Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1997 | 3:03 a.m.
NEW YORK - Here is a heart-stopper about the passage of time: Roddy McDowall, the child star of "How Green Was My Valley" and other memorable movies of the 1940s, has been acting for 60 years.
In 1937, he made his film debut in England in "Murder in the Family," playing the brother of two young actresses, Jessica Tandy and Glynis Johns. Since then, he has never stopped acting, having appeared in 130 films and scores of plays and television dramas. In common with his friend Elizabeth Taylor, he grew up on screen and in the public spotlight.
Perpetually youthful, always dependable, McDowall has moved from child star to character actor, back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood, an arc that reaches all the way to his current role as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden (in which he alternates with Hal Linden).
At work, he has become an astute observer of his profession as well as a film collector and preservationist. He has met almost every artist of stature in movies and theater, and he has photographed most of them. As always - a career in itself - he is a friend and fan of the famous.
More than 30 years ago, when he was about to publish his first book of photographs, he said: "My whole life I've been trying to prove I'm not just yesterday." When that statement was repeated to him recently, he said: "Ditto, ditto, et cetera."
The truth is that he has changed with the times, in contrast to many other former child stars who are victims of their own early success. Back in the theater at 69, he is in his fourth (or is it fifth?) phase. All this gives him a rich perspective on movies and on acting. Despite the diversity of his activities, McDowall is still best remembered for the films that first made his reputation: "How Green Was My Valley" and "Lassie Come Home," both classics, not least of all because of his remarkably sensitive performances, in the first as the son of a Welsh coal-mining family, in the second as Lassie's master.
Although he is an insatiable film buff, he finds it difficult to watch these early films, he says, because of all the personal attachments that surround them. Seeing them is like leafing through an intensely intimate photo album. With an immediate emotional recall, he is thrown back into his childhood when acting was natural and filled with innocence, and when a film became a family. For him, the values inherent in those movies were an influence in shaping his own character, as they also were for Eric Knight, the author of the original "Lassie" novel. While he was acting in the film, he sent a copy of the book to Knight to autograph. It was returned to the actor after the author had been killed in action in World War II.
Knight's long inscription has remained the linchpin of McDowall's philosophy. In it, he wrote about the importance of heritage and continuation. "What counted for him," McDowall said of Knight, "was to have enough grit and stamina, to survive and to retain one's decency."
Encouraged by his movie-struck mother, McDowall has been acting almost since infancy. The difficulty in England in the late 1930s was that it was illegal for children under 14 to work. Young Roddy had to be smuggled into film studios on the floor of a car, like contraband.
He made more than 20 films in England before coming to the United States in 1940 with his mother and sister. Within several weeks, he was testing for "Valley," which was to be directed by William Wyler. Lew Schreiber, the casting director of 20th Century Fox, had an immediate antipathy to the boy, because he did not fit the standard Hollywood model of "cute and adorable," McDowall said. When his test came up on screen, Schreiber put his hands over the projector. Wyler looked at the test anyway and wisely decided to hire the boy. When John Ford replaced Wyler as director, he stayed in the cast.
That role led directly to "Lassie" and "My Friend Flicka," which he made at the same time, and his career was established. Looking back on his Hollywood indenture, he said: "I don't think acting as a child bears any relation to acting as an adult." As he turned 18, he was still playing the role of a child, and he felt a surge of insecurity: "I certainly think I had talent, but I had no craft."
He moved to New York and studied acting, appearing on Broadway and on live television. But he worried that the work would end. Consolation came when he learned that Henry Fonda suffered from the same uneasiness.
"We are the only profession where the accumulation of reputation and excellence doesn't really mean very much next Monday morning," he said. "It's like being a fruit picker. It's seasonal."
His experiences as an actor are engraved in his memory, he says, as are his impressions of actors who passed through his life. When he first came to Hollywood, he wanted to meet Bette Davis, because he thought she was "the bravest of all film actresses." He told her of his admiration, especially for "the margin of danger" she projected on screen. She looked at him and said: "I don't know what you're talking about."
Similarly, he was with Elizabeth Taylor when an interviewer asked her about her beauty. She said: "Oh, I don't think I'm beautiful. I'm passing fair." To her, Ava Gardner was beautiful. Later, in a conversation with Gardner, she, too, declined the compliment and told McDowall she thought Ms. Taylor was beautiful. "And they're the two most beautiful women I've ever seen," he said.
So many of his favorite stories are about actors' moments offstage or off camera. John Gielgud, for instance, is known for his faux pas, as when he was sitting with the playwright Edward Knoblock in a London restaurant. Another man passed by their table, and Gielgud said: "He's the most boring man in the world with the exception of Edward Knoblock." Then realizing with whom he was sitting, he said, "I mean the other Edward Knoblock." When McDowall asked him if that story really was true, Gielgud answered: "I said to myself, 'Did I say it?,' replied no and pressed right on."
Once McDowall asked Noel Coward how he was able to survive decades of critical "rejection, insult and vilification." McDowall offered a crisp imitation of Coward's reply: "It's perfectly simple. They're wrrrong." For an actor, as for a playwright, these are words to live by.
While building a solid reputation as an actor of range and depth, McDowall continues to take a long view of his profession: "Nothing is as good or as bad as it's judged in the moment," and sometimes "yesterday's kitsch is today's treasure."
He is outspoken about the stars who never had full respect as actors: "Celebrity sometimes is the most dangerous component in the continuance of a career. Certain people are wildly talented but their legend becomes the currency in the marketplace."
For McDowall, his life is the movies. "My life has been absolutely demented by the moving image," he said. "I think movies must be preserved, because they're such an important part of our heritage. They have clocked absurdities and monitored styles and have offered a moving account of 100 years, some of it fanciful, some of it accurate."
Then he wondered what it would have been like to have been there on "day one," when movie audiences were first transported into a world of the imagination: "I would have loved to have been a part of the formation of this great art form, which nobody knew was an art form, except Lillian Gish."
With a regret that seemed tangible, he said: "I'm too young."