Rod Taylor

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Rod Taylor Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 17/4/2017

Paramount studios invited Rod Taylor to Hollywood from his native Australia in 1956 to ‘have a look at him.’ And look they did, and more than enough for producer Hal Wallis to exclaim “Who is this bum with the broken nose?” The actor responded with a curt ‘stuff it,’ and a period on the beach kicking his heels and catching fish would ensue.

Taylor’s career would ultimately take off as the 60’s kicked in, with his starring role in the big screen adaptation of H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine,” and he would go on to appear in several high profile movies throughout the next dozen or so years. His co-stars included Eizabeth Taylor, James Dean and John Wayne, but ultimately, he will be best remembered for playing second fiddle to flocks of over aggressive birds.

Handsome and with the build of a rugby forward, he would – with a handful of notable exceptions -
consistently miss top billing because he was rarely able to demonstrate his flair for playing light comedy, having been too frequently called upon to be stolid and macho – traits that nevertheless made him an ideal action hero in war films and westerns. Nevertheless, I recall his presence in several notable movies throughout the decades up to and including his cameo as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

He was born in Sydney, Australia, the only child of William Sturt Taylor, a steel construction contractor, and his wife, Mona (nee Thompson), a writer. The name Sturt came from a celebrated forebear, Captain Charles Sturt, a British explorer of the Australian outback in the 19th century. Taylor would make his film debut in a short called Inland With Sturt (1951) about his ancestor.

Taylor attended Parramatta high school in Sydney and studied at East Sydney Technical College before deciding to become an actor on seeing Laurence Olivier in the Old Vic touring company in Australia in 1948. His acting career in his homeland was focused on radio, though he did make two feature films, King of the Coral Sea (1953) and Long John Silver (1954), the latter with Robert Newton doing his famous rolling-eyed interpretation of the title role for the third and last time. Taylor later made an imitation of Newton one of his party pieces.

In 1954, he won an award as best Australian radio actor, which included a paid trip to London via Los Angeles. He stayed in LA with the hope of making it in Hollywood movies. Almost immediately, he got small parts in The Virgin Queen, Hell on Frisco Bay and Top Gun (all in 1955) and a lead in World Without End (1956). The last of these was a rather tacky, loose version of HG Wells’s The Time Machine, with Taylor as a stalwart astronaut entering a time warp – a good rehearsal for his role in the more faithful adaptation four years later.

In 1956, he was screen-tested for the part of the boxer Rocky Graziano in MGM’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), after James Dean, who was to have starred, was killed in a car crash. Although Paul Newman got the role, Taylor impressed the studio enough for them to offer him a significant part in The Catered Affair (aka Wedding Breakfast, 1956) in which, occasionally wearing glasses as a signifier of intellect, he played Ralph, the middle-class fiance of working-class Jane (Debbie Reynolds). “The Brooklyn accent I put on during the test so convinced the producers that I was from New York that they cast me as a Bronx boy. They didn’t know I was just 18 months out of Australia until the movie was half finished,” he said.

In the same year, in Giant, he had a small role as Elizabeth Taylor’s aristocratic English suitor, whom she throws over for a Texas millionaire (Rock Hudson). The two Taylors were together again in Raintree County (1957), she as a southern belle, he as a sleazy politician, the bete noire of a sensitive abolitionist (Montgomery Clift). In Separate Tables (1958), he and Audrey Dalton, as a young honeymoon couple, were closer to the subtle merits of Terence Rattigan’s original stage opus than the rest of the starry cast that included Burt Lancaster, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Rita Hayworth as guests at a genteel English seaside guesthouse.

Ask Any Girl (1959) gave Taylor, though no Cary Grant, one of his few opportunities to play in a romantic comedy, which he did ably. Here he is delightfully caddish as a businessman who attempts to seduce naive Shirley MacLaine by taking her up to his aunt and uncle’s place in the country for the weekend, and forgetting to tell her they will be alone.

Among his other rare comedies were Sunday in New York (1963), in which the tables are turned when Fonda tries to get him into bed; and two lightweight Day vehicles, Do Not Disturb (1965), in which she pretends to make her husband (Taylor) jealous because she thinks he’s having an affair, and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), a spy spoof with Taylor as a research scientist who literally hooks Day while she’s swimming in a mermaid suit.

