Roddy McDowall
(1928 - 1998)

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Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall was born in London on the 19th Septmber 1928, his Scottish father was an officer in the Merchant Marines. His Irish mother had once dreamed of going on the stage, and determined that her children should be in films.

‘My mother had complete control over us,’ ‘She would make all the decisions and pretend that my sister and I were making them.’

He was only nine when he made his debut on the screen in Murder in the Family (1938), the first of 17 British films including ‘I See Ice’ (1938) with George Formby, and two Will Hay comedies, ‘Convict 99’ and ‘Hey Hey USA’ (both 1938).

He appeared in 16 roles of varying sizes and importance before he and his family were evacuated to the U.S. during the war. McDowall arrival in Hollywood coincided with the wishes of 20th Century-Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck to create a ‘new Freddie Bartholomew.’ He tested for the juvenile lead in Fox's ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941), winning both the role and a long contract.

In 1943 he made one of his best-remembered films, ‘Lassie Come Home’, in which he is forced to part with his beloved dog, but is movingly reunited with the animal after it makes its way home from Scotland to Yorkshire. McDowall's portrayal was appealingly devoid of precocity or mawkishness and he was similarly effective displaying love for his horse in two popular films, ‘My Friend Flicka’ (1943) and its sequel ‘Thunderhead, Son of Flicka’ (1945).

‘I loved Pal, the dog who played Lassie…he was a lot smarter than some of the people I know. But I hated the main Flicka horse; she was mean, kept stepping on my feet.’

‘Lassie come home’ marked the start of a friendship with his co-star Elizabeth Taylor which was to be lifelong, and when he played Jane Powell's boyfriend in the musical ‘Holiday in Mexico’ (1946) it was the start of another lifelong friendship, she said ‘Roddy's been like a brother to me’.

McDowall's first adult acting assignment was as Malcolm in Orson Welles' 1948 film version of ‘Macbeth’; shortly afterward, he formed a production company with Macbeth co-star Dan O'Herlihy.

1955 was to be ‘the big turning-point’ of his adult career, with four highly praised stage performances. He played in ‘The Doctor's Dilemma’ off-Broadway, ‘Ariel in The Tempest’ and Octavian in ‘Julius Caesar’ in Stratford, Connecticut. In October he opened as Ben Whitledge, the zealous best friend of the bumpkin hero of Ira Levin's hit comedy No ‘Time for Sergeants’. In 1957 he co-starred with another former child actor, Dean Stockwell, in Meyer Levin's gripping play based on the Leopold-Loeb thrill-killing, Compulsion, playing Artie Strauss (the Loeb character).

He finally returned to the screen in 1960, with roles in ‘The Subterranean's’ and ‘Midnight Lace’. The same year he rang the stage director Moss Hart to ask for the role of Mordred in the upcoming Lerner-Loewe musical Camelot. The composers gave him a song solo, ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues’, at the last minute. McDowall and Richard Burton both left Camelot after a year to join Elizabeth Taylor in Rome to film 'Cleopatra' (1963), McDowall as the evil Octavian receiving reviews which were second only to Rex Harrison's.

In 1967 McDowall played the intelligent talking ape Cornelius in ‘Planet of the Apes’, and was in three of the four sequels plus a television series based on the film. He missed the first sequel, ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ (1970) because he was in London directing a film, though he did provide the voice for one of the apes. His directorial effort Tam Lin (later re titled The Devil's Widow) starring Ava Gardner as an old witch who uses her powers to surround herself with young friends, was not well received. He was Acres the steward in the hit disaster movie ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972) - its director, Ronald Neame, had been cameraman on McDowall's first released film, ‘Murder in the Family’.







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