For McDowall it's just another role in a movie and tv career that has spanned some forty years, because, believe it or not, the ever youthful looking actor is actually 55. Apart from his obvious acting talent, Roddy's face has been his fortune and even when he was 25 he was still being cast to portray 14-year olds. Looking younger than he really is, is believes McDowall, the reason why he is constantly in demand and why he has worked so much.
Ironically, if his face is his 'fortune', to most of us it is for wearing a mask that we most remember him for -- a monkey mask that is. For Roddy starred in four out of the five highly successful 'Ape' movies ("Planet of the Apes", "Escape from the Planet of the Apes", "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes", and "Battle for the Planet of the Apes") followed by the tv series based on the movies.
McDowall was the only regular in the series of films based on the novel La Planete des Singes by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, who was also responsible for another Hollywood classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. He missed the second film "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", because he was back in England directing "Tam-Lin" with Ava Gardner. McDowall sees his portrayal of the character in the 'Ape' films as one of the greatest challenges of his career.
"The challenge was communicating through masks," he says. "In order to make the merest twitch, you had to make exaggerated facial movements. And of course you only had your eyes to express feelings."
When you consider that McDowall had to spend some three hours a day in make up (having to get up at 4am each morning of shooting for the privilege); that the suits were unbearably hot and claustrophobic and that in order to eat he would have to have small bits of food placed on skewers and pushed through his mask into his mouth and drinking could only be achieved through a straw, it's a wonder that he ever survived the films and the tv series.
But McDowall is a survivor, one of the few who have successfully made the transition from child star to adult international fame, although he says there are many other examples. McDowall feels the reason for this is because he loved acting as a child and did it freely and not because he was being punished by his parents.
McDowall was born in London and it was here that he began his career, making the film "Murder in the Family" at the tender age of eight. He was spotted by Daryl F. Zanuck and taken, at the age of 12, to Hollywood. His first film was "Man Hunt" which was followed by "How Green Was My Valley". There was also Lassie Come Home, in which he co-starred with the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, "My Friend Flicka" and "The White Cliffs of Dover". After several more films Roddy had aspirations of becoming a priest, but those ideas were dispelled after his parents put him in the Culver Military Academy.
From the military academy Roddy went back into films but in his early twenties he moved to New York and a career on the stage. It was here that he notched up an outstanding personal triumph in George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance". The New York years also brought McDowall a Tony and an Emmy.
Back in Hollywood he picked up his film career with "The Subterraneans" in which he co-starred with Leslie Caron. Hollywood has more or less become his home, although he does have an apartment in New York, and it is in the movie capital of the world that his career has gone from strength to strength and apart from the 'Ape' movies other credits have included "Cleopatra", "The Poseidon Adventure", and "Funny Girl", the film in which he co-starred with Omar Sharif, James Caan, and Barbara Streisand.
But it's not only in front of the cameras that McDowall shines -- he's also an expert photographer and his pictures of Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey, and Mia Farrow have been published in Look magazine while for Life magazine his pictures of Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West and Sir Laurence Oliver have appeared. He has also had a book of his work published. Called Double Exposure, it contains photos of the famous by McDowall with comments by their peers.
Apart from acting and photography, McDowall's other great loves are collecting old movie magazines, filling his home with knick knacks, most of which are associated with the movies. Then there is his movie poster collection and his extensive private film library.
It is note difficult to see that McDowall loves everything about Hollywood and he freely admits that he is the world's greatest movie fan, that he loves the stars and is indeed in awe of them despite being so much among them. And McDowall is loved by them too. The list of celebrities that Roddy can count as genuine friends is endless and includes such people as Elizabeth Taylor (a friend ever since they appeared in "Lassie Come Home"), Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Cary Grant and Charlton Heston.
McDowall talks about his Hollywood friends as 'legends', 'giants', and being the modest man that he is never dares to mention himself in the same breath. But they all speak of McDowall with affection as too do all genuine movie fans who have been thrilled by his perfomances over the last 40 years and will continue to be thrilled, we hope, for many years to come.
Excerpted from the Tales of the Gold Monkey Annual, © 1982, Universal City Studios, Inc., published by Grandreams Ltd., London
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