By then Taylor had established himself as a reliable tough-guy leading man in films such as A Gathering of Eagles (1963) and Fate is the Hunter (1964), in both of which he played pilots. He portrayed one of his rare Australian characters, a self-made industrialist secretly adored by his mousy secretary (Maggie Smith) in the jet-set entertainment “*The VIPs” (1963).

However, his role as George Wells, a Victorian inventor, in George Pal’s The Time Machine was among his most memorable and a personal favourite. The film, which won an Oscar for its special effects, follows the valiant, square-jawed Taylor into the horrors of the future, through two world wars and atomic destruction (in 1966), stopping in the year 802,701, when he helps defeat the hideous, underground-dwelling Morlocks. Three years after The Time Machine, Taylor found himself manfully fighting off a swarm of crazed gulls, crows, sparrows, and more in The Birds, after attempting to melt the heart of a young socialite (Tippi Hedren).

Taylor did not seem ideal to play the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey in Young Cassidy (1965), but in it he gave perhaps his best performance, skilfully combining strength and sensitivity. But from 1967 onwards Taylor honed his persona as an action man, with archetypal performances as a hardened professional gunfighter in Chuka (1967), which he also produced; the ruthless army captain sorting out the civil war in the Congo in The Mercenaries (aka Dark of the Sun, 1968); a laid-back gunslinger hired by Wayne in The Train Robbers (1973); and two “heavies,” a sneering cold-blooded killer in The Deadly Trackers (1973) and a wicked entrepreneur at the beginning of the 20th century in Australia in The Picture Show Man (1977). Antonioni wanted Taylor for the nasty capitalist in Zabriskie Point precisely because he could be aloof and steely.

In the 1980s, though he was seen frequently on television, including a 30-episode stint in the soap opera Falcon Crest (1988-90) as Frank Agretti, the long-suffering third husband of Angela Channing (Jane Wyman), the tyrannical owner of the eponymous wine-making estate, Taylor went into semi-retirement. “Pretending to still be the tough man of action isn’t dignified for me any more,” he told an interviewer in 1987. “There comes a time when you’re over the hill and there are plenty of great-looking younger actors who can take your place. The younger they come, the better they get. That’s why Olympic records are broken.”

Recommended viewing

The Time Machine (1960)

In this popular adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, Rod Taylor is a scientist in 1880s Victorian England who builds a vehicle to transport himself through time. He first travels to 1917 and the horror of World War I. Next, he sets his destination for 1940 and the start of World War II. From there he travels to a future London where he barely escapes nuclear holocaust.

In his desperate escape, he sets his destination into the future and ends up in the year 802701, where he meets an innocent race of people living in an idyllic land…. but this future may be the most dangerous of all his journeys in The Time Machine. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

The movie really excels at the visual level. The iconic time machine has made appearances in multiple pop culture contexts including The Big Bang Theory. Acquiring the prop became the Holy Grail for one movie buff collector and the set piece allows for some fun stop motion animation, including a rotting Morlock. It is the Morlocks and Eloi who steal the show particularly with the rather terrifying glowing-eyed blue Morlocks.

The preamble is slow, yet perhaps understandably so for an early 60’s audience less conversed in the intricacies of space and time travel. Nevertheless, the movie holds up well, a shame therefore that George Pal died in 1980 before his planned sequel could be filmed. The Hungarian-American animator, film director and producer – principally associated with the science-fiction genre – was 72 at the time. It is doubtful that Taylor – by then 50 – would have been considered for the lead role.

The Birds (1963)

The Liquidator (1965)

In an era when Sean Connery, Michael Caine, James Coburn, Dean Martin, Robert Vaughn and more brought varying styles of secret-agent cool to movie screens, along came one of the most unusual spies ever to enter the Top Secret realm of hush-hush, bang-bang and kiss-kiss. Rod Taylor plays Boysie Oakes, Agent L, who enjoys the swinging-London lifestyle perks that come with espionage, but would rather not engage in the squeamish business of killing. Hiring a professional hitman (Eric Sykes) for that part of the job, all goes well before events eventually plunge Oakes into situations that require him to be a hero in spite of himself.

