Monday, October 23, 2017

A Singular Voice: A Roddy McDowall Tribute

And now to take a look at the life and career of one of my favorite actors of all time...

Few things bother me more, when speaking of film and entertainment, than when I bring up a classic actor, and the reaction of most people is to have no idea who that guy is. It's happened with many older actors that I love, including Leslie Nielsen, a legendary comedic actor that you'd think people would know. But perhaps the single most notorious case in my personal experience, is pretty much any time I bring up the actor Roddy McDowall. Most people that I ever mention him to, have either zero idea who he is, or when I try to explain and mention a few of his more famous roles, they go "Oh". And part of the problem, I guess, is that his single most famous role, is one in which his face was completely covered. And many of his best roles, at least in my opinion, were voice roles for animation, as well. Which is why I decided on the title for this article, because like many of the greats, Roddy McDowall had a singular persona, and a singular, very unmistakable voice.

Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall was born in London, England, on September 17th, 1928. He was primarily of Irish and Scottish decent, a "True Celt" as some might say. His parents were big into the theater, and thus encouraged him to act at a young age. By the the time he was ten years old, he was already receiving film roles. And that is the first thing to note about Mr. McDowall, something that most probably don't know about him (if they know of him at all): the fact that in his youth, he was a fairly big child actor. 

The Pied Piper (1942)

Kidnapped (1948)

His first major film role, after several small ones, was also arguably the biggest of his child career. In 1941, he starred in How Green Was My Valley, the John Ford classic, as the young Huw Morgan. He also starred in the 1942 film The Pied Piper (not actually based on the story, but rather a war-time drama). In 1943, he starred in a pair of animal-based classics,  Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka. By 1948, now a young man, he was featuring in the likes of Macbeth as Prince Malcolm, and a starring turn as David Balfour in an adaptation of Kidnapped (pictured above). 

That is perhaps the next notable thing to say about Mr. McDowall, is that he was one of the rare cases, especially back in that "Golden Era" of film, who not only made the successful transition from child actor to adult actor, but actually had a long and prolific career as an adult actor. Hell, he acted for six-plus decades in total, so I'd say he did pretty well for himself. His career in film, television and theater continued on into the 60s, when he featured in the role of Private Morris in the war epic The Longest Day (1962), where he ironically played an American soldier, even though there was a sizeable British cast as well (including Sean Connery).  In 1963 he starred alongside the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton in the historical epic Cleopatra, where he played Octavian, the man who would become Augustus Caesar. 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

That Darn Cat! (1965)

Now my own personal first exposure to Roddy, was probably the 1971 Disney fantasy film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which just so happened to be one of my very favorite movies as a child. I mean, what's not to love about a film featuring a traveling magic bed and an enchanted army of empty armor come to life? His role was minor in the film, but notable, as Mr. Rowan Jelk, a local English clergyman, who while seemingly well-meaning, is subtly trying to get in good with Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a single heiress, because he wants to marry her (mainly for her property). He is, of course, unaware that she is a  witch, and later finds this out the hard way, coming calling once more, only to have enchanted boots almost literally run him off. I also probably saw him in That Darn Cat! (1965), a goofball mystery movie, wherein a feisty cat helps to solve a kidnapping. 

Another Childhood Favorite.

And another.


He also had a minor role in another 1970s Disney film that was a childhood favorite of mine, The Cat From Outer Space (1978), a movie about an alien who happens to be a cat, who uses a high-tech collar to telepathically speak to some humans who are trying to help him get back out into space, without getting captured by the military. I also remembered him for his small but memorable part as The March Hare in the 1985 two-part TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. He featured alongside Anthony Newley as The Mad Hatter and Arte Johnson as The Dormouse, and they did that scene a fair bit of justice. It's hard to top Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna in the original 1951 Disney cartoon, but they did "The Mad Tea Party" well nonetheless. 

