Sometimes you get so caught up in the plethora of science fiction/fantasy stuff out there that we don’t realize that certain actors have become such a part of our culture and psyche that we never notice until something ticks it off in your head.
We’ve already put Peter Cushing on that list and Christopher Lee, but doing a recent article on the forgotten series the Fantastic Journey, I realized I had missed someone off that list. all. He shares that certain something with the others mentioned that no matter when he is on screen, you sit up and notice. You get a nice feeling, secure that you’re going to watch a master at work, no matter how crap the production, his very presence lights it up, appealing to both young and old alike. Think of it as the front door test; if you opened your door and found Roddy standing there, would you smile inanely and welcome him in like he was an old friend or look at him like he was trying to sell you something? Roddy is definitely the former.
Born in London, England in 1928, he moved to America with his family to escape the Blitz. He is one of the few to make the successful transition from child star to adult star status in Hollywood. You name them and Roddy worked with them and in later years used his passion for photography to showcase the wonderful people he had shared his career with. With his baby-faced features and beautiful voice, Roddy could play anything; as a villain, his looks could deceive you but also as a good guy, he really was the one to have on your side. As Jonathan Willaway in The Fantastic Journey, the role could so easily have become a clone of Doctor Smith from Lost in Space but Jonathan made his initial villainy into a more friendlier persona. He was a genius with good instincts as long as the script allowed him to be but Roddy kept Jonathan on the right side of believablility. It was that face, be it a slight roll of his eyes or groan from that impeccable English accent, but you knew what he was thinking. Even when he was a child and starred in John Ford’s Oscar winning movie How Green Was My Valley ( a movie that makes me cry to this day) and Lassie Come Home with Elizabeth Taylor, those features spoke volumes and acted the rest of them off the screen. This, along with his distinctive voice, made him one of the biggest child stars of his time and he maintained his friendship with Elizabeth for the rest of his life. And though he is still the most successful child to adult actor of his time, he did have problems finding work as he entered adulthood, returning to New York and again having a successful run in theatre on Broadway where he won a Tony Award for Supporting Actor. And that’s when he made the move back into television and movies opposite his friend Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra.
But his sci-fi genre credentials began when he appeared as the evil Bookworm in the Adam West Batman series which endeared a new generation of young fans. He would return to the Batman series in later years when he voiced in the Adventures of Batman and Robin along with other varied animation roles as the Mad Hatter. He added to his fanbase when a movie called Fright Night hit the theatres where he played Peter Vincent, the fearless vampire hunter who was anything but fearless. It remains to this day a cult classic and rightfully so. Other classics included The Martian Chronicles, The Poseidon Adventure, A Bug’s Life ( which was his final film role), Quantum leap (A Leap for Linda), the Twilight Zone, Wonder Woman, Fantasy Island, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and many more.
But for us here at FTN, Roddy is the face of Planet of the Apes. His role of Cornelius would catapult him all around the world, gaining not only a massive new fanbase but a world of respect for working under such complex prosthetics. It was important to him that the audience see the emotion behind the monkey mask and he carefully worked out every aspect of Cornelius and his behaviour. Roddy was meticulous in his work ethic and it simply shines through in the Apes saga. He appeared in every one of the movies, in which he also played Cornelius’ son Caesar and continued the transition to the short-lived television series. He remained identified with the franchise right up to his death in 1998 something that delighted him no end. On YouTube you can look up his home movies with the ape masks (here) which is a wonderful insight into the man and how much this meant to him. And on the Carol Burnett Show he walked on stage in full Cornelius mask and scared the life out of Miss Burnett. He also recorded bookends to the television episodes as an aged Galen lending even more credence to the sadly short-lived series (see our tribute to the series here).
And when an actor embraces a role to his or heart like that, then there’s something special about that person. It’s more than making money for them, it’s a chance to make a real contribution to not only the sci-fi genre but to the art of acting itself. If you can get an audience to fall in love with a man-sized chimpanzee then you are a master at your art. And that is exactly what Roddy did. We still look at the original with absolute love and fondness and when remakes or retreads turn up, they get a more severe critic’s eye than most because the source material is held so dear. I can’t forget to mention that without Charlton Heston to bounce off in the movie, the Cornelius character may not have been so believable, but McDowall and Heston remain one of the great unsung onscreen partnerships in cinema history.
In his last years he grew a reputation as a great photographer and published five books on the subject as well as his work. His portraits included Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland and Maureen O’Hara. But for fans all over the world he will always be part of the sci-fi community in a timeless legacy. And the minute he popped up as Sam’s hologram in Quantum Leap when changed history removed Al, part of me wished that history would not change back and Roddy would stay as the new hologram. How great would that have been? But, despite that, he will always be a part of our world because of all the wonderful stuff he did and even when the next Planet of the Apes movie comes out, his name will be the first one people think of. And if someone of my age is sitting there as the lights go down with a smile on my face, well, now you know the reason why. The man, the legend that was Roddy McDowall.