On the Road to King Kong With
Roddy of the Apes

      I have an idea that if Roddy McDowall ever publishes a sequel to "Double Exposure" ("Quadruple Exposure"?) and includes a self-portrait, he will pose with the head of an ape.
      After half-a-hundred movies and at least that many plays with memorable performances that ranged from the Welsh lad of the coal mines in "How Green Was My Valley" to the evil magical Mordred of Broadway’s "Camelot," plus a parallel career as an internationally famous portrait photographer, McDowall seems destined to be remembered by posterity as Roddy of the Apes.
      He doesn’t seem to mind. When Will Fowler, the 20th Century-Fox publicity man, asked Roddy if he’d mind posing as an ape for a Thanksgiving layout, he said: "Good Lord, no. I feel like Ava Gardner. Ava always said she spent her first years in Hollywood posing with pumpkins for Thanksgiving and bunny rabbits for Easter. I’ll send her a print."
      McDowall played the sensitive, intellectual chimpanzee Cornelius in the original movie of "The Planet of the Apes." Cornelius was killed, you may remember, but as Caesar, son of Cornelius, Roddy starred in three of the four "Apes" sequels, including "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," which he thinks may be the best of the lot (and which CBS will show later this season).
      But the four movies were only the beginning. (Roddy missed the fifth movie because he was directing an Ava Gardner film: "Ballad of Tam Lin.") Now that he’s appearing every Friday night in the CBS-Fox TV version of Planet of the Apes, which shows every indication of being a smash hit, Roddy may wind up the most renowned ape since King Kong.
      If all this baffles you, and if, by chance, you have never been exposed to any of the "apes" movies, you probably should know that the Planet of the Apes is the earth in the distant future (3085 A.D. in the TV version) when it is ruled by apes with humans as lesser forms of animal life, good only for slaves, servants and beasts of burden. Orangutans are rulers of the ape society; gorillas are its lawmen, soldiers and cops; chimps such as Roddy, are the intelligentsia.
      Into this future order come tumbling two astronauts from our era, lost in space for hundreds of years--Ron Harper and James Naughton. They are outlaws, sentenced to death by the apes as a threat to the state, because they represent the ancient race of foolish humans who destroyed the earth with their greed and their bombs. Galen, the chimp played by Roddy--apparently a descendant of Cornelius and Caesar--joins the astronauts, feeling that they are unjustly accused.

Roddy McDowall as Galen; intellectual
chimp from Planet of the Apes, on CBS.

      Thus, what television gives us are 31st century fugitives fleeing through a primitive society with an ape as their guide. It’s all for fun, of course, nonsense and fantasy. And yet at the old Fox ranch in Malibu Canyon where the original films were made and the TV series is filmed, I watched four gorillas on horseback starkly etched against the sky--and it gives you pause, it’s frightening.
      I left the filming and wandered down into a compound where humans of the Planet of the Apes lived in thatch-roofed, floorless mud huts. In the center of the village was a rude amphitheater, a primitive coliseum with a central arena.
      "Gladiators fight there. Humans, of course, for a human audience. The apes feel it vents their hostilities. They work off their aggressions. Interesting idea, isn’t it?"
      Roddy McDowall was at my elbow. He smiled. At least, the ape face that is literally molded to his flesh smiled.
      It can be disconcerting. Roddy was smoking a cigaret through a long holder thrust between his ape lips; he wore a loose sport shirt from which human arms and hands protruded; his tight green pants disappeared into ape feet with long, finger-like toes. Only the brown eyes that gazed at me with some amusement seemed human. And they were distant as if peering from caves.
      "Actors have difficulty at first with the face," said Roddy. "They watch the mouth. They must learn to act to the eyes. This--appliance, I suppose you should call it--is an ordeal. I have to get up at 4 a.m. and spend three hours in makeup while they mold it on me before I come to work. It’s unbearably hot. I insist on a day off in every script so my flesh can breathe.
      "But in it you can fool around with ideas, have some fun with sacred institutions. Not that we go very deep into anything but we can poke little barbs into the complaisance of our society.
      "The ape society is very primitive. We have fire and the wheel and gunpowder but the astronauts with their machines are frightening. But they’re even more frightening to the humans than they are to the apes…"
      Roddy feels the series has little relation to the movies, though the chief orangutan Zaius (Booth Colman) cites the visit of other astronauts at other times. And the gorilla general Urko (Mark Lenard) knows the danger in educated humans.
      "They’ll think they’re as good as we are," he growled. You could see what he meant.

LOS ANGELES TIMES   September 22, 1974

RM Tribute: Frames | RM Tribute: No Frames | Contact Us | Musgrave Foundation