And of course, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn't mention not only one of my favorite animated films of all time, but one of my personal favorite roles of Mr. Dowall, and that is his turn as the voice of hobbit Samwise Gamgee in Rankin/Bass' follow-up to their incredible The Hobbit (1977) TV movie, 1980s Return of the King.  Starring opposite Orson Bean, as Frodo Baggins, who also did the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the '77 Hobbit (and does Old Bilbo in this), Roddy really kind of steals the show as Sam. Return of the King, the novel, in many ways is Sam's time to shine anyway, as has been poisoned by Shelob, tortured by orcs, and is becoming overwhelmed by The One Ring. And McDowall does absolutely thrive in his lively performance of Sam, in what I would say is the best portrayal of the character (no offense meant to Sean Astin, who also did a great job in Peter Jackson's films). One of my favorite scenes from the movie, a slight embellishment from the novel, is a scene in which Sam is alone, and the Ring gives him a grand vision of himself defeating Sauron and becoming Lord of Mordor, which he transforms into a Eden-like paradise. A really powerful scene, one of many led by McDowall's powerful voice-work. 

The Bookworm

The Mad Hatter

Mr. McDowall also had appearances on many TV shows over the years. He appeared in two Rod Serling shows, both The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, one episode each, "People Are Alike All Over" (TZ) and "The Cemetery" (NG). He featured in episodes of Mission Impossible, Wonder Woman, and even Quantum Leap. Late in his career, mainly in the 90s, he also got more into voice acting roles for animation, which included voices for cartoons such as Pirates of Dark Water, Pinky and the Brain, The Tick and Gargoyles. Of course, my personal favorite of those, pictured above, was his turn as The Mad Hatter in Batman: The Animated Series (and later an episode of The New Batman Adventures). He had previous history on the OTHER iconic Batman show, the goofy 1960s Adam West show, where he played the villain The Bookworm. But as Dr. Jervis Tetch, a classic Batman villain dating back to 1948, Roddy lent the character both a sympathetic, yet eerie edge. In fact, he did the role so well, that much like many of the OTHER key roles on that cartoon, I can't really imagine the Hatter having any other voice.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Doctors Cornelius and Zira

Their son Caesar.

Of course, Roddy McDowall's most FAMOUS role, and one I myself would come to know him for as a child, thanks to a weekend long Apes marathon on TV, was his role under heavy make-up and prosthetics, in the science fiction classic (also co-written by Rod Serling), Planet of the Apes (1968). In the film, he played Dr. Cornelius, a humanoid chimpanzee archaeologist in a far future where apes had somehow evolved into bipedal, speaking civilization, and humans had regressed to non-speaking wildmen. His wife was Dr. Zira, a zoologist specializing in working with "man animals", played wonderfully by actress Kim Hunter. They assist some human astronauts (first Charlton Heston as Taylor and later James Franciscus as Brent) who find themselves time-warped into this future world. Later still, they manage to use one of their repaired spacecraft to escape the destruction of said-world, and time-warp THEMSELVES back to 1970s Earth, to a world ruled by intelligent humans. 

Their ultimate end, shall we say, is less than humane or glorious (which I always hated), but their son is secreted away by a human friend they've made in Armando, and is named Caesar, who is raised in an increasingly dystopian future where apes are made to be a slave-class to humans, which eventually leads to an uprising, etc. All told, McDowall starred in all five Apes films, in three as Cornelius and the final two as his own son Caesar. In fact he was so popular and connected to that series, that he even starred in the short lived (one season) Planet of the Apes TV show (1974), as a completely different ape named Galen. I would say that the Apes films might well have been a success without him, certainly the first. But I think it was McDowall's (again) iconic voice and his incredible presence and persona, that really brought his Ape characters to life, and really helped invest viewers in that world. Even though the original film was starring vehicle for Charlton Heston, and in all fairness he did a great job with it, I think that Roddy easily became the voice and face (prosthetic as it was) of the franchise. I could (and probably will in its own article) argue that the original Apes film never needed any sequels, but I am, on the other hand, happy for Roddy that they were such a success, and such a big part of his career. 

