skip navigation
Roddy McDowall - 8/15
Remind Me

Roddy McDowall - 8/15

Roddy McDowall was a rarity in Hollywood: a child actor who was able to continue his career when he grew out of his 'cute' phase. For audiences who associate McDowall with the role of Cornelius in the Planet of the Apes films, it can be surprising to realize that this was the same Roddy McDowall who starred in Lassie Come Home (1943) and How Green Was My Valley (1941).

He was born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall on September 17, 1928 in the Herne Hill section of London. His father Thomas was a Merchant Marine and his mother, Winsfriede Corcoran, had wanted to be an actress. McDowall expressed an interest in acting at nine and his mother sent him to elocution lessons. That same year while attending Saint Joseph's School in London, he made his debut in a film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox's British studios, Murder in the Family (1938), in which he played the younger brother of Jessica Tandy and Glynis Johns. According to the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, McDowall, being under the age of fourteen - the age limit for working in British films, "had to be smuggled into film studios, hiding on the floor of a car."

After having appeared in seventeen films, McDowall left England for Hollywood on September 24, 1940, along with his mother and sister Virginia. Like many others, they left the country because of the bombings that nearly destroyed London that year. Embarking from Liverpool they made the frightening journey through submarine infested waters for White Plains, New York to live with friends for the duration of the war. However, within months McDowall had made a successful screen test and signed with Twentieth Century-Fox. Now in Hollywood he was put into his first American film, director Fritz Lang's spy thriller, Man Hunt (1941) opposite Walter Pidgeon and Joan Bennett. That same year he worked with Pidgeon again in John Ford's Oscar®-winningHow Green Was My Valley as Huw, the youngest brother of a large Welsh coal mining family. The role made McDowall one of the top child stars and Fox immediately put him to work wherever they could. As the United States had now entered the war and was the staunch ally of Great Britain, films about England were very popular and McDowall seemed to have cornered the market on playing English boys.

As Kenneth T. Jackson and Karen Markoe wrote in The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, "McDowall played several film heroes as a child; he was the young Tyrone Power in Son of Fury (1942); the young Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); and the young Peter Lawford in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)." His most famous role as a child would be the enduring classic Lassie Come Home (1943). The story of a collie dog who is sold to a Duke by his impoverished family, and who runs away and travels the length of England to be reunited with his master (played by McDowall) was a smash hit. McDowall enjoyed making the film, which introduced him to his lifelong close friend, Elizabeth Taylor. He also had a good rapport with the dog. "I loved Pal, the dog who played Lassie. He was a lot smarter than some of the people I know." Thinking that McDowall + animals = box office, Fox put him into the Flicka films, which were not as successful. McDowall reportedly hated the horse who played Flicka, which didn't help.

By 1945, McDowall was seventeen, around the age that film studios found that their child actors were no longer children. McDowall was let go from Fox and his agent told him his career was over. McDowall later told Coronet magazine in 1958 "I was playing fourteen year old parts until I was twenty-three, simply because I'm bedeviled by looking younger than I really am." Some child actors would voice their unhappiness about having grown up on a studio back lot, but McDowall felt very differently. "I had a particularly wonderful time...I enjoyed being in movies when I was a boy. The only trouble was that by the time I got to 17 or 18, Hollywood was still thinking of me in terms of what I had delivered at the age of 11."

Now that he was no longer a child and determined not to give up his career, McDowall took smaller roles in independent productions, like Orson Welles' 1948 film version of Macbeth. He would later appear in Welles' stage production of the play in Salt Lake City, Utah. He also went to what was known as the "Poverty Row" studio Monogram, where he starred in "B" pictures such as Tuna Clipper (1949), Black Midnight (1949) - another 'boy taming a horse' drama -and Killer Shark (1950). McDowall could see the direction his film career was headed and decided to leave Hollywood.

After appearing in several roles in small theaters, he went to New York to study acting in 1951. "They said I couldn't play anything but an English boy. I knew I could. So I went to New York and started to study, because I knew I had to learn a lot about myself as an actor; you can't act the same as you did as a child...Fortunately I happened to go east at a time when live television was centered in New York." There he studied for two years with Mira Rostova and David Craig while appearing in television anthology series like Celanese Theater, General Electric Theater, Playhouse 90 and both The Lux Video Theater and Campbell Playhouse, (television versions of the highly popular radio shows) to name but a few. In the years between 1950 and 1960, McDowall appeared exclusively on television and in the theatre, the latter had him starring with Dean Stockwell in Compulsion and winning a Tony award for The Fighting Cock. This brought him back to the attention of Hollywood where he returned in 1960 to appear in the Doris Day thriller Midnight Lace.

The 1960s had him back at Twentieth Century-Fox co-starring in The Longest Day (1962), Shock Treatment (1964) and Cleopatra (1963) - again working with Elizabeth Taylor. It was on the set of this film that he began to seriously pursue photography. What had begun as a childhood hobby (encouraged by actress Gladys Cooper) became a second career. His photograph of Judy Holliday in the play Laurette was his first published photo and eventually his photographs would be featured in most of the major magazines as well as compiled into books Double Exposure, Double Exposure Take Two, Double Exposure Take Three, and Double Exposure Take Four. McDowall also served in an advisory role as photographic editor at Harper's Bazaar. In 1998 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Photograph Archive would be named in his honor.

In 1968 McDowall donned a chimpanzee suit and created the character of Cornelius for the first of several Planet of the Apes films. The series was a phenomenon which branched out into cartoons, books and children's toys. This popularity may have been a factor in McDowall starring with his old friend Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971.

For the rest of his career, McDowall worked constantly between television and films, including providing voices for several animation projects such as Darkwing Duck, Batman, Duckman, The Second Jungle Book, Pinky and the Brain and one of his last roles, as Mr. Soil in A Bug's Life (1998).

When he was not acting, McDowall was very involved in film preservation. His own personal collection of videotapes and films got him in a bit of trouble with the FBI, who actually raided his home in the early 1970s, before film piracy was legislated. McDowall's purpose in collecting videos and films was purely for preserving what was being lost. To that end he worked for the National Film Preservation Board and shortly before his death in 1998 was elected president of the Academy Foundation.

Roddy McDowall was one of the most loved men in Hollywood. As Hal Erickson wrote in the All Movie Guide "McDowall was famed for his kindness, generosity and loyalty (friends could tell McDowall any secret and be sure of its safety)." Shortly after attending the 70th Academy Awards, McDowall began to experience back pain. His doctors diagnosed advanced cancer which had spread throughout his body. McDowall spent his last days at home, surrounded by his friends, where he died on October 3rd, 1998 at the age of 70.

by Lorraine LoBianco

The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives by Kenneth T. Jackson and Karen Markoe
TCM Shopping
  • The White Cliffs Of Dover
  • A heartfelt romantic drama of an American who... more info
  • $15.96
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • Kidnapped
  • When a young Scottish boy is kidnapped in an... more info
  • $14.95
  • Regularly $17.99
  • Add to cart
  • The Third Day
  • When a car rams through a guardrail and... more info
  • $14.95
  • Regularly $17.99
  • Add to cart
  • The Cool Ones
  • Hey you! Wanna catch the L.A. garage band... more info
  • $14.95
  • Regularly $17.99
  • Add to cart