‘Planet Of The Apes’: A Look Back At The Original Caesar

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Originally published on Moviepilot.com on July 20th, 2017

Before Andy Serkis wowed audiences with his incredible performance as the ape leader Caesar, there was another actor that played an ape role that defined the Planet Of The Apes series. This actor is Roddy McDowall. Roddy McDowall starred in four out of five of the original Planet of the Apes movies from 1968–1973. McDowall was most famous for playing the part of Dr. Cornelius, husband to Dr. Zira and one of the apes that would help crashed astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original, groundbreaking sci-fi classic.

McDowall went on to gradually become the face of the franchise when he took on another ape role in the series: Caesar. I think a big part of the reason the original series made such an impact has to do with McDowall’s performance, as he played two different roles in the franchise, one of which Andy Serkis would later recreate.

WARNING: Spoilers for the Planet of the Apes franchise to follow.

Roddy McDowall’s Career Leading Up To Apes

Roddy McDowall in 'How Green Was My Valley' [Credit: Fox]
Roddy McDowall in ‘How Green Was My Valley’ [Credit: Fox]

McDowall got his start in Hollywood as a child actor. He had already begun starring in British films before he and his family left England during the Second World War. Praised for his acting ability at a young age, he starred in such films as How Green Was My Valley (1941) and the 1944 film The Keys of the Kingdom. He was even dubbed “the star of tomorrow.”

McDowall quickly learned that making the transition from child actor to adult star was not an easy one. He struggled to get the roles he needed to successfully make the transition and decided to leave Hollywood for Broadway while also appearing on several TV shows. He would go on to win both an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. The theater refined his acting ability, and after a few years of work, he landed the role of Dr. Cornelius in the first Planet of the Apes film.

Although his career was gaining steam again after his appearance in Cleopatra, it was  that propelled him into the public limelight. Ironically, the public would never even see McDowall’s face once. Playing the role of a chimpanzee required him to go through extensive makeup and prosthetics.

Planet Of The Apes

'Planet of the Apes' [Credit: Fox]
‘Planet of the Apes’ [Credit: Fox]

Planet of the Apes is a film that could have gone wrong in so many ways (see Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake for proof of that). Let’s face it: The idea behind Planet of the Apes is a bit silly. It’s the execution of the idea that elevates it into a masterclass in science fiction films. Part of that execution is filling the cast with actors and actresses who will take the material seriously (while not trying to overact).

The 1968 Planet of the Apes is an ensemble picture where each actor compliments the other. Right in the middle of that ensemble is the quiet, endearing and earnest performance of McDowall. Something McDowall brought to the role was learning how to work with his makeup and prosthetics. This enabled him be expressive while also incorporating ape-like behavior to his character.

In the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Roddy McDowall was unable to return as Cornelius. David Waston would fill in for the role and, to Waston’s credit, did a fine job attempting to replicate McDowall’s performance. However, the role was reduced and moved to the background.

Escape From The Planet Of Apes

'Escape From The Planet Of The Apes' [Credit: Fox]
‘Escape From The Planet Of The Apes’ [Credit: Fox]

The third film in the series, Escape from The Planet Of The Apes, saw the return of McDowall as he and co-star Kim Hunter took over as the leading actors. Escape reset the timeline of the series, and Cornelius and Zira would travel back in time to modern-day America. The film was a more lighthearted entry. Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter had to carry the film on their shoulders with a classic fish-out-of-water story, forcing them to balance the silly and earnest performance they gave in previous entries.

This is the start of McDowell’s takeover of the franchise. Kim Hunter’s Zira already had a larger emotional range role in previous movies and McDowell was, for the most part, more restrained in the previous films. In Escape, McDowell got to express a wider range of his character that was more humorous and endearing. McDowell had to express his love for Zira underneath all the makeup, which he was able to accomplish with his eyes and gentle presence.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes

'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' [Credit: Fox]
‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ [Credit: Fox]

Escape ended with the deaths of Cornelious and Zira, which effectively ended Kim Hunter’s role in the series. However, the movie ended with the birth of their child, Milo. This is where McDowell took over the franchise with the next entry, Conquest For The Planet Of the Apes. McDowell was brought in to play the son of Cornelius and Zira.

McDowell had to make Milo different than Cornelius. Milo (later renamed Caesar in the film) was angrier than Cornelius. McDowell made the transition from an ape that loves his human owner (in a world where apes became man’s pets) to vengeful revolutionary. It’s a similar transition that Andy Serkis would mimic in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Conquest is the film that was cited as an influence to the 2011 reboot).

Conquest is arguably the best sequel in the series, and it features McDowell’s best performance as Caesar. There are two moments that really solidify McDowell’s performance in Conquest. The first is when Caesar discovers that his owner was killed while in custody of the future oppressive government. McDowell has to be both angry and sad at the same time. It’s a quiet and powerful moment in the film that signals a great shift in Caesar’s character.

The second moment is Caesar’s speech, delivered after the apes have rioted and taken over the city. Caesar’s speech is powerful and emotionally charged, and McDowell delivers it with poise and nuance. Unlike previous films that boasted a big cast, this movie largely rested on McDowall’s shoulders. Howard Thompson wrote in his review for the New York Times:

“Roddy McDowall, who steals the picture as their articulate leader, certainly does, with those piercing eyes blinking through a shaggy hide.”

The series would end with Battle for The Planet of the Apes, featuring a more mature and thoughtful but still distrusting Caesar, with McDowell reprising his role once again. Battle is often cited as the worst in the series (although I still enjoy it more than Tim Burton’s update) and ended the franchise, coming almost full circle to the original’s movie timeline. Fox would produce a TV series, with only McDowell coming back into the series as a third ape, Galen.

Wrap Up

Nowadays, most people tend to associate Charlton Heston with the original Planet of the Apes film and, by extension, the rest of the series. There is no denying Heston’s place in the franchise, especially considering the impact of the first entry in movie history. However, when watching all five films in a row, it is impressive to watch McDowell’s rise to prominence in the role. McDowell kept the series earnest through his ability to play different characters and bring something unique to the role.

So, after we all go see War of the Planet of the Apes and take in the power of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance, perhaps it will serve as a reminder of where this series comes from and the impact an actor such as McDowell has made.

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