Vale Rod Taylor

It’s a weird sensation when someone you’ve written a book about dies. I never actually met Rod Taylor but I would have spent, I guess, two years researching and writing about his life and career. I’m sad I never got the chance to meet him but he had a wondrous life – a working class kid from Lidcombe who got to travel the world, make a lot of money, do a job he loved, have flings with a succession of glamorous women and act in a lot of terrific films and TV shows. He also made lots of friends, got to marry his soul mate (his third time at bat but better late than never!) and from all accounts he kept active and engaged until the end. And for twenty years he was the biggest Aussie star in Hollywood – Vale Rod, and thanks for such adventures.

Quick Rod Taylor primer for anyone interested in watching his movies:

– If you’ve never seen a Rod Taylor movie, I urge you to check out The Time Machine (1960) and The Birds (1963). Those are the two of his pretty much every one likes, along with 101 Dalmatians (1961), for which he provided one of the voices.

– If you like glossy 50-60s rom coms about single girls worried about their virginity in New York City, you’ll enjoy Ask Any Girl (1959) and Sunday in New York (1964).

– If you like glossy all star melodramas from the 60s, it’s worth looking at The VIPs (1963) (where he plays an Aussie) and Hotel (1967)

– If you’re a fan of gritty guys on a mission action flicks, you’re going to love Dark of the Sun (1968)

– Lovers of wacky screwball comedies will enjoy The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) with Doris Day

-If you want to see what happens when MGM give Antonioni $7 million and complete creative carte blanche, see Zabriskie Point (1970) – Rod’s role is only small but its a fascinating, flawed movie

– If you don’t have a lot of time, and/or are into sci fi his best TV performance was probably “And the Sky Was Opened”, a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone – 30 mins of paranoiac greatness

– If you’re into “little known undiscovered gems” I can recommend the war time thriller 36 Hours (1964) and the air crash mystery Fate is the Hunter (1964)

– His best Australian movie was probably The Picture Show Man (1977) but his role is only small; he has a bigger part and is easily the best thing about Welcome to Woop Woop (1997)

– His best fight scene was in Darker Than Amber (1970)

– Great role he never played: either of the two leads in a version of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Rod Taylor – film by film (with some TV & radio thrown in)

Rod Taylor’s biographer, Stephen Vagg, takes us through a film by film look at the man’s career – plus some TV roles too…

* The Sturt Expedition (1951) – not a feature film but Rod’s first work on celluloid. He was part of a re-enactment of Charles Sturt’s 1829-39 expedition down the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, playing the part of George McLeay, Sturt’s 2-I-C. In real life Rod was actually related to Sturt (“Sturt” was even his middle name), though that role was taken in the re-enactment by Grant Taylor (no relation). The two Taylor’s and some Duntroon students followed the same route as the original expedition, which meant rowing over 1,000 miles over a couple of weeks, being watched by over 300,000 people in all. The Australian National Film Board (which became Film Australia) made a 20 minute documentary of it, which would be mostly of interest to history buffs. Rod runs around in a false beard and points at things.

* King of the Coral Sea (1954) – Australia didn’t make many movies in the 1950s but this was one, a thriller about people smuggling on Thursday Island, in which Rod supports Chips Rafferty and a then-hunky Charles “Bud” Tingwell. It’s actually not much of a film, and is a bit racist, but there is some stunning location photography and its fun to see Tingwell in his leading man phase, taking his shirt off all the time. Rod plays an American soldier who stayed on in Australia after the war.

* “Tarzan” (1954) (radio show) – Rod was among the most in-demand radio actors in Australia when he played the title role of the famous Lord of the Apes. Lots of grunting and cat calling, it proved enormously popular at the time; listening to it today, it’s good for some laughs and nostalgia.

* Long John Silver (1954) – a fun, ramshackle kids film financed by Americans, but shot in Australia. It’s an unofficial sequel to Treasure Island (1950) with Robert Newton reprising his scenery-chewing, eye rolling turn in the title role. Rod pops up in a fake beard, eye contacts and wild hair as Israel Hands – a hilariously over the top performance to which he commits whole-heartedly, chasing a young Kit Newton all over an island. This is definitely no masterpiece, but its fascinating to see Sydney and its surrounds substituting for the Caribbean.

