One of Hollywood’s better known and most beloved character actors, Roddy McDowall was rarely without work during his 60-year career in film and television, beginning at the age of 10. The English-born McDowall played everything from Prince John in The Legend of Robin Hood to s an enigmatic French bar owner in Tales of the Gold Monkey to a leprechaun (don’t ask) to a Gobot (even more don’t ask).
But McDowall will forever be best known for his lengthy, wonderful association with the original Planet of the Apes franhcise, playing the scientist-ape Cornelius and his revolutionary son Caesar, which made McDowall a go-to guy for science fiction and fantasy productions during the last half of his 60-year career. This includes plenty of cartoons, as McDowall was known for his distinctive voice; McDowall voiced dozens of toons before his death in 1998. Here are 12 of his most memorable roles — you know, besides the ones in which he appeared in a monkey suit.
12) Jonathan Willoway in Fantastic Journey
Pretty much a forgotten series now, Fantastic Journey was the prototype version of the Sliders concept — four young people from different times and planets tried to find their way back home through reality portals in the Bermuda Triangle. McDowall was added in the second episode as Jonathan Willoway, a scientist (meaning he could work huge panels of blinky lights called “computers”) who had left the world behind in the 1960s. Willoway was an idealist but could also be a self serving jerk, which contrasted his naive companions nicely.
11) Father Stone in The Martian Chronicles
The Martian Chronicles was an ambitious TV mini-series that hoped to combine Ray Bradbury’s acclaimed short stories into six hours of television. The results are somewhat mixed, with the book’s author being it’s sharpest and most vocal critic. However, whatever flaws the mini-series might have had, it was no fault of the cast, which was packed with genre veterans like Darrin McGavin, Barry Morse and of course Roddy McDowall, playing Father Stone, a missionary priest who settles on Mars.
10) The Breadmaster in The Tick
One of the brighter points of the 1990s Fox Kids schedule, The Tick had a great rogue’s gallery of weird villains. McDowall played The Breadmaster, the typical “They all laughed at me” mad scientist-type, except he was a mad baker instead. Bonus points for him having the very cleverly named sidekick “Buttery Pat.”
9) Benjamin Franklin Fischer in Legend of Hell House
In the Richard (author of I Am Legend) Matheson-scripted film, McDowall plays Fischer, a psychic and the sole survivor of an earlier expedition into a haunted house. Sorry for the spoiler, but Fischer ends up the hero of the film and anybody who stands up to a murdering ghost by calling it a “son of a whore” is awesome in my book.
8) The Devil in Fantasy Island
In the 1970s, it was California state law that actors had to guest on Fantasy Island at least once; in McDowall’s case he appeared five times. His most memorable role was also probably the best in the series, playing the Prince of Darkness. The gentle-voiced, botany-obsessed Mephistopheles gets outwitted by Ricardo Montalban’s ultra suave Mr Rourke, of course, but he was still awesome. Sadly, he doesn’t scream “ROUURRRKE!” as one might hope, but Roddy does bare some cheesy magic store devil horns as consolation.
7) The Bookworm in ’60s Batman
Getting on the 1966 Batman series was a big deal in its hey day, so much so that the show starting creating bad guys for the guest stars to play. One of the most memorable was the Bookworm, a bibliophile bad guy who was himself bound in leather. Unlike King Tut or Egghead, McDowall’s Bookworm was less campy and actually prone to violent outbursts. He’s the kind of character Grant Morrison is probably wishing he had the rights to.
6) Snowball in Pinky and the Brain
McDowall voiced Brain’s equally intelligent hamster nemesis for several great turns. Snowball was created in the same lab as Brain, so he’s every bit his equal and also wants to take over the world. His only difference is he’s often slightly nicer to Pinky, which I guess makes him the good guy? Thankfully they never teamed up, or the world would be one large habitrail right now.
5) Sam Conrad in The Twilight Zone
“You’re looking at a species of flimsy little two-legged animals with extremely small heads, whose name is man.” The classic episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “People Are Alike All Over,” has one of its most well-known (and parodied) endings — that of humans ending up in an intergalactic zoo. However, if you get over the twist, the underlying message really is “people everywhere, be them from Mars or Earth, can be jerks.” That’s something we can all stand behind and feel good about. It’s also the lesson that McDowall’s Sam Conrad doesn’t figure out until the very end.
4) Edward St. John V in Quantum Leap
In the Quantum Leap episode “A Leap for Lisa,” Sam Beckett lept into the life of a much younger Al Calavicci (his guide on the series), which caused a disruption in Al’s personal history. Until Sam could fix this problem, the future history was also changed and Al had been replaced by the proper Edward St. John V, played by McDowall. The casting on this is absolutely perfect, as McDowall is Felix to Dean Stockwell’s Oscar. The only other choice may have been Tony Randall himself, but that would have been too obvious.
3) The Mad Hatter in Batman: The Animated Series
Leave it to the brilliant voice casting of the Batman animated series to add dimension to a C-level bat villain. Jervis Tetch’s Lewis Carroll-obsessed Hatter was brought to life by McDowall’s nicely low key performance, who brought a nice bit of pathos to an otherwise campy villain concept.
2) Peter Vincent in Fright Night
As washed-up B-movie star Peter Vincent, McDowell got to play a sort of bizarro version of himself, a genre veteran who can’t find work. Vincent is a wonderful character, a man completely in over his head in a nightmare and entirely believable. Fright Night was one of McDowall’s finest performances, and one of the biggest highlights in his lengthy career.
1) V.I.N.Cent in The Black Hole
Walt Disney’s 1980 attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze was an uneven mix of uber-cute robots and a ’70s disaster movie, complete with Ernest Borgnine. The only characters kids gave a damn about were the robots — in particular, the floating V.I.N.Cent, (who when upside down looks like a certain mouse logo) voiced by McDowall. Despite his cutesy appearance, McDowall voiced the character totally straight, adding a nice dimension to the character. In fact, it can be argued that V.I.N.Cent is more dimensional than most of his human counterparts.