Planet of the Apes Wiki

Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude 'Roddy' McDowall was a British actor who contributed his talents to several characters throughout the mythology of Planet of the Apes. Born and educated in London to an Irish mother and a father of Scottish extraction, Roddy McDowall started as a young fashion model at the age of five years, and made his film début in an early British thriller Murder In The Family at the age of eight.[1] Other film roles followed until he and his family came to America at the outbreak of World War II. At the age of twelve he was discovered by the famous Darryl F. Zanuck - mogul of 20th Century Fox and father of future Apes producer Richard D. Zanuck - who was so impressed by the youngster’s acting that he signed Roddy to a long-term contract, after which he was cast in the acclaimed How Green Was My Valley, and became a product of the 'studio system'. He went on to play in Man Hunt (1941 - filmed after he was cast in How Green.., but released first), Son Of Fury, My Friend Flicka, Lassie, Come Home and The White Cliffs of Dover (the last two of which he considered among his favourite film experiences). Knowing he had to broaden his acting talents to escape the obscurity which inevitably befalls almost all child actors as they grow-up, in the late 1940's McDowall embarked on a Vaudeville career: "I was a singer and did comic monologues and I was dreadful. I was ill-equipped for such a career. I remember playing Westport, Conn., and Ohio. I should say I do remember Ohio. I closed theatres in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Canton. We did five shows a day. If we were going good we did seven. We were on the road for seven months and in all that period I had time to see exactly six movies."[2] In 1953 McDowall forsook Hollywood for New York, where he studied acting and made the transition to the theatre. He was extremely successful and appeared in many classical productions as a stage actor. The American Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Connecticut invited him to play Octavius in Julius Caesar (a role he would repeat in the film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor). From then he mixed a stage career with films, and even appeared in a singing role in the New York production of Camelot. Amongst his television credits was a starring role in a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, 'People Are Alike All Over', co-written and introduced by Rod Serling. He went on to appear in 80 films by the 1970s, including The Subterraneans, Midnight Lace, The Longest Day, Shock Treatment, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Loved One, That Darn Cat! and Lord Love a Duck. A confirmed bachelor, McDowall had a keen interest in still photography and became so proficient that he took it up professionally - even on film sets McDowall would seldom be seen without his camera. His pictures, which included features on Hollywood stars, appeared in leading magazines throughout America and Europe and a photo-journal of his entitled 'Double Exposure' went through two printings.

Roddy McDowall as Cornelius from Planet of the Apes

In the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, Roddy played the part of inquisitive chimanzee archaeologist Cornelius. He described how he first learned of the project on a flight back from London, and his memories of the film: "A year before production, Arthur Jacobs talked to me about the project. I was one of the few people he explained the whole thing to, including the ending. He talked with me about playing Cornelius, and I thought it was all intriguing. About a year later, I signed to do the film, and to have my face molded for the makeup. The first film was very difficult because it was made in the summertime, at the Malibu Ranch. In August, with all those quartz lights, it hits like 140*, and it's just unbearable. Although it was a wonderful experience, because I like Frank Schaffner very much, I thought I would never do one again."[3] "The heat made us perspire, which in turn worked on the spirit gum which in turn forces the reapplication of the adhesive - which in its turn works on the skin."[4] "'Planet of the Apes' is a very hard film for me to judge because it was such a physical agony doing it. I'd begin to sweat remembering the heat. I think it's a fabulous movie, up until I come into the film, and then it's just purely a subjective reaction." [3]

Indeed, when the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, was made, it was without McDowall, who was unavailable to reprise the role as he was set to direct the film Tam Lin. "The second film I was not in because I was involved with directing a movie in England, with Ava Gardner." "I was going to do it as Kim Hunter and Charlton Heston did. Arthur Jacobs called me back, but I was involved in preparing the film I was going to direct. It would have taken six days or something, and I'd have liked to have done it, but it wasn't possible." "I didn't see 'Beneath', although I want to see it." [3] His part was handed over to actor David Watson, though archive footage of Roddy's performance from the first film was used as part of the opening sequence at the beginning of the sequel.

Roddy McDowall as Caesar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

McDowall returned to the franchise in 1971, reprising the role of Cornelius in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. "I like 'Escape' very much. I went to a movie house to see it, and I liked what it did to an audience. I admire Don Taylor very much, and I admire J. Lee Thompson beyond any description." [3] Thompson was the director of the fourth Apes movie the following year: although Cornelius was killed at the third film's climax, Roddy still had plenty of work to do, and starred in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes playing Caesar, the son of Cornelius - a more complex role. "Certainly the role of Caesar has much more substance than many of the 'regular' parts I've had in other movies. I’ve enjoyed my roles in all of the films, yet I felt that 'Conquest' was the greatest challenge, as it required more depth and characterization than any of the other performances."[4] Roddy revealed that there was no difference at all in the makeup of Caesar from that of Cornelius, but that it was instead the very different personalities of the characters that separated them: "Different thoughts present a different visage, and that's what acting is all about. Different roles have different sets of thoughts to convey, and they present a different outward appearance, I hope." "Cornelius was not a dimensional character in the first film as he was in the third, and he is not as interesting a character as Caesar to play. That doesn't mean that Cornelius is a bad part, it's a very good one, but he was already formed. He has an academic, gentle sense of humor, and he's sort of a peacemaker. He didn't have the complexities of nature that the role in ['Conquest'] does, as Caesar goes from being very young, mentally, to being a kind of a despot." [3] McDowall played Caesar once again for the final film of the Arthur P. Jacobs line, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, during which Roddy caught cold (which was a major discomfort) and also had to have three small cysts surgically removed from his face, cysts which had been caused by the continual application and removal of the appliances. "I tended to forget the discomfort. Eight months or more would pass between these films and I didn't quite remember how wearing they really were. I had to report for work at five o'clock in the morning to spend a little under four hours in

Smash set5.jpg

the make-up chair being transformed into a chimpanzee; but that's not the main thing that bothered me. I'm not a true claustrophobe, but after a time, not being able to scratch my nose, eat anything or drink except through a straw really works on my nerves. After about 5 hours I really become a basket case!" And despite taking some offence to the shouting and pointing his simian face generated among onlookers - "It always bothers me when people behave foolishly" - Roddy valued his experience in the Apes movies: "The parts are good, and there’s the challenge of communicating through the appliances - they’re not literally masks. I think that’s why we have had so many fine actors in the pictures - they like the challenge. Masks are in the oldest tradition of the theatre and there is something exciting about reviving an ancient art."[4]

Trap scene9.jpg

In 1974, 20th Century Fox hired McDowall to play yet another chimpanzee character. This time, he played the role of the naïve ape refugee, Galen on the Planet of the Apes television series. McDowall appeared in all fourteen episodes of the short-lived series. It took three hours to transform Roddy McDowall from human to ape. Once the makeup was on, the actor could eat only by drinking liquids through a straw. Roddy, a chain smoker, was forced to puff cigarettes through an extra-long holder as he spoke to Smash magazine about the makeup in 1974: "Well, you get very hot, and not only that, but as the day wears on, you don’t get enough oxygen to your skin. It’s somewhat disturbing." "I have a marvellous makeup man, Freddie Blau, who puts a lot of stuff on my face to protect it. And then, we made a deal when I came to do this series that the makeup can be on my face only a certain number of hours a day. Having had experience with the films beforehand, I know where the exhaustion point is. When the make-up’s been on about 10 hours, you start to get really bugged." "Even so, I enjoy the reality of the appliance. It's really very effective."[5] "I get a day off every four days, and I don't work more than 12 hours at a time."[6] Still, Roddy spent at least 50 hours a week in the tortuous simian makeup, and his face was insured for $100,000.[7]

McDowall didn't consider the TV show to have the kind of social and political themes associated with the movies: "The apes mistreat humans in the same way that humans mistreat each other today. I don't think this point is directed at any particular ethnic situation. It's just that the fabric of the show's material seems to cover all the kinds of prejudice and injustice we are guilty of. But basically, the show is just great entertainment. And if you try to read into it any deep, momentous undercurrents, you risk becoming a terrible bore."[5]

In 1981, several episodes of the television series were re-aired as individual telefilms. The titles of each film were: Back to the Planet of the Apes, The Forgotten City of the Apes, Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes, Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes and Farewell to the Planet of the Apes. Roddy appeared as an older Galen as part of a framing sequence used to introduce each film on some California broadcasts. During the 1990s he frequently appeared (as himself) in promotional spots for TV broadcasts of the Apes films and TV series.

