British actor Roddy McDowall's father was an officer in the English merchant marine, and his mother was a would-be actress. When it came time to choose a life's calling, McDowall bowed to his mother's influence. After winning an acting prize in a school play, he was able to secure film work in Britain, beginning at age ten with 1938's Scruffy. He appeared in 16 roles of varying sizes and importance before he and his family were evacuated to the U.S. during the 1940 Battle of Britain. McDowall arrival in Hollywood coincided with the wishes of 20th Century-Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck to create a "new Freddie Bartholomew." He tested for the juvenile lead in Fox's How Green Was My Valley (1941), winning both the role and a long contract. McDowall's first adult acting assignment was as Malcolm in Orson Welles' 1948 film version of Macbeth; shortly afterward, he formed a production company with Macbeth co-star Dan O'Herlihy. McDowall left films for the most part in the 1950s, preferring TV and stage work; among his Broadway credits were No Time for Sergeants, Compulsion, (in which he co-starred with fellow former child star Dean Stockwell) and Lerner and Loewe's Camelot (as Mordred). McDowall won a 1960 Tony Award for his appearance in the short-lived production The Fighting Cock. The actor spent the better part of the early 1960s playing Octavius in the mammoth production Cleopatra, co-starring with longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor.
An accomplished photographer, McDowall was honored by having his photos of Taylor and other celebrities frequently published in the leading magazines of the era. He was briefly an advising photographic editor of Harper's Bazaar, and in 1966 published the first of several collections of his camerawork, Double Exposure.
McDowall's most frequent assignments between 1968 and 1975 found him in elaborate simian makeup as Cornelius in the Planet of the Apes theatrical films and TV series. Still accepting the occasional guest-star film role and theatrical assignment into the 1990s, McDowall towards the end of his life was most active in the administrative end of show business, serving on the executive boards of the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A lifelong movie collector (a hobby which once nearly got him arrested by the FBI), McDowall has also worked diligently with the National Film Preservation Board. In August, 1998, he was elected president of the Academy Foundation.
One of Hollywood's last links to its golden age and much-loved by old and new stars alike -- McDowell was famed for his kindness, generosity and loyalty (friends could tell McDowall any secret and be sure of its safety) -- McDowall's announcement that he was suffering from terminal cancer a few weeks before he died rocked the film community, and many visited the ailing actor in his Studio City home. Shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer, McDowall had provided the voiceover for Disney/Pixar's animated feature A Bug's Life. A few days prior to McDowall's passing, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named its photo archive after him. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi