All in a Life's Work
Acting career of Dial M's McDowall spans
stage, screen, classics, flops, cult favorites

By: Mike Steele; Staff Writer

©1996 Star Tribune*
January 22, 1996, Metro Edition

They read like a litany of the cinematically obscure:

- "Scruffy," 1938.

- "Dead Man's Shoes," 1939.

- "Saloon Bar," 1940.

- "Man Hunt," 1941.

- "How Green Was My Valley," 1941.

At last a hit: the John Ford film that beat "Citizen Kane" for the best-picture Oscar, which featured 13-year-old Roddy McDowall, who was already billed as the next great child star.

      Fast-forward 55 years. The same Roddy McDowall, 67, is back on stage, playing the relentless Inspector Hubbard in "Dial M for Murder," the revival of the 1950s mystery that's coming to the Historic State Theatre on Tuesday as part of the Ordway Music Theatre-First Bank Theater Season.
      McDowall is featured in the mystery, not starring in it. (He's working alongside Nancy Allen, best known for the "Robocop" movies, and John James of "Search for Tomorrow" and "Dynasty.") To do that, you have to be a star, and McDowall, after 58 years as an actor, has never quite made it over the edge. He's always the star's best friend.
      He came close in his teens with "Son of Fury," "My Friend Flicka," "Lassie Come Home" and "Thunderhead, Son of Flicka," all made in the 1940s.
      By 1946, however, at age 19, the sad, expressive eyes and open innocence that had looked fetching on a kid fit uneasily on a young adult. (Those same eyes would eventually look a bit sinister, opening up a series of villain and madman roles.) So McDowall simply tried to make it doing such films as "Tuna Clipper," "Killer Shark" and "Macbeth," the prestigious flop directed by Orson Welles.
      McDowall was working for Ford and Welles, alongside virtually every major actor of the era. He made friends, and when parts came up, they remembered him. He always worked - if not in films, in TV, from live series in the '50s to "Murder, She Wrote" and "Hollywood Squares."

A stage actor, too

      He also did plenty of theater, stuff like "Young Woodley," "The Hasty Heart" and "O, Mistress Mine," with the occasional foray into Shakespeare. After all, he was bom in England and has been classically trained. He hit Broadway with "No Time for Sergeants" and "Compulsion" and played the evil Mordred in Lemer and Loewe's "Camelot."
      But he never stopped making films ("Hill Number One," "The Steel Fist," "Tall Timber").
      "A good number of them sank without a trace," admitted McDowall. He makes no apologies. "I love films, even the bad ones. All but the pretentious ones. Let's face it, a good bad movie is terrific." He has made many terrifically bad films.
      He's made more than 134 movies. The latest, "The Grass Harp," is just about to open after doing well at film festivals. They aren't all terrible. He thought he was pretty good in "The Subterraneans" in 1960 (with Leslie Caron and George Peppard), "but almost no one saw it," he said. That same year, "Midnight Lace" with Doris Day and Rex Harrison wasn't too bad, either. And he worked with Laurence Olivier, Julie Harris and George C. Scott in "The Power and the Glory," which ultimately ran out of power and gamered little glory.

Friend Liz spurred work in photography

      Then, in 1963, there came "Cleopatra." McDowall got good reviews, and he became fast friends with Elizabeth Taylor (he still is). She played a key part in what has become his second career as celebrity photographer. He has done book jackets and record covers and magazines, but it's his books of star portraits that have won praise, none more than his photos for Taylor's autobiography in 1965.
      He feels Taylor's acting is much underrated. She's up there with his favorites alongside Mary Steenburgen ("a truth machine"), Kim Stanley, Lee Remick ("effortless and thus overlooked"), Walter Matthau, Spencer Tracy, Olivier, Claude Rains. . . and we stop him there because we suspect that, to be polite to his friends, he might list every actor he's ever worked with.
      After "Cleopatra" he did "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and then the cult favorite "The Loved One." The big epics faded for a while, but the cult films didn't.
      "We had very great hopes for 'Inside Daisy Clover' (1965) with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, but it was a disastrous failure," he said. "Still, it was fascinating, and it's a cult film now. And 'Lord Love a Duck' a year later, with Tuesday Weld, I think is a fine film. But it, too, is a cult movie."
      So, suddenly, he's the king of the cults? "So many films are rejected in their time and later considered treasures. Look at 'It's a Wonderful Life' which, alas, I was not in. It was such a huge failure they let it fall out of copyright."

Cult classics

      In 1968, McDowall began a series of films that may forever define him. It began with "Planet of the Apes" and continued through "Escape from Planet of the Apes," "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" and "Battle for the Planet of the Apes." He admits that might be three ape movies too many, but they are bound to be cult favorites for years.
      He never shied away from those films and isn't embarrassed by them. He considers "Cult of the Damned" and "Legend of Hell House" classics of the genre. "The Poseidon Adventure" led the way into a decade of disaster flicks. Arthur Penn's "The Dead of Winter" is "huge on videocassettes," he says. It's all in how you look at this game.
      You search McDowall's filmography for highlights. "Laserblast," "The Martian Chronicles," "Scavenger Hunt," "Fright Night," "Fright Night II." Even recent films seem to have slipped by: "Under the Gun," "Worms Don't Wear Scarves" (where can you find that one?), "Raven's Dance."
      So perhaps it's understandable that when the producers of a national tour of "Dial M for Murder" approached him, he was ready. "I haven't been on stage since 1980," he said, "but it wasn't at all hard. It really is like riding a bicycle. And I love doing new things, taking new roles. I've never really done a role like Hubbard before: a very canny, decent man playing a lot of games to fulfil his ends."
      After the tour, who knows? "No, I'm not writing memoirs," he said. "I like the fact that I've had a life crowded by incident and spotted with fascinating individuals. I'll just keep the stories to myself."
      He will spend a lot of time going to movies, theater and the opera, for which he has a passion. He says he has been too busy ever to get married, but he's always got plenty of friends to accompany him. He enjoys watching the young ones come up - he admires Brad Pitt, Leonardo diCaprio, Edward Furlong, Johnny Depp - and perhaps remembering himself when he was their age doing movies like "Hangover Square" and "Holiday in Mexico."
      Surrounded by stars, McDowall has made a fascinating career out of hanging near them. "Stardom is often lost somewhere as you walk along the railroad tracks," he said. "To keep working is what's important."

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