In 1992, director Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh pitched a new three- or four-page Planet of the Apes treatment to Fox, with “a storyline that continued the ape’s saga from where it left off in the fifth movie. We imagined their world being in the midst of an artistic renaissance, which made the ape government very nervous. It was a time of amazing art and we wanted Roddy McDowall to play an elderly chimpanzee that we based a little on Leonardo da Vinci. The plot involved the humans rising in revolt and a half human, half ape central character that was sheltered by the liberal apes, but hunted down by the gorillas.” They met with Roddy, who “warmed to the fact that they had created a new chimpanzee character with him in mind and which felt like a comfortable grey-haired version of his first ape, Cornelius. He said 'I had never wanted to be in a Planet of the Apes film again, but I love your idea and I'd love you guys to make it. We should do it.'” However, Jackson subsequently spoke to Fox's Head of Production Tom Jacobson and found he was not a fan of their film proposal and was seemingly unaware of McDowall's involvement in the original series, so Jackson turned his attention to other projects. In 1996, Jackson “re-pitched exactly the same idea to these two high-powered Fox executives who’d never heard it before... it was met with a lot of enthusiasm... they said that they’d like to use our story, and have Fran and I write the script and me direct but they also wanted James Cameron to produce it for Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in it.” Jackson turned down the idea, recognizing that they would possibly disagree over the movie's direction, and Jackson lost his enthusiasm for his concept after Roddy's death.[8] As the momentum gathered for a new Planet of the Apes movie under the guidance of James Cameron, Roddy said in an interview published in TV Guide Online in September 1998 (a month before his death) that he supported Cameron's idea that any new movie should pick up from the originals rather than try to reinvent the franchise. "I don't see any reason to remake them. Why? They're there, and they're as potent as ever. On the other hand, I've always thought it would be very sensible to continue the canon and I can't imagine why nobody's done so." That December, Cameron, disillusioned with progress, quit the Apes project.[9]

Caesar statue from Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Roddy McDowall passed away from lung cancer in Studio City, California in October 1998 at the age of seventy. His final project relating to the Planet of the Apes mythos was presenting the 1998 30th-anniversary documentary, Behind the Planet of the Apes. The documentary was later included as a special bonus disk on the 'Planet of the Apes: The Evolution' DVD collection. One of Roddy's favourite charities was the 'Motion Picture & Television Fund' (MPTF), and he willed parts of his estate to the fund, including the 'Caesar' statue featured in Battle, which he had held onto until his death. The fund brought the statue to Apemania for restoration before permanently displaying it in a rose garden (in Roddy's memory) at the MPTF hospital and retirement home in Calabasas, California.[10]


Smash set4.jpg
  • Roddy McDowall developed his own unique process for working with the ape prosthetics. By exaggerating his facial expressions, he was able to effectively emote his character's personality through the make-up. Co-star Kim Hunter emulated Roddy's technique, yielding similar results.[11]
  • Makeup artist Don Cash sr. transformed Roddy McDowall into 'Cornelius' on the original Apes movie.[12]
  • Makeup artist Fred Blau worked on the Planet of the Apes TV series in 1974, where he was personally responsible for Roddy McDowall's 'Galen' makeup.[13]
  • Another article from the time named a different makeup artist responsible for McDowall's transformation: "The make-up in the series is one of the most complex features, of course. It takes make-up artist Kenny Knight three hours to do the face of star Roddy McDowall."[14]


  • While directing Tam Lin, Roddy suffered dramatic budget setbacks. The film was ultimately handed over to an American studio, where it was re-packaged as a horror/suspense-thriller, The Devil's Widow. Dissatisfied with the final product, McDowall tried to have his name removed from the project.[15] It was restored to it's original cut and released, complete with an introduction by McDowall, shortly before his death in 1998. The movie is widely acclaimed by critics, but while McDowall served as executive producer of several films, he never directed again.
  • The March, 1973 edition of Mad Magazine lampooned the Planet of the Apes franchise in issue #157. Actor Roddy McDowall was re-named Rowdy McDowelstick.
McDowall Burnett.jpg
  • Roddy McDowall appeared on an episode of the The Carol Burnett Show, which aired on March 16, 1974. He appeared in a black tuxedo while also wearing the wig and prosthetics that he used as the character Cornelius. After a duet with Burnett, he played a silent home-movie shot by his friend Paul Anderson on the set of Planet of the Apes, showing makeup artist Joe DiBella transforming McDowall into Cornelius.[16] This footage was later included in the 1998 documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, and added as bonus material to DVD collections under the title Roddy McDowall's Home Movies.
  • Five days after Roddy McDowall had passed away, A&E Biography aired a commemorative documentary entitled, Roddy McDowall: Hollywood's Best Friend.
  • McDowall is one of the few actors in the franchise to portray more than one character (others included Natalie Trundy, James Bacon, Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison). Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Return to the Planet of the Apes are the only two iterations of the franchise that McDowall didn't participate in during his lifetime.


Roddy McDowall3.jpg

External Links