Roddy McDowall, who like his near-lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor was that rarity, a child star who successfully made the transition to adult actor, died of cancer Saturday in Studio City. He was 70.
McDowall had a six-decade career, which in addition to movies encompassed theater and television. He become a versatile character player, whose work ranged from Shakespeare to horror pictures.
He was also one of the most respected members of the entertainment community, serving on the boards of key industry organizations and donating his time and talent to good causes.
And he was famous for his friendships, especially with Taylor--whom a spokeswoman described as shocked and grieving after learning of McDowall’s death—but extending as well to many other Hollywood legends, a number of them long after they had left the spotlight and been largely forgotten. McDowall had an appreciation of fellow artists that was extraordinary in its compassion and insight.
After Army Archerd announced the actor’s illness Sept. 18 in his Daily Variety column, McDowall received countless calls, letters and visits from such close friends as Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Dominick Dunne, Tuesday Weld and Michael Douglas.
A gifted photographer, McDowall published four volumes of “Double Exposure,” collections of photos of actors accompanied by remarks from friends and admirers, with royalties donated to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
McDowall was also a noted collector of vintage films and movie memorabilia, and maker of home movies of his friends. Only recently he completed a collection of photos of contemporary entertainers posed against a series of murals--featuring vintage stars--serving as camouflage for a construction site at Warner Bros. studios.
Evacuated to the U.S. during the London blitz of 1940 with his mother and older sister, McDowall made his American film debut in a key role in Fritz Lang’s classic spy thriller “Man Hunt” (1941), in which he helped Walter Pidgeon escape the Nazis. That was followed by one of his most memorable films, John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), in which Pidgeon played a minister encouraging the young McDowall in his struggle to overcome a crippling accident.
Starring roles in 1943 in “My Friend Flicka” and “Lassie Come Home” (with Taylor) established McDowall as one of Hollywood’s most popular young actors, vulnerable yet resilient, and well-mannered in the tradition of British-born screen children.
At 20, he played Malcolm in Orson Welles’ “Macbeth,” and in the ‘50s moved on to Broadway and television, collecting a Tony and an Emmy. The screen career that followed encompassed everything from “Cleopatra” to “Funny Girl” to “Lord Love a Duck” and was highlighted by his recurring role as the simian scientist Cornelius in “Planet of the Apes,” three of its sequels and the TV series based on it. McDowall participated in the 30th anniversary celebration of the original “Planet” in August.
Throughout his life he remained trim and dapper and was a witty, enthusiastic raconteur. He could rhapsodize over Julie Andrews (with whom he made his stage musical debut in “Camelot” in 1960), then reminisce about his friendship with Harold Lloyd, and proceed to express his admiration for Gregory Harrison’s performance in Randall Kleiser’s “It’s My Party,” which marked one of McDowall’s final screen appearances. He photographed Mae West for Life magazine—and then had her over for dinner with Bette Davis and Beverly Sills.
McDowall was a frequent dinner guest of director George Cukor and spoke eloquently of him at a Directors Guild memorial. But he could not be persuaded to write about the countless celebrities he had known in his long career, feeling that it would be a violation of their privacy. “That would be like dining out on them at their expense!” he exclaimed with a twinkle.
Director Budd Boetticher made four pictures with McDowall. Reached at his home in Ramona, near Escondido,Boetticher said, “Roddy wasn’t just an actor that I liked, but was also a person I loved. He was 18 when we met, and he remained one of my best friends for the rest of his life.” Boetticher said he had written a role especially for McDowall in his screen adaptation of his autobiography, “When in Disgrace.”
McDowall was unusually adept at forging friendships with the reclusive. He became a friend of silent screen star Louise Brooks before she emerged as a world-famous icon, got Jean Arthur to let him photograph her long after she had gone into seclusion in Carmel and stayed in touch with silent movie actress Alice Terry, who co-starred in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” the 1921 classic that her husband, Rex Ingram, directed and that made Rudolph Valentino a star.
When McDowall was making a TV movie with Barbara Stanwyck, he arranged for Lang to visit the set. The director, who could be notoriously tough with actors, for years had felt guilty about being too hard on Stanwyck—as deeply as he admired her—during the filming of “Clash by Night,” and his final years were warmed by Stanwyck’s kind, forgiving welcome.
Of Scottish descent, Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall was born in London to merchant seaman Thomas Andrew McDowall and his wife, Winifred, who was an ardent movie fan, according to her son. McDowall worked as an infant model before entering the British film industry in 1937, where he made 15 films before coming to Hollywood.
He was a longtime board member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which earlier this week announced that it was naming its photo collection in his honor.
Fay Kanin, former academy president, said McDowall was a dear friend not only to her but to the entire entertainment community.
“I was over at his house last Saturday night,” she said. “His cancer was terminal, but I thought he was going to be around awhile because he looked so good. I can’t get over how fast this was.”
The pair served together on the academy board and other entertainment organizations where, Kanin recalled, McDowall constantly lobbied members to recognize aging actors and writers.
“Roddy was always coming to me and saying, ‘Let’s get a lifetime achievement award’ for people like Vincent Price or Gene Autry,” she said. “And lots of others.”
“Roddy wanted people to be honored,” she said.
McDowall, who never married, is survived by his sister, Virginia McDowall of Los Angeles.
Family friends said there were no plans for a funeral or memorial service.
Staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this story.