That Lad Has Come Far From 'Lassie'
By Mel Gussow
The New York Times, December 2, 1997 page E1
Here is a heart-stopper about the passage of time: Roddy
the child star of "How Green Was
My Valley" and other memorable movies of the 1940's, has been
acting for 60 years.
In 1937, he made his film debut in England in "Murder in the
Family," playing the brother of two young actresses, Jessica Tandy
and Glynis Johns. Since
then, he has never stopped acting, having appeared in 130 films and scores
of plays and television dramas. In common with his friend Elizabeth
Taylor, he grew up on screen and in the public spotlight.
Perpetually youthful, always dependable, Mr. McDowall has moved from
child star to character actor, back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood,
an arc that reaches all the way to his current role as Scrooge in "A
Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden (in which he alternates
with Hal Linden).
At work, he has become an astute observer of his profession as well
as a film collector and preservationist. He has met almost every artist
of stature in movies and theater, and he has photographed most of them.
As always -- a career in itself -- he is a friend and fan of the famous.
More than 30 years ago, when he was about to publish his first book
of photographs, he said, "My whole life I've been trying to prove
I'm not just yesterday." When that statement was repeated to him recently,
he said, "Ditto, ditto, et cetera."
The truth is that he has changed with the times, in contrast to many
other former child stars who are victims of their own early success. Back
in the theater at 69, he is in his fourth (or is it fifth?) phase. All
this gives him a rich perspective on movies and on acting. Despite the
diversity of his activities, Mr. McDowall is still best remembered for
the films that first made his reputation: "How
Green Was My Valley" and "Lassie Come Home," both classics,
not least of all because of his remarkably sensitive performances, in the
first as the son of a Welsh coal-mining family, in the second as Lassie's
Although he is an insatiable film buff, he finds it difficult to
watch these early films, he says, because of all the personal attachments
that surround them. Seeing them is like leafing through an intensely intimate
photo album. With an immediate emotional recall, he is thrown back into
his childhood when acting was natural and filled with innocence, and when
a film became a family. For him, the values inherent in those movies were
an influence in shaping his own character, as they also were for Eric Knight,
the author of the original "Lassie" novel. While he was acting
in the film, he sent a copy of the book to Knight to autograph. It was
returned to the actor after the author had been killed in action in World
Mr. Knight's long inscription has remained the linchpin of Mr. McDowall's
philosophy. In it, he wrote about the importance of heritage and continuation.
"What counted for him," Mr. McDowall said of Knight, "was
to have enough grit and stamina, to survive and to retain one's decency."
Encouraged by his movie-struck mother, Mr. McDowall has been acting
almost since infancy. The difficulty in England in the late 1930's was
that it was illegal for children under 14 to work. Young Roddy had to be
smuggled into film studios on the floor of a car, like contraband.
He made more than 20 films in England before coming to the United
States in 1940 with his mother and sister. Within several weeks, he was
testing for "Valley,"
which was to be directed by William
Wyler. Lew Schreiber, the casting director of 20th
Century Fox, had an immediate antipathy to the boy, because he did
not fit the standard Hollywood model of "cute and adorable,"
Mr. McDowall said. When his test came up on screen, Schreiber put his hands
over the projector. Wyler
looked at the test anyway and wisely decided to hire the boy. When John
Ford replaced Wyler as
director, he stayed in the cast.
That role led directly to "Lassie" and "My Friend
Flicka," which he made at the same time, and his career was established.
Looking back on his Hollywood indenture, he said, "I don't think acting
as a child bears any relation to acting as an adult." As he turned
18, he was still playing the role of a child, and he felt a surge of insecurity:
"I certainly think I had talent, but I had no craft."
He moved to New York and studied acting, appearing on Broadway and
on live television. But he worried that the work would end. Consolation
came when he learned that Henry Fonda
suffered from the same uneasiness.
"We are the only profession where the accumulation of reputation
and excellence doesn't really mean very much next Monday morning,"
he said. "It's like being a fruit picker. It's seasonal."
His experiences as an actor are engraved in his memory, he says,
as are his impressions of actors who passed through his life. When he first
came to Hollywood, he wanted to meet Bette
Davis, because he thought she was "the bravest of all film actresses."
He told her of his admiration, especially for "the margin of danger"
she projected on screen. She looked at him and said, "I don't know
what you're talking about."
Similarly, he was with Elizabeth
Taylor when an interviewer asked her about her beauty. She said: "Oh,
I don't think I'm beautiful. I'm passing fair." To her, Ava
Gardner was beautiful. Later, in a conversation with Gardner,
she, too, declined the compliment and told Mr. McDowall she thought Ms.
Taylor was beautiful.
"And they're the two most beautiful women I've ever seen," he
So many of his favorite stories are about actors' moments offstage
or off camera. John Gielgud, for instance, is known for his faux pas, as
when he was sitting with the playwright Edward Knoblock in a London restaurant.
Another man passed by their table, and Mr. Gielgud said, "He's the
most boring man in the world with the exception of Edward Knoblock."
Then realizing with whom he was sitting, he said, "I mean the other
Edward Knoblock." When Mr. McDowall asked him if that story really
was true, Mr. Gielgud answered, "I said to myself, 'Did I say it?,'
replied no and pressed right on."
Once Mr. McDowall asked Noel Coward how he was able to survive decades
of critical "rejection, insult and vilification." Mr. McDowall
offered a crisp imitation of Coward's reply: "It's perfectly simple.
They're wrrrong." For an actor, as for a playwright, these are words
to live by.
While building a solid reputation as an actor of range and depth,
Mr. McDowall continues to take a long view of his profession: "Nothing
is as good or as bad as it's judged in the moment," and sometimes
"yesterday's kitsch is today's treasure."
He is outspoken about the stars who never had full respect as actors:
"Celebrity sometimes is the most dangerous component in the continuance
of a career. Certain people are wildly talented but their legend becomes
the currency in the marketplace."
For Mr. McDowall, his life is the movies. "My life has been
absolutely demented by the moving image," he said. "I think movies
must be preserved, because they're such an important part of our heritage.
They have clocked absurdities and monitored styles and have offered a moving
account of 100 years, some of it fanciful, some of it accurate."
Then he wondered what it would have been like to have been there
on "day one," when movie audiences were first transported into
a world of the imagination: "I would have loved to have been a part
of the formation of this great art form, which nobody knew was an art form,
except Lillian Gish."
With a regret that seemed tangible, he said, "I'm too young."
© 1997 The New York Times Company