*The Virgin Queen (1955) – Rod called himself “Rodney” during his first few months in Hollywood and pretended to be a very English Australian in order to get work. It didn’t last for long but it helped him be cast in a small role as a Welsh corporal in this big budget Bette Davis vehicle. Rod had to act in all sort of accents during his time on Australia radio; here he demonstrates his Welsh!

* Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) – enjoyable Alan Ladd thriller where Rod has a juicy little part as a thug who gets beaten up by the star.

* Giant (1956) – one of the most popular and acclaimed film as the 1950s, George Stevens’ look at oil, family and racism was beloved by George W. Bush and featured James Dean’s last performance. Rod only appears in two scenes, but it wasn’t a bad part – as Elizabeth’s Taylor’s fiancee who gets dumped for Rock Hudson and then marries her sister – and added a lot to his prestige. He gets to trot out his English accent in this one.

* Top Gun (1955) – a low budget Sterling Hayden Western which rips off the plot of High Noon and features Rod over-acting as a cowboy.

* “The Argonauts” (1955) (TV episode) – an episode of the Clint Walker series “Cheyenne” which crams the entire plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre into a 30 minute running time, but is actually really good – Rod’s performance, in the old Tim Holt part, is one of the best things he did when he first arrived in Hollywood.

* World Without End (1956) – in the 1950s Hollywood turned out a whole bunch of science fiction films about a team of male explorers crashing/arriving on a planet/island ruled by women whose feminist principles melt at the sight of some beefcake; this was one of them, and is daggy fun if you’re in the right mood. Rod has a decent sized role as a member of the expedition. Sam Peckinpah was dialogue director!

* The Catered Affair (1956) – The first film Rod made under his contract with MGM, which he got after impressing in his screen test for Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) – he didn’t get that part, but the studio signed him up and put him in this. He’s very sweet as the fiancee of Debbie Reynolds, whose mother Bette Davis wants to give them a big wedding whether they like it or not. It’s a sort of cross between Marty and Father of the Bride – how much you like it will depend on whether you enjoy Bette Davis’ hammy performance.

* Raintree County (1957) – MGM’s unsuccessful attempt to make a new Gone with the Wind was a hit but didn’t recoup its big budget and is chiefly remembered for Montgomery Clift’s car accident during the shoot – resulting in him having facial damage in some scenes but not others. A disappointing film in which Rod does well in a showy support role.

* “The Great Gatsby” (1958) (TV episode) – Rod made a number of appearances on TV during the Golden Era of Television; this was an episode of Playhouse 90. Despite the impression given by Vinnie Chase in Entourage, the part of Nick Carraway isn’t a very good one in any adaptation of Gatsby. But Rod as well as anyone has in that role, supporting Robert Ryan in the lead.

* Step Down to Terror (1958) – in the late 1950s Rod often found himself playing handsome handbags to the female star, such as here; it’s an undistinguished low budget remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with Rod in the thankless MacDonald Carey part.

* Separate Tables (1958) – Rod has only a small part, pretending to be English in a little romance with Audrey Dalton, but like Giant this was a prestigious project to be associated with – an all star adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play.

* “The Raider” (1959) (TV episode) – another quality episode of “Playhouse 90”, a corporate drama in the style of Executive Suite with Rod excelling among an excellent ensemble cast. Very hard to see but worth it for Rod fans.

* Ask Any Girl (1959) – bright, funny career-girl-in-New-York-city rom com, with a very winning Shirley Maclaine in the lead, and Rod in a brilliant comic support turn as one of her boyfriends. It helped him get cast in The Time Machine.

* “And When the Sky Was Opened” (1959) (TV episode) – awesome episode of The Twilight Zone, with Rod in excellent form as an astronaut who returns to earth and starts to worry he’s disappearing. A deserved classic.

* The Time Machine (1960) – Rod’s first proper lead, a marvellous, melancholic classic which has aged very well. Made with love and care by George Pal and his team, acted brilliantly by Rod, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux and others, this was not a massive hit when it came out but remains a deserved classic.

* Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1961) – a sword and sandal comedy which Rod claims to have rewritten and only made to get a free holiday to Italy. He and body builder Ed Fury play two Trojan War heroes who wind up on an island which is – you guessed it – run by women. Utterly silly and cheaply made, Rod described this as like a “porno from his past” but it’s surprisingly fun and Rod gets to show off his comedy chops again.

* Hong Kong (1960-61) (TV series) – playing journalist Glenn Evans resulted in the definitive Rod Taylor performance: tough, smart, brave, sensitive and handsome, fighting gangsters, femme fetales and Commies in 20th Century Fox backlot Hong Kong. This action adventure show was enormously popular in Australia but bewilderingly couldn’t find an audience in the US, despite an overwhelmingly positive reception for the star, and only ran a year. Nonetheless it really established him in Hollywood, even more than The Time Machine.

* One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) – a wondrous classic, the most financially successful film Rod made – he provides the voice of Pongo.

* Seven Seas to Calais (1962) – Rod plays Sir Francis Drake in his one attempt at an Errol Flynn type swashbuckler and he doesn’t do too badly. This is typical of the many Italian historical adventure movies of the time – colourful, erratic acting, a bit dopey – with the added bonus of fellow Aussie Keith Michell as a romantic lead.

* The Birds (1963) – the role was written with Cary Grant in mind, but Hitchcock was too cheap so he hired Rod – whom he’d briefly considered for a part in Psycho – to step in instead. The second classic of Rod’s career, a brilliant combination of screwball comedy, thriller and romance, this holds up excellently today.

* A Gathering of Eagles (1963) – a dull Cold War drama made to show the preparedness of America’s Strategic Air Command – you know, for nuclear war. Were we meant to care? Rod Taylor was meant to have an affair with Rock Hudson’s wife, but the studio ended up cutting that subplot making this a film mostly about military drills and a wife whining about her husband never being home.

* The VIPS (1963) – glossy 60s MGM soap fun made by Dick Burton and Liz Taylor at the height of their notoriety. Although the movie is jam packed with stars – including Louis Jourdan, Margaret Rutherford and Orson Welles – it’s Rod and Maggie Smith who steal the film in their story. This was the first time Rod played an Aussie on screen! He plays a tractor tycoon.

* Fate is the Hunter (1964) – Glenn Ford investigates whether pilot buddy Rod Taylor was responsible for a deadly plane crash. An undiscovered gem worth seeking out.

* Sunday in New York (1964) – Rod in another rom com about a single girl on the loose in NYC, only this time he gets the girl, as played by a very winning Jane Fonda. Bright, colourful, silly and fun, with one of the catchiest theme tunes of the 60s.

* 36 Hours (1964) – a first rate WW2 thriller whose central conceit has been ripped off numerous times but remains exciting. Rod manages to convince us he’s a Nazi doctor and steals the movie from James Garner and Eva Marie Saint.

* Young Cassidy (1965) – Rod’s big attempt at being a dramatic star, playing a thinly-veiled playwright Sean O’Casey under the direction of John Ford, who fell ill during the shoot and was replaced by Jack Cardiff. No classic – the script is flawed – but always interesting, a must for fans of O’Casey, and there are some electric scenes between Rod and Julie Christie, and Maggie Smith.

* Do Not Disturb (1965) – Rod teams very well with Doris Day, then the biggest star in the US, but it’s a dumb story and not very funny.

* The Liquidator (1966) – attempt at a Bond spy spoof has some good moments, especially if you like 60s glossy MGM movies, and witty lines via Aussie scribe Peter Yeldham. but doesn’t really work – in part because Rod isn’t entirely well cast as a cowardly secret agent. There was meant to be a series but the film’s release was held up in a legal fight and underperformed at the box office.

* The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) – Rod teams with Doris Day to a lot better effect in a really fun Cold War spy comedy. Bright direction from Frank Tashlin.

* Hotel (1967) – adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s best selling novel with Rod as the heroic manager suffers from being a little on the cheap side (the “all star cast” features names like Catherine Spaak, Karl Malden, Michael Rennie and Kevin McCarthy) but it is entertaining and Rod has some good heroics in the elevator shaft at the end.

