McDowall is ageless after 50 years in film
By ELEANOR RINGEL
Assessing Roddy McDowall’s 50 years in show business and more than 130 movies, a journalist once attributed the actor’s lengthy career to talent, smart choices and "plain old good manners."
"Really?" says McDowall in his unmistakable musical/quizzical voice. "He obviously hasn’t seen me on a bad day."
It’s hard to imagine this polished and infinitely courteous man having a bad day. It’s harder still to believe that the sensitive boy who befriended Flicka and waited for Lassie to come home is now older than 60. Relaxed yet elegant as he finished lunch in a comfortable corner of Vickery’s patio last week, he seemed, well, ageless. Hardly changed since such adult incarnations as Mordred in the Broadway musical "Camelot" (with Richard Burton). Or Octavius Caesar in "Cleopatra" (Burton plus Elizabeth Taylor). Or one of the all-star waterlogged survivors in the disaster flick "The Poseidon Adventure."
However, there’s no resemblance whatsoever to one of his most famous grown-up roles: Cornelius in "Planet of the Apes" and its numerous sequels.
How, one wonders, did he end up as the most famous cinema chimp this side of Cheetah and Bonzo? "I guess they knew an ape when they saw one," he laughs.
"Actually, I was on an airplane with the film’s producer and he said, ‘I want you to do a role that nobody wants.’ Then he told me the story and pledged me to secrecy."
Good thing the actor could keep a secret. It took another two years to get the movie financed -- a memory that launches McDowall into a litany of all the other movies that no one wanted to make: "The Quiet Man," "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Bonnie and Clyde" and his own early classic, "How Green Was My Valley."
McDowall is a veritable mother lode of movie lore, and it’s this long-standing passion that brought him to Atlanta. As a member of the board of the National Film Registry, he was here to launch a four-day series of classic movies at the High Museum. The National Film Registry Tour is co-sponsored by the Library of Congress and Turner Classic Movies.
"The motion picture is the Great American Art Form," he says with quiet passion. "It’s our heritage, and we’re losing it. But what’s happened in preservation the last 10 years is wonderful, and much of it has been watered by Turner. The level of consciousness has changed. The studios have realized there’s life in the old stuff."
And money. Re-released classics have become a cheap source of revenue for the studios. This fall, Universal is bringing back "Vertigo" (though, for some reason, not to Atlanta) and Warner Bros. Is circulating a restored version of "Giant" (due here Oct. 18).
There’s a good chance that sending McDowall on the road would bring in a bunch of money, too. He seemingly knows everything about movie history, and everything he knows he turns into a delightful anecdote. How, after William Wyler originally cast him in "How Green Was My Valley," the project was canceled, then revived by John Ford, whose idea of the perfect Welsh accent was "anything that sounded Irish." How Orson Welles -- "a complicated man, half genius, half Buffalo Bill" -- first prerecorded "Macbeth" in a studio, then filmed the actors lip-syncing their own voices. (McDowall played Malcolm.) How "Cleopatra" was a "flying blind" film: "The script wasn’t even written when we went into production."
His most recent project is "The Grass Harp." Filmed two years ago in Montgomery, the picture finally makes it into theaters next month. His co-stars are Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen.
As for his famous four-footed co-stars from the ‘40s -- Lassie and Flicka -- which would he work with again?
Yes to the collie. "Lassie No. 1 and No. 8, whom I photographed, were extraordinary."
No to the filly. "I wasn’t all that fond of Flicka. I was this 13-year-old kid, and she’d always come and stand right on my foot."
The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution Sunday, Sept. 29, 1996