I Survived Success
by Dotson Rader
"My mother wanted to be in the movies," said Roddy McDowall, 61. He was thinking back more than half a century to the beginnings of an acting career that made him a film star at 13, led to emotional pain and confusion, yet has lasted from the Golden Age of Hollywood in the '40s until today.
"She was very ambitious, wanting her place in the sun," McDowall continued. "When she couldnít have it, she did it through me. When I was 4 or 5, my mother used to truck my sister, Virginia, and me up [to London] to learn poetry, Shakespeare, elocution. Virginia and I did modeling, and then I started making English movies. Mother was in heaven."
In 1938, at age 9, he made his first British film. In the next two years he would appear in 15 more. Then in 1940, because of the war, the family left England to come to America.
"Two weeks after we arrived in New York, we were in California," McDowall recalled. "I tested for How Green Was My Valley. William Wyler [the director, later replaced by John Ford] saw my screen test, and he liked me. So I was put under contract, and from then on I was chattel of 20th Century Fox. I went to the studio every day. School on the lot. I never went to a normal school in America."
In How Green Was My Valley (1941), the 13-year-old McDowall was cast as Huw, a sensitive Welsh boy of the coal fields at the turn of the century. The film was a critical and box-office hit and raised its leading players - Maureen OíHara, Walter Pidgeon and McDowall - to stardom.
"It changed everybodyís life," McDowall remembered. "It had such incredible impact. My role was so extraordinary, and John Ford was very shrewd with me. I donít remember his directing me. Thatís the highest compliment I can pay anybody, because he made me feel like I thought it up. I hadnít thought of a bloody thing. As a child, you donít act. You purely go on instinct. Youíre only as good as the person taking you along. John Ford was fantastic."
In the following years, McDowall was cast in Son of Fury (1942), Lassie Come Home (1943), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). However, he was increasingly typecast, locked in the role of the sensitive adolescent. Then, in 1945, Fox abruptly gave him the boot.
"The studio system had some wonderful aspects to it," McDowall told me with a touch of sarcasm. "If they were on your side, it was a terrific training ground. But if you were out of favor, it was terrible. It was very cruel. Iíd been on the studio lot since I was a kid, and suddenly I wasnít allowed back. I couldnít even go there and visit! The point was, if you were out, you were out!
"It was hurtful," he added, quietly. "Devastating. I was slaughtered inside."
With his days as a star seemingly over and the studio doors closed to him, McDowall found himself without direction at 22. "I felt lost," he said. "I didnít know if I wanted to be an actor. I hadnít chosen it for myself. Others had." He paused for a moment. "I thought I might become a photographer. So I went to New York - I wanted my own life."
McDowall arrived in New York in 1951. He started taking acting classes and began making new friends, young actors like himself. "All of these people I suddenly got to know - Kim Stanley, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Julie Harris and Monty [Clift]. I felt at home. It was a rich time."
McDowall stayed in New York for 20 years and made a distinguished new career for himself. Among his major theater work were No Time for Sergeants (1955), Compulsion (1957) and, in 1960, his first musical, Camelot. He also returned to film in 1960, making The Subterraneans and Midnight Lace. He won a Tony Award in 1960 and an Emmy Award in 1961. In 1971 he returned to California.
He has worked steadily since, with numerous television appearances in series such as Murder, She Wrote, Hotel and Matlock; in mini-series such as Hollywood Wives and Alice in Wonderland; and in films like the Planet of the Apes series, Funny Lady, Evil Under the Sun and Fright Night. He has made more than 100 movies.
And he has become a respected and accomplished photographer. His second book of portraits, Double Exposure: Take Two, was published last fall.
Reflecting on his 50-year acting career, McDowall says: "From the time I was very, very young, people have been wonderful to me. I was successful from a very early age. Maybe too early. Iíve always found it much harder to survive success than to achieve it. Somehow I did. Iíve been lucky indeed."
PARADE Magazine January 21, 1990