Jack Cardiff directs this offbeat caper based on the John Gardner novel, reuniting with the star he guided previously in Young Cassidy.” Shirley Bassey belts out the title song in her inimitable fashion, whilst the cast includes two beauties who would soon return to sexy subterfuge: Gabrielle Licudi in 1967’s spoof Casino Royale and Jill St. John, who played Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever.”

Splashy and trashy in equal measure, contractual problems would delay the film’s release for twelve months; sufficient time for the spy genre to peak and the film’s box office takings to suffer in equal measure. An undeserving outcome for an amusing film which boats Taylor in the lead role as a “klutz who wouldn’t hurt a fly,” an ex-soldier who inadvertently becomes the British spy service’s means of eliminating potential leaks and defectors. One of the best of the many spy spoofs that proliferated in the wake of the James Bond franchise’s success.,_the&limitstart=0

Hotel (1967)

Taylor reportedly disliked the film, yet “Hotel” is colourful and splashy, hardly profund yet entertaining nonetheless. Its glossy appeal lies in the contrasting imagery of The St Gregory hotel – all 30’s ambience – with the latest mod-cons and chic mid-60’s fashions.

Based on Arthur Hailey’s 1965 novel of the same name – and the author was hot property at the time – the film concerns an independent New Orleans hotel and its management’s struggle to regain profitability whilst avoiding being assimilated into the O’Keefe chain of hotels.

Catherine Spaak (in one of her occasional english speaking roles) and Merle Oberon, are luminous in Edith Head gowns reminding many of my generation, of a time when woman dressed like ‘class acts’ and men responded accordingly in sharp suits. Taylor shines in a role that is at once, respectful towards his elderly boss – Melvyn Douglas at his best as the curmudgeon hotelier – and suitably tender with Spaak, the decorous french amoureux of Kevin McCarthy, whose character Curtis O’Keefe is singularly focused on acquiring and then modernising the St Gregory with all forms of automation. The prospect is anethema to the incumbent management, being as they are, intently focused on the traditional values of individual customer satisfaction.

Humour surfaces in the unlikely shape of Karl Malden who, as Keycase, a professional thief, is a man of his time whose time has now passed. Bemoaning the advent of plastic credit cards and the lack of cash to steal, he nonetheless successfully deploys a range of techniques and some female accomplices to assist him in his endeavours. A compulsive kleptomaniac, there’s unbridled joy in ‘lifting’ the most innocuous of items – even an ashtray – provided it’s under the radar of the ever watchful authorities.

‘Hotel’ would be revived as a television series in the early 80’s for a five year run on ABC starring James Brolin, proving the point once again that with a sound cinematic premise, there’s always more gold in ‘them there hills”.

Chuka (1967)

Nobody Runs Forever (1968)

Rod Taylor - Pulling no punches (Documentary) 2016

Eight years in development, five in production and several months in post, the Australian-born Hollywood star finally receives due recognition for the films he made (including The Time Machine, The Birds and the gloriously brutal Dark of the Sun), his contribution to cinema on both sides of the Pacific and in Europe, and his colourful personality that often led to on-set punch-ups and some rather ‘unusual’ career choices.

Working with director Robert De Young (Lowlands Media, Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon, Mad As Hell: Peter Finch, Errol Flynn: Tassie Devil) in Melbourne and co-producer Stephan Wellink in Sydney, Leon Burgher was able to refine material from Rod’s films, hundreds of personal and Hollywood publicity shots, diverse and interesting interviews from the likes of Baz Luhrmann, Jack Thompson, Maggie Smith, Stephan Elliott, Bryan Brown and Angela Lansbury, and Rod’s final extensive on-camera interview shot over two days at his Hollywood home.

It’s a decent enough biography but omits many key films in Rod’s career: 36 Hours, Zabriskie Point, The Picture Show Man. The 70s as a decade gets short thrift, and any casual viewer might suspect the actor never worked in the 80’s yet despite these shortcomings, there’s enough pace to the proceedings to remind us of Taylor’s on-screen presence and versatility.


The Complete Rod Taylor Site