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Monkey Business: Roddy McDowall & Me

Mark Simpson recalls meeting Cornelius and his ‘hungry eyes’

Grief these days comes easier when attached to the death of celebrities. Especially when seen as the end of not just a media relationship but an age of innocence. For some it was the death of Diana, Kennedy, Lennon, or Martin Luther King. For me it was the death last year of that international icon, superstar, and chimpanzee Roddy McDowall. 

What TV giveth, TV taketh away. BBC1 Sunday lunchtime news, to be exact: ‘Roddy McDowall, the British-born actor best known for his role in Planet of the Apes (1968), has died of cancer at his L.A. home aged seventy-six. He never married.’ 

I was eating some toast and Marmite at the time and began to choke.

It is not entirely true to say that he never married. After all Roddy’s first big screen appearance was in Lassie Come Home (1943), aged fifteen, playing a schoolboy devoted to a very human bitch.

But it was not until Roddy was all grown up and cast as a very human animal himself, that he really impacted my young consciousness – in the dystopian Sci-Fi film and TV series Planet of the Apes. Watching them on TV in the 1970s I promptly became as fond of him as he had been of Lassie.

Man has destroyed himself in some apocalypse and buried the Statue of Liberty up to its elbow. The apes have taken over and enslaved their former masters the humans. Roddy plays Cornelius, a more articulate, Simian Lassie, befriending and helping the last humans, led by a creaking Charlton Heston in his ‘mature period’. I particularly remember the odd way Roddy has of cocking his head to one side while looking up at Moses with his big brown eyes begging for a petting that never came. At least not before I had to go to bed.

Years later, when I was grown up too, or as grown up as I’ll ever be, I had the pleasure of looking into those big brown eyes myself when I was interviewing the Hollywood actress Nancy Allen (who memorably played the bitch Chris Hargensen in Carrie) for a glossy American magazine. You can imagine my excitement.

I was sitting down with Ms Allen at Orso’s, a swanky Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, when suddenly she gasped, “Oh! There’s Roddy!’=” and waved at a table close to ours where a skinny elderly man was sitting with another, slightly less elderly and much fatter man and lots of papers. 

It wasn’t until he came over to our table to introduce himself and I could see those monkey-yet-strangely-human eyes that I realised it was Cornelius. He shook my hand a little too firmly and a little too long and gave me a brazen once-over with those glittering round eyes that had once reflected the miniaturised and slightly humiliated image of Charlton.

“What a surprise to see you here!’ Roddy trilled to my companion in that charmingly sing-song syrupy voice of his, ‘I’m just lunching with my agent.” Ms Allen introduced me as ‘a journalist from Glossy American Magazine. He’s interviewing me!’ she said, a bit too surprised at the idea herself.

“A journalist, eh?” Said Roddy, looking me up and down again. “That’s a good one! I’ve never seen shoulders like that on a journalist before!” He leaned towards me holding a liver-spotted hand to the side of his face and hissed in a stage whisper: “Watch her now, Mark! She’s wicked!” And with a lascivious wink and a leathery grin he sauntered back to his table. My audience with Cornelius was over.

Meeting a legend like this was shocking enough. But I was even more shocked by the way he was quite obviously and openly fag. Call me naïve, but I never thought of Cornelius as having any kind of sex at all.

Looking back and re-writing history as we do, I can now see that of course that Roddy’s entire Hollywood career was queer as a coot (a creature which I think makes an appearance in one of the Lassie films and ends up swapping Judy Garland stories with Roddy). The boy who developed over-intense relationships with animals, and who grew up to be an ape with twinkly eyes identifying with humans stranded in a world where they were now the oppressed minority.

Then there is the 1967 film It! (1967), aka Curse of the Golem, a reworking of the Frankenstein story that is quite possibly the queerest movie ever made. Roddy plays a meek assistant museum curator in London living with his domineering mum who finds his boss’s death lands him the job of running the museum and ownership of a two-thousand-year-old statue which comes to life to do his bidding – a Golem. 

Naturally, it all goes to poor Roddy’s head (he can’t negotiate that pesky Oedipus Complex), and he destroys half of London trying to impress an uninterested woman who knows a Lassie when she sees one. Roddy is finally locked up – but breaks out after he hears his mother has died. A hysterical Roddy hijacks a hearse, kidnaps the girl, and heads off with her and the Golem to the cemetery where his mother is buried.

And I think most of us, one way or another, have been there.

Roddy’s greatest asset was also his greatest give-away—his eyes. In person they were the gayest eyes I’ve ever seen: that bright, alert, hungry quality, mostly found in children and small animals, but which in adult men is the nearest thing to a reliable indicator of inversion.

On TV in the 1970s they just looked very friendly.

(Attitude, Feb 1999)

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