When John Ford cast a young Roddy McDowall in his screen classic How Green Was my Valley (1941), he discovered one of Hollywood’s most enduring personalities. A film, stage, and TV actor as well as an accomplished photographer, the versatility of McDowall’s work is matched only by the scope of his life.
Roddy McDowall was born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall in London, England, on September 17, 1928. His father was an English merchant seaman, and his mother an aspiring actress who idolized silent screen star Mary Pickford. Realizing she would not have a career of her own, Winifriede invested her dreams of stardom in her young son. She dragged him to countless silent movies in his youth, inspiring not only his love of acting but of film history as well. McDowall became a star student at the Hanover Academy of Dramatic Art and was soon acting in English films, the most notable being Scruffy (1938).
In 1940, McDowall moved to America with his mother and sister to escape World War II. The next year he won the life-changing role in Ford’s masterpiece, How Green Was My Valley (1941). The film beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar® and launched McDowall into stardom. So long before McDowall donned the ape suit for his most iconic role in Planet of the Apes (1968), he was a child-star of epic proportions thanks to Ford’s savvy casting. He became one of the most popular child stars of the 1940’s, appearing in My Friend Flicka (1943) and its sequels, as well as Lassie Come Home (1943). He took a break from co-starring with a horse (Flicka) and a dog (Lassie) to appear with Irene Dunne in the acclaimed White Cliffs of Dover (1944).
By the early 1950’s, McDowall found his youthful appearance kept him trapped in unrewarding teenage roles. Needing a new challenge, he left Hollywood for New York to work on the stage. In 1955, McDowall won rave reviews for his portrayal of Ariel in the American Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Tempest.” Other notable stage appearances followed in “Compulsion,” “Camelot,” and “The Fighting Cock,” for which he won a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor.
But McDowall did not limit his work to the theater. New York in the 1950’s was a broadcasting mecca, and McDowall worked in classic productions of “Heart of Darkness,” “Billy Budd,” and “Not Without Honor,” for which he won an Emmy Award as Best Supporting Actor.
Having learned his craft and revitalized his career, McDowall returned to California in the early 1960’s. No longer a child star, he embraced more adult film roles in Cleopatra (1963) (in which he appeared with good friend and fellow former child star, Liz Taylor) and The Loved One (1965). He also pursued a career in photography, working for Vogue and Life and publishing a successful collection of star photographs, Double Exposure, in 1966.
By the late 1960’s, McDowall was a success, if not a superstar. But then he was offered a role in a science fiction film that many other actors had turned down. Having gained fame working with animals, he was now about to play one: Cornelius, the archeologist chimpanzee in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968).
The movie was an instant classic and forever defined Roddy McDowall, despite his previous successes. In fact, he reprised his role with some variation in several sequels: Escape from Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). He also appeared in the short lived TV version.
The Planet of the Apes films boosted McDowall’s visibility, and he worked in a variety of film and television projects over the next few decades, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Fright Night (1985) among them. But it is for Planet of the Apes and its sequels that McDowall will always be remembered. Even McDowall admitted he might have made three ape movies too many, but the actor has always placed the entertainment value of his films above whatever artistic pretensions they might embrace. Perhaps that is why he remains in our hearts and minds as such a popular and endearing star.
McDowell died in 1998.