He was born September 17, 1928 in Heme Hill, London, England, and, while a baby, found himself working as a model. At age nine he appeared in such British films as Murder in the Family, I See Ice, John Halifax, Scruffy, Convict 99, Hey! Hey! USA and Yellow Sands in 1938, and several others — including Just William — in 1940, which is the same year his family moved to the United States following the outbreak of World War II.
In November of that year, The Los Angeles Times did a profile of the actor with the headline "Young Refugee Relates Thrills on Flight from London Raids," which reads, in part, "Master Roddy McDowall, just turned 12, arrived in Los Angeles yesterday from bomb-racked London with fantastic adventures to tell. The Jerries dropped bombs around Master Roddy's ship, the Scythia, for three days and nights before it sailed from Liverpool. A submarine tried to stop it in mid-Atlantic. He arrived in New York with his mother and sister, with only $42 among them, and they spent the last dollar on streetcar care making the rounds of motion picture company offices. Yes, Roddy is an actor."
McDowall found himself signed to a deal with 20th Century Fox for How Green Was My Valley and in an interview with the paper related what life in England was like: "It's exciting over there. The Jerries used to come over every night. We live rather near the Croyden Airport and they got us once. They ripped a hole in our roof and I couldn't take a bath at home after that. They smashed all our windows, too, and the wind came right into our house. Father stayed behind. He runs lorries and he's got to move explosives for the government and get the Jerries out of the air. He'll do it, too. He fought in the last war and got rid of the Germans rather quick."
In December of 1941, the Detroit Free Press offered, "The child marvel of Hollywood right now is 12-year-old Roddy McDowall, who arrived here from England only a year ago. The public hasn't had a really good look at him, but he already has been boosted to stardom. If you saw Manhunt, that was a small part; just a warm-up for the role in How Green Was My Valley, which Fox had in mind when they signed him. It is in this, his second film over here, that young Roddy is becoming an American screen personality in his own right."
Other early Hollywood films starring McDowall include This England, and Confirm or Deny all in 1941.Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake was among the films that followed in 1942, a year that also included On the Sunny Side and The Pied Piper.
But it was 1943 that was truly a banner time for him as he starred in My Friend Flicka and alongside the young Elizabeth Taylor in Lassie Come Home. Of the latter, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle stated, "Trouble with a film like Lassie Come Home is that it puts us in imminent danger of being deluged with films depicting the woes of child stars and their pets. A boy's love for a dog is a theme that is hard enough, at best, probably, for film producers to resist, and with the success of Roddy McDowall and the collie Lassie before them, they will almost inevitably succumb to temptation. If they do, we will be in for a lot of sentimental drivel."
This, they add, "is a flat statement made without qualification, because there is only one Roddy McDowall among the current crop of child actors, and only one, for that matter, in the history of child film stars. Others have won popularity of immense proportions, but none have achieved success as Roddy has, merely by being a corking good actor."
Throughout the 1940s, the parts kept coming, ranging from The Keys of the Kingdom to Thunderhead, Son of Flicka, Molly and Me, Holiday in Mexico, Macbeth, Kidnapped, Tuna Clipper and Black Midnight. He appeared in four movies in the 1950s — Big Timber, Killer Shark, The Steel Fist and The Big Country — and made his television debut in a 1951 episode of the anthology, Family Theatre. Many television appearances followed, which Roddy — who had also appeared in a variety of stage productions, including four months of The Tempest — had no problem transitioning between. "The basic difference between the stage and TV is that my makeup is white on TV," he told The Record in 1960. "On the stage, it was green. The basic problem is the same — it takes four hours to apply the makeup and once you have it on, it's difficult to keep on."
Having successfully transitioned from child to adult star — usually not an easy thing for young performers to do — McDowall appeared on such shows as The Twilight Zone (Season 1's "People Are Alike All Over"), Naked City, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Combat!, Ben Casey, 12 O'Clock High, Batman (as the Bookworm), The Invaders, The Legend of Robin Hood, It Takes a Thief and Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He certainly didn't ignore the big screen during this time, either, appearing in films like The Subterraneans, Midnight Lace, The Longest Day, Cleopatra, Shock Treatment, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Third Day, Inside Daisy Clover, That Darn Cat!, The Cool Ones and It!.
"Acting as a child bears no relation to acting as an adult," he related to Scarlet Street magazine. "You're working on basic instinct and talent as a child; children have immense concentration. The craft has to be learned as you grow up. You don't have a sense of craft as a child ... Every performer is, to a large extent, a preconceived notion. If he finds success as an adult or a child in a certain sort of vehicle, then the studios start to think of you in that light continually. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and persistence to break that mold and do something else. It's never easy."
In the pages of Cinefantastique, McDowall explained how he became involved in his most popular films, the Planet of the Apes series. "A year before production," he said, "[producer] Arthur Jacobs talked to me about the project. I was one of the few people he explained the whole thing to, including the ending. He talked with me about playing Cornelius, and I thought it was all intriguing. About a year later, I signed to do the film, and to have my face molded for the makeup. The first film was very difficult, because it was made in the summertime, at the Malibu Ranch. In August, with all those quartz lights, it hits 140-degrees and is just unbearable. Although it was a wonderful experience, because I like [director] Frank Schaffner very much. I thought I would never do it again." When it came to the 1970 sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it represented the one entry in the series that he was not a part of. "I was involved in directing a movie — Tam Lin — in England with Ava Garder."
He was back for film number three, 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes, in which Cornelius and Zira come back to the present and begin a chain of events that lead to ape dominance in the future. "I like Escape very much," he said. 'I went to a movie house to see it, and I liked what it did to an audience. I admire [director] Don Taylor very much."
