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Wednesday, 20th August 2008

ene Autry had to be a man for the moment. It is difficult to imagine that moment would ever come when you consider his credentials. Remarkably wooden as an actor he had a rather poor singing voice so the liklihood of making one the largest show business fortunes of this century on the back of the highly unlikely precept of a 'singing cowboy' really is quite remarkable.

The spoof line always was: 'Them bandits have beaten my mother, ravaged my girl, burned down my house, killed my cattle and blinded my best friend. I'm goin' to get 'em if its the last thing I do. But first, I'm going to sing you a little song.'

Despite all this he was a huge success in films that, at times, almost managed to work some of the songs into the plot. For example, Tumbling Tumbleweeds had our hero rigging up a dummy so it looked like it was singing his song. The bad-guys fell for the wheeze and were caught when they shot the dummy.

So popular was the 'singing cowboy' theme it inspired many others to go the same route, Roy Rogers for one. There was even a ghastly moment when John Wayne burst into song as Singing Sandy. You can imagine what that was like but hearing it is something else.

The fact was he revived the interest in the American hero, the Cowboy and brought audiences flocking into the cinema's. However you cut it 60 years later then he was a great success and through hard work he maintained the success amasing a fortune whilst doing so.

Every Cowboy had to have a sidekick in this case, Smiley Brunette, Frog. More important to a Cowboy than any human was his horse and Gene had a horse called Champion.

There were, in fact, three Champions. The last dying in 1991 at the age of 42.

Although Autry appeared in some 90 movies he was at least as successful as a radio singer and at selling records. Although he had a carefully crafted cowboy persona (three hundred pairs of boots to go with 300 pairs of cowboy suits) his biggest singing success did not come from the cowboy lament. Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer (written by Johnny Marks) became the second best selling Christmas record of all time.

Not content with just a successful acting career or that of a singer he also composed some 200 songs of his own.

He was famous. Famous enough for Berwyn, Oklahoma to change its name to Gene Autry in 1941 and to be called 'one of the most famous men, not only in America, but the whole world.' When he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969.

It all began, 29 September 1907, eldest of four, the family head was Delbert Autry an itenerant cattle farmer.

His grandfather ('the singing Baptist minister') got Gene into the Church choir.

By 17 Gene was singing and playing the guitar in nightclubs but when the hat was passed around it barely ever had 50 cents in it.

Autry went to New York in 1929 for a studio test which culminated in his first RCA Victor recording.

Later he signed with American Record Company which sold vinyl through the Sears catalogue.

Back in Tulsa (fantastic name that one) he hosted his own radio show billed as the 'yodelling cowboy' which at the time was something of a misrepresentation but nobody seemed to mind.

Then in the early thirties things moved on at a faster pace. Taken on by 'The Worlds Largest Store Barn Dance' in Chicago he had the room to develop his own style.

In 1934 he got a part in his first film 'Old Santa Fe' where he was described as a 'tuneful cowpuncher.'

Despite the small part he made it his own and got large quantities of fan mail.

He was signed up for a series called Phanton Empire which was a mix of cowboy serial and science-fiction (sometimes just having ideas is good enough.)

All this led to his first starring role Tumbling Tumbleweeds [1935], the first of a number of films for Republic. From 1936 to 1942 he was never out of the top ten earners in Hollywood.

In 1940 he had his won radio show, 'Gene Autry's melody ranch.' which was sponsered by Wrigleys gum.

July 1942 he went into the US Army Air force where he flew in the Far East ferrying supplies.

Discharged in 1945 he came back to discover Roy Rogers (a former member of his backing group) had taken the throne as the Number One singing cowboy.

Despite this he continued to make films until 1953 and his records sold better than ever before. His last chart entry was Old Soldiers never die in 1973.

1950-56 saw him break into television with 91 episodes of the Gene Autry show. His won television studio (Flying A0 also produced, The Range Rider, The Adventures of Champion and Annie Oakley.

His wealth was not solely based on film and related industries as he also invested in Oil wells, petrol stations, hotels and even had an interest in the California Angels basketball team.

Roddy McDowall

A&BC Gum, Planet of the Apes [1968]

he English-born actor has died at the age of 70. One of the few actors who was instantly recognisable from his voice.

He lived almost his entire life in front of the camera and saw him appear in more than 140 films.

As a child star he worked alongside Lassie in 'Lassie Come Home' and 'My Friend Flicka.' His 100th movie was 'The Cat from Outer Space' in 1978 and he is probably best known for playing an ape in Planet of the Apes (1968). In fact he played in 4 out of the 5 Planet of the apes films and when the idea was sold to CBS for television he transfered to that. Although not the same success (the films were something of an unexpected success for studio bosses) on television it ran for two years before being axed in 1976.

He was born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall, September 17, 1928 at Herne Hill South London.

He made his film debut ten years later in Scruffy [1938] and played opposite Will Hay that same year in Convict 99.

It was not long before 10th Century Fox spotted him (Daryl F Zanuck did the spotting) and he was offered a contract in the States. This he took and went to the US with his Mother and elder sister.

In 1941 he played opposite Walter Pigeon in 'How Green was my Valley.'

The studio was keen to get as many films out of the rapidly ageing child actor and teamed him up with Lassie in 1943. It was here he met fellow child actor, Elizabeth Taylor and they were to be lifelong friends.

They kept turning the films out and at the age of 20 he was still playing a young teenager. Roddy knew there were not many more years left in this act so left for Broadway.

So he spent the fifties treading the boards. Where he said he had to learn to act all over again as an adult theatre role had nothing to do with a child film role.

Never willingingly turning down a part he also appeared in a great many television shows, 'The Kaiser Aluminum Hour' being one such show.

In 1960 he met Richard Burton and became friends. In 1961 both Richard and Roddy were bought out of there theatre contracts so they could play in Cleopatra.

This film is Hollywood history in microcosm and its story makes fascinating reading.

Anyway Roddy had his own problems as he was living with Burton and his wife whilst an increasingly public affair was occuring between Burton and Taylor. Roddy being Taylors confidant at this time.

Roddy then played in a series of star-studded epics, The Longest Day (1962) and playing St Matthew in The Greatest Story ever Told (1965).

By the late 60's things had gone a little off the boil and he apeared in some pretty dire films, 'Lord Love a Duck' got vicious reviews if spoken about at all and The Curse of the Golem (1967) saw him playing a madman keeping his dead mother in the bedroom and persuading a monster to destroy Hammersmith bridge. It is not as good as it sounds.

Seeing this trend he attempted to diversify into photography. On the set of Cleopatra he had taken and sold pictures of the stars to the magazines and so he set about the task of creating a book. Photgraphs of the stars with text opposite written by a star fan, Double Exposure it is called.

Then came the unexpected success of Planet of the Apes.

After this a good many dreadful films appeared. He played a Robot in Disney's The Black Hole (I didn't know that) for example.

He did however work opposite Peter Ustinov on a couple of occassions, the final one being on the lavish remake of Evil Under the Sun. There he played a sour spinsterish author. Something he specialised in later life.

Roddy had a vast collection of movie memorabilia. On the set of Cleopatra he collected the signature of everyone on the set and continued this practice in every film he was involved in. He collected posters, hand-bills and all manner of movie related paper.

He produced a second book, Double Exposure Take 2 in 1989.