Roddy and the Golem.

Roddy the Psychic

Roddy the Vampire Hunter.

Naturally, it wouldn't be much of a Halloween article, if I didn't bring a bit of spookiness into the deal. And it just so happens that Mr. McDowall also had several roles in a lot of lesser-known horror films during his career, as well. One such role was that of Arthur Pimm in the 1967 British film IT, also known as Curse of the Golem, which borrows heavily for his character from the earlier 60s Hitchcock megahit Psycho (1960). The similarity is that his character, a museum employee, keeps his own mother's dead and rotting corpse in his home, and steals jewelry to put on her, because he's fucking nuts. But the twist is, he comes across a Jewish Golem in the museum, which he learns to control, and sends it out to do his bidding, with expectantly disastrous consequences. He also starred in the 1973 paranormal thriller The Legend of Hell House, where he plays Benjamin Franklin Fischer, one of a pair of psychics brought to Belasco House, the "Mount Everest of Haunted Houses", to conduct paranormal research. The group is tormented and even attacked by the forces of the house, and without spoiling too much, let's just say shit goes sideways. I would recommend the latter, as it is a fairly solid haunted house movie.

My personal favorite of these horror roles, of course, is 1985's Fright Night, in which he plays one of my favorite roles of his, the character of actor Peter Vincent (a send-up to both Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), an old vampire movie star who horror fanatic Charlie tries to gain help from in his quest to fight his next door neighbor. His neighbor, of course, happens to be a vampire, the fiendish Jerry Dandrige (played by Chris Sarandon). It's one of his best roles, and one of the most coolest characters in all of horror-dom, if you ask me, because he starts out as an obvious phony (or at least, just a washed up actor who doesn't have time for crazy fans), but eventually lives his character, being he Van Helsing-like hero that both Charlie believes in, and needs to save his life. 

Laserblast (1978)

The coolest robot this side of Robby.

McDowall also featured in other genre films, such as the highly questionable cult classic with great stop motion effects, 1978's Laserblast (as seen above featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000), as the character Dr. Mellon.  Or another of my personal favorites, and another voice role people are likely unaware of, he provide the voice of the robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T., opposite Slim Pickens as "Old Bob", in the 1979 sci-fi film The Black Hole. That is another film I saw in my childhood, and loved, probably mostly due to the fact that McDowall as the robot is both endearing and funny, in an otherwise very dark and somber (especially for Disney) science fiction story. "Vince" is easily one of the coolest robots in cinema history, which is sad, because again, he is a character from a film few really know about these days (and more should). 

All in all, at least in this man's estimation, Roddy McDowall had a long and very successful career. In fact, his last film role came the same year as his sad death to lung cancer, 1998, where he provided the voice for "Mr. Soil" in the Pixar hit A Bug's Life. Not an amazing role, but also not too shabby a way to "go out", so to speak. Mr. McDowall was an "actor's actor", as the saying goes, reported a consummate gentleman and kind man, and unlike many actors, he had a very long career that saw him in a wide variety of genres, from comedy and drama, to romance and historical epic, to horror and science fiction. He was a huge, iconic part of film history with the Apes series, played some of the best, and most interesting characters I know in film. 

It is my genuine hope, that after reading this article, that you will not only now be more familiar with Roddy McDowall and his work. But that you will also be inspired to go and seek out, and watch some of his work as well, to really enjoy and cherish one of the finer performers this medium of entertainment, in my humble estimation, has ever produced. If I had to give you some top suggestions of McDowall films to see, some of my picks would be:

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

It! (1967)

The Return of the King (1980)

Fright Night (1985)

And because it shouldn't be missed, the Batman Animated Series episodes "Mad As a Hatter", "Perchance to Dream", and "The Worry Men."

If you can only for some reason watch a couple, I would say to make sure you catch Fright Night and Return of the King, and the original Planet of the Apes.  It's the perfect time of year for them, and in my humble opinion, everyone could use a bit more Roddy in their life. Cheers! 


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