Also in 1971, he appeared in the feature films Pretty Maids All in a Row (produced by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry), Terror in the Sky and Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Back in makeup again, McDowall played Cornelius and Zira's son, Caesar, who eventually leads enslaved apes into rebellion against humanity in 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and the film that would chronicle the next step, 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Enthused those films' director, J. Lee Thompson, "Roddy was marvelous. He would approach these roles as if he were doing Shakespeare. And each one individually, as if it was the first film. You would think, seeing him in Conquest, that he was playing the role for the first time. His enthusiasm and the way he would talk was simply amazing."
McDowall shared with The Los Angeles Times, "These are fantastic parts, especially the role of Caesar. It's really a study of innocence corrupted. He's got a wonderful nature, really, and he's quite childlike at the beginning. There's great humor in the role. but he almost turns into Richard III at the end — a bloody tyrant."
One of the big hits of 1972 was The Poseidon Adventure, in which the survivors of a capsized cruise ship have to make their way to the bottom of the ship — now bobbing on the ocean's surface — before the vessel sinks. "I wanted to be in The Poseidon Adventure simply because it's such a fantastic movie," explained McDowall. "I have a very brief role — I play a very nice fellow. There's nothing at all weird about him."
Battle for the Planet of the Apes director J. Lee Thompson continued his enthusiasm regarding McDowall from earlier, "He would discuss each scene as if he were doing Shakespeare — which was marvelous. That was the success of it, because that character became like a real person. It's a wonderful piece of acting, actually. Very underrated."
"The great challenges of these roles," said McDowall, "is in the physicalization an actor has got to do — not just body movements, but facial movements. You've got to keep your face moving under all that makeup. And you've got to make huge exaggerated facial movements to produce even the slightest twitch on the surface. Beyond that you've got only your eyes to work with to convey feelings. You have to make very different acting choices than you would if the audience could see your whole face."
Planet of the Apes made the transition to television in 1974 as did McDowall, this time playing the chimpanzee Galen who finds himself on the run from ape authorities along with humans Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton). Think of it as The Fugitive with fur. "Galen is a characterization I'm fascinated with," the actor told Newsday at the time. "The possibilities are immense when you think of the philosophy involved. We must assume that Galen is a courageous chimpanzee who possesses some of the taboos of his civilization, but is open-minded and receptive to the humans. Hopefully viewers will draw their own conclusions about the important humanistic attitudes admired by civilizations today, which the show attempts to symbolize." Unfortunately they didn't; the series only lasted 14 episodes due to competition with NBC's Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man.
Work was never an issue for McDowall, and he did attempt a few more times to be a series regular, such as 1977's The Fantastic Journey, about people from the past, present and future brought together in the Bermuda Triangle and seeking a means to get back home. McDowall, who played scientist Jonathan Willoway, expressed to Starlog his feelings about being in a sci-fi series: "As far as I'm concerned, it just boils down to a style that is actable. It's simply a very interesting arena, it isn't because it's science fiction — sorry about that. For instance, in Apes, I never thought about those characters as anything but another aspect of a given human being of given circumstance. The same in relation with this project. The character I play is just a man in this certain arena, treating it with as much normalcy at the time as possible. The fact that the science fiction makes it bizarre — that's interesting; then it isn't just an everyday situation.
"One of the things, I guess about science fiction," he elaborated, "is that it appears interesting, because it's larger-than-life. It's like doing a fairy tale in a larger-than -life situation. The whole idea is fascinating, the idea of people walking around in different time zones — a rather bizarre arena. Much more interesting than sitting around a table in the same house. It's titillating."
His next series was the Stephen Collins-starrer, Tales of the Gold Monkey, which aired from 1982 to 1983 and was deemed by many as being "inspired by" Raiders of the Lost Ark. Set in 1938 in the South Pacific, it focuses on the adventures of fighter pilot Jake Cutter (Collins), with McDowall playing "Bon Chance" Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar and the French magistrate for Bora Gora. "Gold Monkey is another series that I absolutely loved," he related. "Like Apes, Gold Monkey shouldn't have gone off the air. I loved everything about it. Stephen Collins was a wonderful person to work with, and I truly liked my role. The show itself, though, was rather badly treated by the network, because half the time you never knew where it was on the schedule. Same old story."
The next big one for McDowall was 1985's Fright Night as horror TV host Peter Vincent, who has a cinematic history of dispatching vampires and is recruited by teenager Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) to rid his neighborhood of real member of the undead Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). "He's an absolutely marvelous character. I've never done anything like it, so it was extremely rewarding to me. The appeal to me is that Vincent is such a terrible actor. The poor dear is awful. He's just a very sweet man with no talent in a difficult situation, though he's able to rise to the occasion — like the Cowardly Lion."
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, McDowall would continue to appear in TV movies, feature films, provided his voice to animated productions and episodic television. These would include Alice in Wonderland and The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo, playing The March Hare and King Murphy, respectively.
The 30th anniversary of the release of the original Planet of the Apes in 1998 was accompanied by the documentary, Back to the Planet of the Apes, a comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at the original five films and the two TV series it inspired (the second being the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975). What's truly astounding is that McDowall was being interviewed regarding the doc, and expressing his love and support for Apes in general, a week before he died of lung cancer at age 70 on October 3 of that year.
AMC host at the time, Bob Dorian, offered up a fitting tribute to the man who brought Cornelius, Caesar and Galen (among many others) to life: "From his first film role as a child, the characters Roddy brought to life have left a lasting impression on movie lovers around the world. He was a true Hollywood star; he was an actor, a philanthropist, he worked tirelessly for the Hollywood community and embraced the arts. We'll miss him."