Roddy McDowall

  • Born: September 17, 1928
  • Died: October 3, 1998
  • Location: Los Angeles, California


Actor dies at 70

Roddy McDowall, the child actor who left Britain during the London blitz to become an award-winning star in theater, television and films that included "Lassie Come Home" and "Planet of the Apes," died Saturday of cancer. He was 70.

McDowall died at his home in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, said Dennis Osborne, a friend who had cared for the actor.

"It was very peaceful," Osborne said. "It was just as he wanted it. It was exactly the way he planned."

McDowall was diagnosed in April with an incurable cancer spread throughout his body, Osborne said.

Elizabeth Taylor, who co-starred with McDowall in "Lassie Come Home," said she was "shocked and grieving" about McDowall's death.

Angela Lansbury, who appeared with him in "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," said McDowall loved those in the motion picture business.

"He recognized and remembered the roles we played," she said. `He was there for us. He was the best friend you could possibly have had."

After appearing in several British films, McDowall at 11 was among the children evacuated to the United States during the German bombardment. Hollywood producers were impressed with his innocent face and precise diction, and he was first cast in Fritz Lang's "Man Hunt." The boy emerged as a star in John Ford's saga of Welsh coal miners, "How Green Was My Valley."

"The youngster may prove this studio's boy counterpart to Shirley Temple," Variety magazine said in a 1941 review.

"I can't say I was unhappy as a child actor in films, because I wasn't," he said in a 1963 interview. "I had a particularly wonderful time. The only trouble was that by the time I got to be 17 or 18, Hollywood was still thinking of me in terms of what I had delivered at the age of 11.

"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. For six years I played every kind of role, from Mexican-Americans to Midwestern Americans. I did different roles on the stage: a Chicago boy in `Compulsion' and a southerner in `No Time for Sergeants.' "

That ability to move into almost any role led him to be cast as a Roman emperor in "Cleopatra," a Bible figure in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and as Cornelius in "The Planet of the Apes" and sequels.

He was born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall on Sept. 17, 1928, in London. His father was Scottish, his mother Irish. Educated at St. Joseph's school, he made his film debut at 8 in "Murder in the Family." He came to the United States after the German bombardment of London began in 1940.

He was placed under contract with Twentieth Century Fox, later moved to MGM. His schooling took place on the Fox lot, though he graduated at University High School in West Los Angeles in 1947.

The young actor proved popular in films with animals, notably "My Friend Flicka" and "Lassie Come Home." Among his other features as a child: "Son of Fury," "The Pied Piper," "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Keys of the Kingdom." He also appeared as Malcolm in Orson Welles' "MacBeth."

McDowall spent most of the 1950s in New York, making his Broadway debut in 1953 in "Misalliance."

In 1960, he won both an Emmy and a Tony award. His Emmy for best supporting actor came for the NBC production of "Not Without Honor." He Tony for best supporting actor honored his role as Tarquin Edward Mendigales in the Jean Anouilh play "Time's Fool," now known as "The Fighting Cock."

His film career enjoyed a rebirth in the 1960s, notably in three epics: "Cleopatra" (as Octavian Caesar), "The Longest Day" (as a soldier), "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (as Matthew). He also spent a year on Broadway in the musical "Camelot."

"I still have the actor's disease," he admitted at the time. "I always think I'll never get another job."

Despite his fears, McDowall remained one of the busiest actors in films and television.

His most successful film was the 1968 "Planet of the Apes," and he appeared in the ape makeup in three sequels.

Among his other films: "Inside Daisy Clover," "Midas Run," "Five Card Stud," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," "The Poseidon Adventure," "Funny Lady," and "Only the Lonely."

He also became a favorite in horror films such as "Cult of the Damned," "The Legend of Hell House," "Fright Night," and "It!"

In the 1980s and `90s, he worked mostly in television dramas. Among them: "The Thief of Baghdad," "The Martian Chronicles," "Alice in Wonderland," "Hollywood Wives," "Around the World in 80 Days."

McDowall, who never married, was an accomplished photographer who produced five coffee-table books, starting with "Double Exposure" in 1966. His photos of Miss Taylor appeared in a 1963 nude layout for Playboy magazine. A longtime student of film, he gathered one of the largest private collections of old movies.

No services or interment were planned. McDowall's body was to be cremated, Osborne said.

McDowall was survived by his sister, Virginia McDowall of Los Angeles.