Biography of Roddy McDowall, Planet of the Apes Star

Child star who successfully transitioned to adult acting career

Roddy McDowall in costume for the 1968 film 'Planet of the Apes'
Roddy McDowall in costume for the 1968 film 'Planet of the Apes'.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Roddy McDowall (September 17, 1928—October 3, 1998), an English-American actor, was one of the few major child stars who transitioned to success as an adult actor. Best known for his portrayal of Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, McDowall went on to work regularly in films, TV, and on stage from childhood until his death.

Fast Facts: Roddy McDowall

  • Full Name: Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: September 17, 1928, in London, England
  • Died:  October 3, 1998, in Studio City, Los Angeles, California
  • Key Films: How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943), Planet of the Apes (1968), Friday Night (1985)
  • Notable Quote: "My whole life I've been trying to prove I'm not just yesterday."

Early Life and Child Stardom

Born in London, England, Roddy McDowall was the son of aspiring Irish actress Winifriede Corcoran and Scottish merchant seaman Thomas Andrew McDowall. Roddy became interested in acting at age nine and appeared in the 1938 British film Murder in the Family with Jessica Tandy and Glynis Johns. By 1940, he had appeared in seventeen British films.

In September 1940, McDowall traveled with his mother and sister to America to escape the World War II bombings of London by German planes. He appeared in his first Hollywood film Man Hunt in 1941. He then became one of the world's top child stars when he appeared in How Green Was My Valley, which received the 1941 Academy Award for Best Picture. In multiple films, McDowall appeared as the child version of characters played by major stars, such as Tyrone Power and Gregory Peck.

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Roddy McDowall in Lassie Come Home (1943). Archive Photos / Getty Images

Roddy McDowall's best-remembered child role came in 1943. He starred in Lassie Come Home with the collie dog of the title and an eleven-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. The film was a smash hit around the world.

TV Star

When McDowall turned seventeen in 1945, the film company Twentieth-Century Fox let him go and told him that his film career was over. Undaunted, McDowall sought small roles in independent films like Orson Welles' 1948 adaptation of Macbeth. He also appeared in multiple "B" movies for Monogram Pictures.

McDowall left Hollywood in 1951 and went to New York to study stage acting. He appeared on early TV in anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and The Lux Video Theater that produced televised versions of stage plays. McDowall also performed on Broadway in the 1950s hit No Time for Sergeants and The Fighting Cock, which earned him a Tony Award in 1960.

A film appearance in 1963's Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor earned McDowall a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in the 1962 hit war movie The Longest Day.

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Roddy McDowall in Twilight Zone episode "People Are Alike All Over" (1960). Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

After resuming his film career, McDowall remained a familiar face on TV through the 1960s. He had notable roles in the Twilight Zone episode "People Are Alike All Over" and as the villain the Bookworm in Batman.

Planet of the Apes

Roddy McDowall's film career surged in the late 1960s. He starred in Disney's 1967 hit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin and the horror film It!. However, McDowall's most famous role came in 1968, when he co-starred with Charlton Heston in the original hit film of Planet of the Apes. The American Film Institute included the movie in its list of Top 100 Thrills.

roddy mcdowall planet of the apes
Roddy McDowall in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

To play the sympathetic ape archaeologist Cornelius, McDowall spent hours in heavy prosthetic makeup. He also appeared in three sequel films. When Planet of the Apes became a TV series in 1974, McDowall received top billing playing the chimpanzee Galen.

Later Career

After the success of Planet of the Apes, McDowall continued to act in a blend of Hollywood movies and TV shows. In 1971, he had another big Disney hit starring in Bedknobs and Broomsticks with Angela Lansbury. Through the rest of the 1970s, he became a beloved supporting actor in such hits as Funny Lady, Rabbit Test, and Black Hole. Among his TV appearances were cameos in Trapper John, M.D., Mork & Mindy, and The Love Boat.

McDowall had one more notable role in the 1980s. In 1985, he co-starred in the vampire comedy Fright Night as the TV host and reluctant vampire hunter Peter Vincent. He won a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films as Best Supporting Actor. McDowall appeared in the 1989 sequel Fright Night Part 2.

roddy mcdowall fright night
Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985). Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

The 1990s was another busy decade for McDowall. He appeared in a wide range of films and TV shows. He also delivered voice performances for animated shows like Batman: The Animated Series and films like A Bug's Life.

Death and Legacy

Widely respected in Hollywood, Roddy McDowall served on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He also was elected President of the Academy Foundation shortly before his death in 1998. McDowall died of lung cancer on October 3, 1998 in Studio City, California. Today, he is remembered for his uniquely successful transition from child star to adult actor and his long, accomplished career in the film industry.