Monday, August 15, 2016

Roddy McDowall Grows Up: A Primer for Child Stars


Thanks again to Kristen Lopez at Journeys In Classic Film for allowing me a chance to participate in the annual TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.  Today's star is Roddy McDowall.

It's been almost twenty years since Roddy McDowall died, and the curious thing to me is that despite his long and varied career, McDowall was never given credit for so many things.  First, he was never given credit for his acting abilities.  I find it strange given that his American film was when he was twelve and his final film was A Bug's Life the year he died (a good sixty-eight years later); his debut was no small feature.  It was 1941's Best Picture winner, How Green Was My Valley.  I'm not going to get into an argument over whether How Green Was My Valley should have won over Citizen Kane (it shouldn't).  In short, his career lasted longer than some other's entire lifetimes, yet despite this he never earned an Oscar nomination (or even an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement).  The closest Oscar came calling was in the big-budget spectacle, Cleopatra, where he was touted for Supporting Actor.  A clerical error at Twentieth Century-Fox inadvertently submitted his name in the Leading Actor category instead, and by the time the error was discovered it was too late to fix. 

However, my thoughts are not about McDowall's long and varied career.  Instead, it's to reflect on another aspect for which he has not been given credit: how he managed to transition successfully from child star to adult actor.  Shirley Temple is the gold standard of successful transitions from child star to adult, but her success stemmed from opting out of films when she felt her time was over. 

There have been, despite tabloid reports, a good number of performers who started as children who managed generally sane lives while still working as performers: Elizabeth Taylor, Jodie Foster, Kurt Russell, Annette Funicello, Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dean Stockwell, Reese Witherspoon.  However, when we get into child performers who made the successful transitions, McDowall's name rarely if ever appears.  I now wonder why, and offer some speculations.

I suspect that part of the reason is that people flat-out forget that he started as a child performer.  Despite films like My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home (both 1943), when McDowall's name is mentioned, it is in films like Cleopatra, Planet of the Apes and its sequels, or (for better or worse) his guest starring role as The Bookworm in the Batman TV show or the film Fright Night that he's best-remembered for: all adult performances. It isn't that his childhood films are forgotten, but the fact that he wasn't tied into an image of a child that he had that chance to grow.

Take Jackie Cooper for example.  The star of the original The Champ, at age nine he was the youngest Best Actor nominee for Skippy (and still remains the youngest nominee in this category). Yet after these and other films as a child star, his career tapered down until he had a 'comeback' with Superman, playing Perry White (whether the story that he got the part because he had a passport while others who were considered didn't is true or not I don't know).   Same with another Jackie: Jackie Coogan.  He too was tied to his role in The Kid, and it wasn't until he became Uncle Fester in The Addams Family that he could move away from his image.

That, I think is one reason why Roddy McDowall managed to be so successful as an adult.  He had no particular image as a child.  He wasn't the rambunctious troublemaker or the sweet little boy.  He was allowed a wider variety of parts and wasn't typecast into one particular style.  This I think helped his transition because audiences weren't asked to identify him as one thing or another.  As such, this allowed for him to take a wide variety of parts as an adult and audiences, who never saw him in one particular light, could accept the character rather than be asked to see the performer 'break out'.

Her Generation's Marilyn Monroe?

This is a good lesson for all child performers.  A good (or bad) example is Miley Cyrus.  For years she was "Hannah Montana", this very sweet girl trying to live a double life: both pop star and everyday girl.  Once she got her chance, she rebelled against her image, and BOY did she rebel.  You couldn't have had a stronger, more violent break from that almost virginal image than seeing Cyrus thrust her behind at the crotch of a man old enough to be her father, tongue sticking out, using a large foam finger to perform lewd acts on herself.  Nothing says "I'm NOT a good girl" than showing your fans you can dry hump Daddy to music.  Since then, Cyrus has gone out of her way to trash her former image, going so far as to say in a Saturday Night Live monologue that if anyone wonders whatever happened to Hannah Montana, she was murdered.

This is what happens now, when child performers who have been given a particular image to fit one character attempt to change said image in a hurry.  Rather than take cues from a Roddy McDowall, who opted to slowly transition to adult roles by taking roles that allowed for mental and physical growth, there seems to be a desire to so obliterate one past image into a more brazen one to show that he/she is now a "man/woman" (or in Cyrus' case, a pansexual...her own words).  There's been speculation as to whether McDowall was gay or not.  It's of no interest to me, but he and I think other successful child-to-adult performers understood that being an adult is more than just being able to fulfill your sexual desires whatever they may be.  It is in behaving like an adult: accepting responsibility, not making a public spectacle of yourself, and concentrating on the work, not on how much flesh you show.

It's interesting to note that McDowall's lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor was considered extremely desirable and sexual, yet never appeared topless or performed public acts of lewdness. 

Lesson Number One: Don't Tie Yourself to a Particular Screen Image, But If You Do, Move to Different Parts Slowly to Allow for Growth Instead of Making a Total Break.

A second aspect of McDowall's successful transition is that unlike other child performers, he had other interests outside filmmaking which he developed.  McDowall was a renowned photographer, publishing his work in magazines and books.  In short, McDowall understood (like most adults I imagine) that there is your work and there is your private pursuits.  He loved photography and derived pleasure from taking pictures (and also from film preservation, which I believe he was an early advocate of).  What you do to earn money is your job.  What you do outside your job is your passion.

For example, I work at a public library, and I love almost every minute of it.  However, I don't see the library as the sum total of my life (though on occasion I have tried to open either my car or my house with my work keys and have answered my home phone by asking how can I help them).  Film is one of my passions, as is baseball, architecture, and travel.  These are the things and pursuits that bring joy into my life.  They add that unique variety into my life.  Photography did the same for McDowall. 

