McDowall was born at 204 Herne Hill Road, Herne Hill, London, England, the son of Winsfriede Lucinda (née Corcoran), an Irish-born aspiring actress, and Thomas Andrew McDowall, a merchant seaman. Both of his parents were enthusiastic about the theatre. He had an older sister, Virginia, who was a sometime actress.
After McDowall had appeared in several British films, his family moved to the United States of America in 1939 because of the outbreak of World War II in Britain. McDowall apparently resided in the United States for the rest of his life. He never married.
He made his first well-known motion picture appearance at the age of 12, playing "Huw Morgan" in How Green Was My Valley (1941). This role made him a household name. He starred in Lassie Come Home (1943), a film that introduced a girl who would become his lifelong friend — Elizabeth Taylor. He then appeared as Ken McLaughlin in the 1943 film My Friend Flicka. McDowall went on to appear in several other films, including The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). In 1944 exhibitors voted him the number four "star of tomorrow".
McDowall continued his career successfully into adulthood, but it was usually in character roles, notably in heavy makeup as various "chimpanzee" characters in four of the Planet of the Apes movies (1968–1973) and in the 1974 TV series that followed. During one guest appearance on The Carol Burnett Show, he came out onto the stage in his Planet of the Apes makeup and the look of fright on Carol Burnett's face was reported to be genuine. Other film appearances included Cleopatra (1963), in which he played Octavian (the young Emperor Augustus) and was believed to be set to get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor but was disqualified when accidentally submitted for Best Actor instead; It! (1966), in which he played a Norman Bates-like character reminiscent of Psycho; The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which he played Acres, a dining room attendant; The Legend of Hell House (1973), in which he played a physical medium assigned to a team attempting to crack the secret of the Belasco House;Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974); Evil Under the Sun (1982); Class of 1984 (1982); Fright Night (1985), in which he played Peter Vincent, a television host and moderator of telecast horror films; and Overboard (1987) in which he played a kind-hearted butler. He also appeared on stage and was frequently a guest star on television shows, appearing in such series as the original The Twilight Zone, The Eleventh Hour, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Night Gallery, The Invaders, The Carol Burnett Show, Fantasy Island, Columbo and Quantum Leap.
McDowall appeared frequently on Hollywood Squares, and occasionally came up with funny quips himself. For example:
Q. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, what does Queen Gertrude get that was meant for her famous son?
McDOWALL: A dozen roses and a box of candy.
McDowall played "The Bookworm" in the 1960s American TV series Batman, and he had an acclaimed recurring role as "The Mad Hatter" in Batman: The Animated Series as well as providing his adroit dramatic tones to the audio adaptation of the 1989 Batman film. He also played the rebel scientist Dr. Jonathan Willoway in the 1970s science fiction TV series, The Fantastic Journey, based on the Bermuda Triangle. McDowall's final acting role in animation (at least), was for an episode of Godzilla: The Series in the episode "Dreadloch". In A Bug's Life (1998), one of his final contributions to motion pictures, he provides the voice of the ant "Mr. Soil".
During the 1990s, McDowall became active in film preservation and participated in the restoration of Cleopatra (1963). McDowall served for several years in various capacities on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the Oscar Awards. He was Chairman of the Actor's Branch for five terms. He was elected President of the Academy Foundation the year that he died.
McDowall received recognition as a photographer and published five books of photographs, one being of his celebrity friends such as Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Judy Holliday and Maureen O'Hara.
One of his last public appearances occurred when he accompanied the actress Luise Rainer to the 70th Oscar ceremony.
Although Roddy McDowall made no public statements about his sexual orientation during his lifetime, a few authors have claimed that he was a closeted homosexual.
In 1974, the FBI raided the home of McDowall and seized the actor's collection of films and television series in the course of an investigation of film piracy and copyright infringement. His collection consisted of 160 16 mm prints and more than 1,000 video cassettes, at a time before the era of commercial videotapes, when there was no legal aftermarket for films (copying or selling prints obtained from studios without owning the copyright was illegal). McDowall had purchased Errol Flynn's home movies and the prints of his own directorial debut Tam-Lin (1970) starring Ava Gardner, and transferred them all to tape for longer-lasting archival storage. McDowall was quite forthcoming about those who dealt with him: Rock Hudson, Dick Martin and Mel Tormé were just a few of the celebrities interested in his film reproductions.
On 3 October 1998, McDowall died at his home in the Studio City district of Los Angeles of lung cancer. "It was very peaceful," said Dennis Osborne, a screenwriter friend who had cared for the actor in his final months. "It was just as he wanted it. It was exactly the way he planned." Though he was cremated through the Neptune Society Columbarium, his ashes were not distributed in the Pacific Ocean as had been widely reported at the time.
How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann
Paperback: 528 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 1, 2010)
Amazon: How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
Elizabeth Taylor has never been short on star power, but in this unprecedented biography, the spotlight is entirely on her—a spirited beauty full of magic, professional daring, and wit.
Acclaimed biographer William Mann follows Elizabeth Taylor publicly as she makes her ascent at MGM, falls into (and out of) marriages, wins Oscars, fights studio feuds, and combats America's conservative values with her decidedly modern love affairs. But he also shines a light on Elizabeth's rich private life, revealing a love for her craft and a loyalty to the underdog that fueled her lifelong battle against the studio system. Swathed in mink, disposing of husbands but keeping the diamonds—this is Elizabeth Taylor as she lived and loved, breaking and making the rules in the game of supreme celebrity.
Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Three Rivers Press; Reprint edition (October 11, 2011)
Amazon: Sal Mineo: A Biography
Sal Mineo is probably most well-known for his unforgettable, Academy Award–nominated turn opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and his tragic murder at the age of thirty-seven. Finally, in this riveting new biography filled with exclusive, candid interviews with both Mineo’s closest female and male lovers and never-before-published photographs, Michael Gregg Michaud tells the full story of this remarkable young actor’s life, charting his meteoric rise to fame and turbulent career and private life.
One of the hottest stars of the 1950s, Mineo grew up as the son of Sicilian immigrants in a humble Bronx flat. But by age eleven, he appeared on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, and then as Prince Chulalongkorn in the original Broadway production of The King and I starring Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. This sultry-eyed, dark-haired male ingénue of sorts appeared on the cover of every major magazine, thousands of star-struck fans attended his premieres, and millions bought his records, which included several top-ten hits.
His life offstage was just as exhilarating: full of sports cars, motor boats, famous friends, and some of the most beautiful young actresses in Hollywood. But it was fourteen-year-old Jill Haworth, his costar in Exodus—the film that delivered one of the greatest acting roles of his life and earned him another Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win—with whom he fell in love and moved to the West Coast. But by the 1960s, a series of professional missteps and an increasingly tumultuous private life reversed his fortunes.
By the late sixties and early seventies, grappling with the repercussions of publicly admitting his homosexuality and struggling to reinvent himself from an aging teen idol, Mineo turned toward increasingly self-destructive behavior. Yet his creative impulses never foundered. He began directing and producing controversial off-Broadway plays that explored social and sexual taboos. He also found personal happiness in a relationship with male actor Courtney Burr. Tragically, on the cusp of turning a new page in his life, Mineo’s life was cut short in a botched robbery.
Revealing a charming, mischievous, creative, and often scandalous side of Mineo few have known before now, Sal Mineo is an intimate, moving biography of a distinctive Hollywood star.
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