series as the original The Twilight Zone, The Eleventh Hour, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Night Gallery, The Invaders, The Carol Burnett Show, Fantasy Island, Columbo and Quantum Leap, Hotel, Mork and Mindy, Murder She Wrote, Twelve O'Clock High, and Hart to Hart.

McDowell with co-stars Ron Harper and James Naughton in the Planet of the Apes TV series (1974)

He is well remembered for his soulful performances in heavy makeup as various chimpanzee characters in four of the Planet of the Apes films (1968–1973) and in the 1974 TV series that followed. During one guest appearance on The Carol Burnett Show, he came out onto the stage in his "Planet of the Apes" makeup and performed a love duet with Carol.

In the 1960s McDowall specialised in character roles, bringing a higher level of performance skill to even most banal films.

Film appearances included Cleopatra (1963), in which he played Octavian (the young Emperor Augustus) and was believed to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor but was disqualified when the studio accidentally submitted him for Best Actor instead.

Other films included It! (1966), in which he played a Norman Bates-like character reminiscent of Psycho; The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which he played Acres, a dining room attendant; The Legend of Hell House (1973), in which he played a physical medium assigned to a team attempting to crack the secret of the Belasco House; "Bedknobs and Broomsticks", "That Darn Cat!," Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974); Scavenger Hunt (1979) in which he played valet Jenkins. Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun (1982); "Funny Lady", Class of 1984 (1982); Fright Night (1985), in which he played Peter Vincent, a television host and moderator of telecast horror films; and Overboard (1987 with Goldie Hawn) in which he played a kind-hearted butler (and produced the film).

McDowall appeared frequently on Hollywood Squares and occasionally came up with quips himself. McDowall played "The Bookworm" in the 1960s American TV series Batman and he had an acclaimed recurring role as "The Mad Hatter" in Batman: The Animated Series, as well as providing his adroit dramatic tones to the audiobook adaptation of the 1989 Batman film. He also played the rebel scientist Dr. Jonathan Willoway in the 1970s science fiction TV series, The Fantastic Journey, based on the Bermuda Triangle. He had a substantial part in Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles." McDowall's final acting role in animation (at least), was for an episode of Godzilla: The Series in the episode "DeadLoch". In A Bug's Life (1998), one of his final contributions to motion pictures, he provides the voice of the ant "Mr. Soil". Throughout, with his mellifluous and distinctive voice, McDowall recorded over a dozen audio books. As an actor he simply never stopped working from 1938 to 1998, an impressive six-decade career.

During the 1990s, McDowall redoubled his passion for film preservation and participated in the restoration of Cleopatra (1963), He amassed a personal library of over 1000 books on Hollywood and Broadway history. In 1997, he hosted the MGM Musicals Tribute at Carnegie Hall. McDowall served for several years in various capacities on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation that presents the Oscar Awards, and on the selection committee for the Kennedy Center Awards. He was Chairman of the Actors' Branch for five terms. He was elected President of the Academy Foundation the year that he died. He also worked tirelessly to support the Motion Pictures Retirement Home, where a rose garden is now named in his honour.

McDowall received recognition as a photographer, working with LOOK, Vogue, Collier's and LIFE, including a cover story on Mae West for LIFE, and published five books of photographs, each featuring photos and profile interviews of his celebrity friends interviewing each other, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Judy Holliday and Maureen O'Hara, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and many more. His home was the setting for countless first Friday of the month parties, where dozens of Hollywood stars, from Silent Picture sirens, and Hollywood Heyday stars like Bette Davis, and Greta Garbo, and Shirley MacLaine, to contemporaries like Johnny Depp, Steve Martin, and Billy Bob Thornton, would gather for food and conversation, in the style of 18th century French Salons, and away from prying paparazzi.

One of his last public appearances occurred when he accompanied the actress Luise Rainer to the 70th Oscar ceremony, and performing as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden in 1997/98.

Personal life[edit]

Although McDowall made no public statements about his sexual orientation during his lifetime, a few authors have claimed that he was gay.[5][6]

In 1974, the FBI raided the home of McDowall and seized the actor's collection of films and television series in the course of an investigation of film piracy and copyright infringement. His collection consisted of 160 16 mm prints and more than 1,000 video cassettes, at a time before the era of commercial videotapes, when there was no legal aftermarket for films. McDowall had purchased Errol Flynn's home cine films and the prints of his own directorial debut Tam-Lin (1970) starring Ava Gardner and transferred them all to tape for longer-lasting archival storage. McDowall was quite forthcoming about those who dealt with him: Rock Hudson, Dick Martin and Mel Tormé were just a few of the celebrities interested in his film reproductions. No charges were filed against McDowall.


On 3 October 1998, McDowall died of lung cancer at his home in the Studio City district of Los Angeles. "It was very peaceful," said Dennis Osborne, a screenwriter friend who had cared for the actor in his final months. "It was just as he wanted it. It was exactly the way he planned." Before he died, he had many of his friends visit him in his home, including a famous reconciliation between Elizabeth Taylor and Sybil Christopher (Richard Burton's first and second wives). He was cremated through the Neptune Society Columbarium, "No ostentatious funeral or formal memorial service," were Roddy's wishes. Elizabeth Taylor, probably one of his dearest and closest friends, held a memorial gathering at her house with about 100 of Roddy's friends approximately a month after his death.






  1. ^ Vallance, Tom (5 October 1998). "Obituary: Roddy McDowall". The Independent (London). 
  2. ^ Gussow, Mel (4 October 1998), "Roddy McDowall, 70, Dies; Child Star and Versatile Actor", New York Times, retrieved 16 March 2010 
  3. ^ a b c d Biography Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University
  4. ^ "SAGA OF THE HIGH SEAS.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 11 November 1944. p. 9. Retrieved 24 April 2012. 
  5. ^ Smith, Patricia Juliana (2002), Claude J. Summers, ed., "McDowall, Roddy",, retrieved 15 March 2010 
  6. ^ Simpson, Mark (2002), Sex terror: erotic misadventures in pop culture, Routledge, p. 69, ISBN 1560233761 

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