Remembering Roddy McDowall
An Essay by Dr. Daniel
(Dec. 15, 1998) The other day, I hit a quiet period at the office, so I started thinking about the upcoming end of the year. Pondering the good things and bad things that have decorated 1998, I realized we'd lost some real notables in the film world this year. Of course, the headlines rang out about Phil Hartman and Chris Farley, but we also lost Lloyd Bridges, Robert Young, and J.T. Walsh, one of my favorite character actors. Miss Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop and the original Olive Oyl, also left us. We lost Gene Autry and Roy Rogers within just a few days, if I remember right. The last of the singing cowboys rode off into their sunsets, one right behind the other. We lost Ol' Blue Eyes, and with him went the last remnants of true cool.
It did not really dawn on me, though, until a week or so ago, that one of the true unsung legends of Hollywood also passed on this year. It's not often that a child star can hold on in the business without becoming a head case, a drug addict, or, worse yet, a statistic in some sad magazine story. Shirley Temple turned her back on Hollywood and found a new lease on life as a humanitarian and politician. Elizabeth Taylor has spent more time in the tabloids than she has onscreen. But, somehow, Roddy McDowall was different.
Roddy McDowall was one of the last celebrities to be able to stay in Hollywood's graces and still keep a low profile. He had been in movies since he was a pre-teen, soon gaining fame in 1941's How Green Was My Valley. And despite the early success, he managed to stay as human as he could. You very rarely saw his name in any of the supermarket rags, nor was he "linked" to any scandal that I know of. He stayed above all that, and blessed us all with the gift of his talent as an actor.
The closest he ever came to being a superstar was during the heyday of the Planet of the Apes movies. Even there, though, he exhibited more acting ability than most of his "human" co-stars. Under all that heralded make-up and prosthetic effect, he showed surprising depth of character. Little twitches of the facial muscles under all that latex, or a small tilt of the head, or a flash of a widening eye, and he was able to portray the same emotions that others had to go full-force to show.
It did not seem to matter if he played the lead, or if he was in the supporting cast, or even if it was a glorified cameo, Roddy added a nice touch of sophistication to any movie he was in. I've seen him play butlers and Roman rulers with the same bravado. He played Lassie's owner with the same sensitivity he used to play the leader of a simian revolution.
But, thankfully, he also had the ability to loosen up and have some fun. I always thought he should have been more visible on the 1966 "Batman" TV show. He was very funny as The Bookworm, and hammed it up with the best of them. Sadly, though, he could never break through the way Cesar Romero's Joker and Burgess Meredith's Penguin did. The role was a perfect vehicle for him to play off the learned persona he projected, and still act for the campy laugh.
Some of you may not have known, but McDowall was also an accomplished photographer, too. I've seen some of his work, in various articles in magazines like Life and on his official website. Those I have seen mirror the man. Most are simple portraits on the surface, but after some study, show more than expected. One of his best-known photos is of Elizabeth Taylor, his co-star and life-long friend. This exquisite woman's portrait has been shown in a hundred poses, in costume and in vivid color, both for studio publicity shots and for print ads for her line of perfumes. Roddy's portrait, though, is of a different Elizabeth Taylor. His photo is of Taylor as she truly is. She's wearing a towel around her hair and what appears to be a terry-cloth robe. Her face is free of make-up, and she's looking directly into the camera lens. Taylor, not as a star, or as a sex symbol, but as a woman and a friend. It is a haunting picture of a Hollywood legend, because it shows her in "real life." Her beauty is not glossed in Technicolor, because the photo is in black and white. Her beauty, as McDowall saw and captured, is in her spirit, her fire.
Despite the following of the Planet of the Apes movies, I don't remember McDowall for that particular role. Surprisingly, I remember him as Peter Vincent, the host of a late-night horror-movie show in Fright Night. Vincent was a Hollywood used-to-be-famous horror movie star, known for his Peter Cushing-type "vampire hunter" roles. He's down on his luck, but through a fan's faith, he gets to become great again, when drawn in to fight a real-life vampire. McDowall gets to walk tall in this movie. He gets to show how it feels to be almost forgotten, and how it feels to find that redemptive confidence once again. He also gets the chance to add a slice or two of ham to the role when he plays through a scene from one of Vincent's old movies. He almost mimics Cushing's role to a tee. Distinguished, but throwing attitude and self-grandeur at the same time. It was a great showcase for McDowall, and, it was one of his best performances, in this country doctor's humble opinion.
The other night, as I sat and watched A Bug's Life, I heard his voice as a "superior" in the ant colony, frantically trying to calm the other ants and guide them through the task of altering their path. As I heard him speak, I realized that he must've known that this would be one of the last things he would do onscreen. A quick flash of sadness hit me, but, before it could even begin to sink in, that wonderful voice made me laugh, a blend of stuttering panic and experienced professional, guiding these ant workers around a leaf that blocked their trail. I laughed before I could stop myself.
Then, I realized that was probably the best tribute I could give this man. With his time running out, he chose to associate himself with a project that could make people smile. And, even now that he is gone, he continues to win audiences with his talent and his class.
Roddy, we will miss you, more than you'll know.