For some of today's stars though, there is nothing outside themselves, no contemplation, no sense of being anything other than your 'brand'.  To be honest, while I've heard of Kendall and Kylie Jenner, I would not be able to tell you who is whom, let alone what makes them of any interest to anyone outside their family and immediate circle of friends.  Why do so many people 'follow' them, care about what they do, what they wear, who they socialize with, what they say?  I know why they are famous (they appear on a television program centered around them and their extended family), but the reason exactly why I or anyone should bother to know All About Jenner escapes me.  I think they have done nothing to merit the notoriety they have, and I wonder if in McDowall's era of the studio system the general public would have cared either.

As far as I can make out, the Jenner sisters, along with their mother, biological father and their half-siblings are all about marketing whatever they sell (books, clothes, personal appearances...why do people pay good money to see any of them in person) for their own financial gain.  They are worse than the Gabor sisters, whom playwright/actor Noel Coward wryly commented were 'famous for being famous'.  At least Zsa Zsa and Eva had SOME film and television credits to them that required them to learn lines.  The Jenner-Kardashian family (which is called in one book, America's Royal Family...the horror) have shown no talent in any of the arts, so why do people care?  Their only motivation is their own wealth, while McDowall pursued photography for its own pleasure. 

The Jenner-Kardashians are not the only people who appear to not understand that their 'careers' are not the sum total of who they are.  I think of other child performers like Lindsay Lohan, who from what I know has no interests outside her career.  When one makes a 'career' the entirety of your identity, when you find nothing outside your next job, or worse, when you think that your career or 'being famous' gives you your identity, you are dooming yourself.  The tales of child performers who didn't survive like Jonathan Brandis and Everybody Loves Raymond's Sawyer Sweeten (who committed suicides at ages 27 and 19 respectively) or Brad Renfro (who died of a drug overdose at 25) show just how dangerous it can be when your work becomes your life no matter what your work is.

Lesson Number Two: Have Outside Interests That Fulfill Your Spirit, Not Your Finances.

The third and final lesson as to why Roddy McDowall managed to not just survive but thrive from a child actor to an adult actor is that he was willing to ride the ebb and flow of a theatrical career.  He understood he wasn't going to remain either a child or a 'star' forever.  Unlike some current big-names today, McDowall was realistic enough to accept this fact and work with it rather than against it.  Temple saw that her career was petering out and opted to essentially retire, moving on to a very successful diplomatic career and private life as a wife and mother.  McDowall, when his child acting roles dried up, went to Broadway to hone his craft while continuing to work.  He took to television in guest starring roles. 

When he did films, he never went for being the 'big name' or leading role if it wasn't offered to him.  Take The Poseidon Adventure.  His role as Acres the porter was by no means big (and he didn't make the final reel, sorry if that's a spoiler for you).  Yet there he is, working, doing a good job, and part of a well-known, successful film.  In short, he opted to be an actor, not a star.

This is an important lesson for those who are working actors in the younger set.  Don't imagine that because your film or television program is a monster hit that you will (or should) remain on top forever.  Accept the changes in temperament and taste.  Keep developing your skills, and sometimes go for smaller parts if it will get you work from which you can get larger parts.

Lesson Number Three: Accept Change and Work With It, Not Against It.

Note that I didn't mention the parents.  From what I gather Mr. and Mrs. McDowall weren't stage parents or greedy, reprehensible people (like the parents of Coogan or Gary Coleman, who flittered away their children's own money and left them nothing).  However, good parents don't necessarily equal thriving children and bad parents don't necessarily lead to dysfunctional children/adults.  Parents are important, and I think McDowall benefitted from how he was raised.  However, in the end children will grow into whatever they become regardless, something to consider when we look over any child star.

Roddy McDowall's career is impressive, appearing in some genuinely brilliant films and giving some excellent, memorable performances.  He was sadly never appreciated in his lifetime, and it is good to see he get some due today as the Star of the Day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars.  I hope that McDowall's successful transition from child star to adult star serve as a template for other children entering the sometimes unforgiving Hollywood machine.

Accept Change, Develop Outside Interests, Don't Let Yourself Be Typecast, Take a Variety of Roles That Allow for Change Without Making a Fast Break. 

Do as Roddy McDowall did, and you can succeed in your career and your life.



  1. Great essay, it added an appreciation to McDowell's work that I hadn't considered through my run ins with his career. Truly a dapper gent, especially in comparison to the modern examples you provided!

    1. Thank you. W/someone who has as varied a career as McDowall, seeing his films (good and bad) would make for interesting binge-watching.

      I hope that today's stars take a page out of McDowall's notebook and concentrate on the work vs. their personas.

  2. I hope that Roddy McDowall took pride in all of his accomplishments that we find so laudable. I had usually thought of his success in the acting field as a result of his turns on Broadway, but you opened my eyes to the fact that he always was such a versatile performer, that the audience couldn't, and wouldn't want to, pin him down to one specific image. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      I hope McDowall gets more recognition for the range he had, and perhaps a biography.

  3. I've always thought it was a crime that Roddy didn't get an honorary child's Oscar for his extraordinary work in films like "How Green Was My Valley" and "Confirm or Deny" (not to mention breaking hearts in "Lassie Come Home" and "My Friend Flicka"). Also, I'm puzzled by your reference to "The Poseidon Adventure" saying he "didn't make the final reel." He certainly was in the movie I saw, because Acres was such a sweet guy and (spoiler alert) I bawled my eyes out when he was killed. I can describe the scene, I remember Gene Hackman being furious at one of the other characters for allowing it to happen... McDowall *was there.* After that I tried to console myself by seeing every possible movie and TV show he was in. (The low point was the disgraceful movie "Arnold.") I don't think I've ever cried more often for any other actor, and only for E.T. did I cry harder.


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