By RICHARD CUSKELLY
(above) Roddy McDowall plays a down-on-his luck Broadway dancer befriended by
Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) and her husband Billy Rose (James Caan) in
"Funny Lady," currently filming sequel to "Funny Girl."
Hollywood’s celebrated Great Good Friend--to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner – is currently in front of the movie cameras impersonating a Great Good Friend to Fanny Brice (impersonated in turn by Barbra Streisand).
Roddy McDowall plays a Broadway dancer down on his luck who is taken under the benevolent wing of the late Miss Brice in "Funny Lady," a musical comedy-drama which picks up the life of the legendary stage and film star where "Funny Girl" left off. Besides Streisand the cast of the Ray Stark production includes James Caan as Brice’s second husband Billy Rose and a brief reprise appearance by Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein.
"How does one become the Great Good Friend of so many of the world’s most illustrious, glamourous ladies?" was the question I hoped Roddy would answer one recent day in the Green Room which now functions as both the Warner Brothers and Columbia Studios commissary.
"Oh, but I’m not. It just isn’t true," he protested, a note of exasperation in his tone. McDowall is, after all, an interesting man, respected talent and longtime star in his own right, quite apart from his well-publicized (not by him) friendships. Still, he’s in a special position to provide a peek into the lives of ladies the rest of us yearn to know better. (But only a peek. Roddy loves to hear gossip; he’s reluctant to spread it.)
"There is something undefinably distinctive and undeniably special about the way a real movie star walks and talks and looks," he maintains. "They cut the air differently than the rest of us do. Maybe we project the difference onto them from our own fantasies nurtured in the darkness of movie theaters. And yet some movie actors have it and others do not. An unexplainable phenomenon."
Among those who do have it for Roddy are:
Ava Gardner: "The easiest-going, most casual lady who ever became a star. If you mention to her the magic aura that surrounds her she is embarrassed and quickly changes the subject."
Katharine Hepburn: "One of the greatest people I’ve ever encountered. A legend. Visiting Hepburn is like visiting the Grand Canyon."
Rosalind Russell: "It hadn’t really registered on me what an immense contribution this wonderful lady has made to movies until the recent Filmex salute to her career. I saw her in ‘Auntie Mame’ for the first time and fell in love with her all over again."
Bette Davis: "She was the one star I desperately wanted to meet when I first came to America. I was taken to see her on the set of ‘Old Acquaintance’ in 1941. She couldn’t have been more gracious or friendlier. And she never changes--whether her career is at peak or low ebb."
Darryl F. Zanuck brought 12-year-old Roddy to Hollywood from London at the height of World War II. Zanuck had spotted the child in a group of British films
Roddy had been making since he was eight. The Fox contract not only allowed him to commit to film classic performances in great films like "How Green Was My Valley" and "Man Hunt," but provided him a chance to watch Fox star favorites of the early 1940s at work. Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, Alice Faye, Gene Tierney among them.
There have been lots of little boys associated with that durable performing dog Lassie. But it was Roddy McDowall who escorted the grandson of the original Lassie to the premiere two weeks ago of MGM’s lavish musical salute to itself "That’s Entertainment".
Animals have figured consistently in McDowall’s career from "My Friend Flicka" to "Thunderhead, Son of Flicka," to "Killer Shark" to "That Darn Cat" to four episodes of the "Planet of the Apes" series. Roddy will star as an intellectual chimpanzee in next season’s television series set in a topsy-turvy future world where simians rule and mute humans are experimented on in the name of science.
A noted photographer, McDowall has also tried his hand at movie directing:
"Ava Gardner and Ian McShane starred in a film I directed called ‘Tam Lin,’ the bizarre story of a bitch-goddess who destroys young men to preserve her own youth. The movie got trapped in the bankruptcy of Commonwealth United Pictures and never got a full release here. I understand that a cut version will be on television soon. I’m sorry about that, because I’m proud of the picture and it’s tough to get work as a director the second time if your first film was aborted."
LA Herald-Examiner June 2, 1974