Roddy McDowall, like his near-lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor, was that rarity, a child star who successfully made the transition to adult actor.
McDowall had a six-decade career that included movies, theater and television. The versatile character player's work varied from Shakespeare to horror pictures.
Of Scottish descent, Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall was born in London to merchant seaman Thomas Andrew McDowall and his wife, Winifred, who was an ardent movie fan, according to her son. McDowall worked as an infant model before entering the British film industry in 1937, where he made 15 films before coming to Hollywood.
Evacuated to the U.S. during the London blitz of 1940 with his mother and older sister, McDowall made his American film debut in a key role in Fritz Lang's classic spy thriller "Man Hunt" (1941), in which he helped Walter Pidgeon escape the Nazis. That was followed by one of his most memorable films, John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), in which Pidgeon played a minister encouraging the young McDowall in his struggle to overcome a crippling accident.
Starring roles in 1943 in "My Friend Flicka" and "Lassie Come Home" (with Taylor) established McDowall as one of Hollywood's most popular young actors, vulnerable yet resilient, and well-mannered in the tradition of British-born screen children.
At 20, he played Malcolm in Orson Welles' "Macbeth," and in the '50s moved on to Broadway and television, collecting a Tony and an Emmy. The screen career that followed included "Cleopatra," "Funny Lady" and "Lord Love a Duck" and was highlighted by his roles in "Planet of the Apes," three of its sequels and the TV series based on it. McDowall also participated in the 30th anniversary celebration of the original 1968 "Planet."
Throughout his life he remained trim and dapper and was a witty, enthusiastic raconteur. He could rhapsodize over Julie Andrews (with whom he made his stage musical debut in "Camelot" in 1960), then reminisce about his friendship with Harold Lloyd, and proceed to express his admiration for Gregory Harrison's performance in Randal Kleiser's "It's My Party," which marked one of McDowall's final screen appearances. He photographed Mae West for Life magazine — and then had her over for dinner with Bette Davis and Beverly Sills.
McDowall was a frequent dinner guest of director George Cukor and spoke eloquently of him at a Directors Guild memorial. But he could not be persuaded to write about the countless celebrities he had known in his long career, feeling that it would be a violation of their privacy. "That would be like dining out on them at their expense!" he exclaimed with a twinkle.
McDowall was unusually adept at forging friendships with the reclusive. He became a friend of silent screen star Louise Brooks before she emerged as a world-famous icon, got Jean Arthur to let him photograph her long after she had gone into seclusion in Carmel, and stayed in touch with silent movie actress Alice Terry, who costarred in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," the 1921 classic that her husband, Rex Ingram, directed and that made Rudolph Valentino a star.
When McDowall was making a TV movie with Barbara Stanwyck, he arranged for Lang to visit the set. The director, who could be notoriously tough with actors, for years had felt guilty about being too hard on Stanwyck — as deeply as he admired her — during the filming of "Clash by Night," and his final years were warmed by Stanwyck's kind, forgiving welcome.
McDowall was a longtime board member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A gifted photographer, McDowall published four volumes of "Double Exposure," collections of photos of actors accompanied by remarks from friends and admirers, with royalties donated to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.