Roddy McDowall: Cat, Dog, or Ape?

roddy mcdowall

The late Roddy McDowell (1928-1998) was one of the few child performers to weather the career doldrums of adolescence and enjoy a successful career in adulthood. A second generation actor, he appeared in some films in his native Britain before the advent of WWII prompted his family to move to the U.S. Fame came early with his roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943) and My Friend Flicka (1943).  During the fallow years he gained stage experience; a notable film role from this time was Malcolm in Orson Welles’ MacBeth (1948). 

McDowall had a unique screen presence: lithe and lean and cat-like, with a voice in such a high register that it was more like a small boy’s than a woman’s. It was kind of like the whine of a dog; a perfect quality when he was later to portray a long series of talking simians. His eyes were large, warm and expressive: they would roll and pop and squint and dance — sort of like a magician’s sleight of hand to draw attention away from his rather homely physiognomy. Somehow, despite his strangeness, he was was very castable, ideal for dressing up large ensembles in costume dramas like Cleopatra (1963) and murder mysteries like Evil Under the Sun (1982). No one could be arch and insinuating and say “tsk, tsk, tsk” like Roddy McDowall.  Those melodramatic chops made him ideal for television guest starring roles; I think of him especially as a murderous photographer in the 1972 Columbo episode “A Short Fuse”.

As it happens McDowall was one of the first actors I ever saw on a movie screen, in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a formative experience for me.

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More rarely he would get a lead role, as he did in another of my favorites the swinging psychedelic George Axelrod romp Lord Love a Duck (1966) where the nearly 40 McDowall plays a guy about half his age.  And then of course the Planet of the Apes franchise (1968-1974), which kept him employed for many years, including this long-forgotten exponent. 

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