* Chuka (1967) – Rod turned producer on this one (a Western) and to be blunt didn’t do that good a job, stuffing a potentially exciting story. Still there are some good moments and an excellent cast.

* Dark of the Sun (1968) – one of Rod’s best ever movies, a nihilistic, thrilling guys-on-a-mission flick set during the Simba Rebellion in 1960s Congo. Full of exciting action, surprising moments and a superb score, with Rod going to town as a broken, emotionally wrecked mercenary. The best movie made from a Wilbur Smith novel (admittedly not high praise).

* The Hell with Heroes (1968) – this post-war thriller has its fans and Rod rarely had a lovelier co-star than Claudia Cardinale, but I found this a little dull and disappointing.

* The High Commissioner (1968) – Rod plays an Aussie for only the second time of his career – and muffs it. A perfectly good story (from the Jon Cleary novel) is ruined, in part by Rod’s poor performance. Made during the stage of his career when he was drinking and rewriting scripts too much – it worked for Dark of the Sun, but not here.

* Zabriskie Point (1970) – the most unusual movie Rod ever made: after the success of Blow Up (1967), MGM gave Antonioni carte blanche and were rewarded with a $7 million flop that was loathed by most writers. Nonetheless its full of striking images and scenes such as the hippies making love in the desert. Worth seeking out. Rod’s role is only small but he gives the best performance.

* The Man Who Had Power Over Women (1971) – a midlife crisis drama movie which probably should never have been made and has too many silly moments (eg someone being killed by being hit by a lot of toilet bowls) and made about ten cents at the box office but actually features one of Rod’s best performances.

* Darker Than Amber (1971) – Rod is ideally cast as John D MacDonald’s detective hero Travis McGee and takes part in one of the all time great fight scenes with William Smith, but the film doesn’t quite work.

* Bearcars! (1971-72) (TV series) – As Rod’s star began to decline in Hollywood, he returned to the small screen in this buddy adventure tale; he and Denis Cole have adventures in their Stutz bearcat in the 1910s. Not bad though the writers struggled to come up with stories that didn’t involve people being kidnapped, and everything in the show always looked too brown.

* Family Flight (1972) – enjoyable TV movie which featured Rod’s first performance as a father – he and his family crash in the desert and need to survive before the film runs out of its allocated 90 minutes.

* The Heroes (1972) – weird, boring Italian WW2 heist film with Rod and Rod Steiger looking for money in the desert.

* The Train Robbers (1973) – Rod and John Wayne were mates in real life but this is the only movie they made together, a slow paced but enjoyable in its way Western.

* Trader Horn (1973) – el cheapo MGM remake of the 1931 classic, shot on the back lot with Rod way too fat to play the title role. Kids might enjoy it.

* The Deadly Trackers (1973) – one of the most bleak and violent movies Rod ever made, and his first performance as a die-hard villain, slaughtering the family of sheriff Richard Harris who goes looking for him. A bit of a mess – only if you like ultra violent Westerns.

* Partizan (1974) – Rod headed to Yugoslavia and tries to convince audiences he’s an American educated Yugoslav who returned home when the Germans invaded to fight for the mother country. Plenty of spectacle and action plus a great performance by Adam West.

* A Matter of Wife… and Death (1976) – (TV movie) pilot for a series that never went ahead based on the Burt Reynolds movie Shamus (1973), with Rod stepping in for the lead. Not bad of it’s type.

* Blondy (1976) – the worst movie Rod made. Awful Europudding sex thriller which is painful to watch. Rod’s professiona performance in a, small role is the best thing about it.

* The Oregon Trail (1976-77) – a short lived Western series with Rod as a paterfamilias trekking across the plains. Like too many of Rod’s work in the seventies it’s “okay” rather than inspired. He has good by-play with Charles Napier, who became a mate in real life.

* The Treasure Seekers (1978) – odd, hard to see film with Rod and Stuart Whitman looking for treasure in present day Jamaica, from a script by Rod. Not as much fun as it sounds, shot far too cheaply.

* The Picture Show Man (1977) – Rod’s first Aussie movie in over 20 years… and he plays an American! And it’s not even the lead! But this is a charming valentine to film exhibitors of the silent era, with Rod’s old radio drinking buddies John Ewart and John Meillion in the leads.

* A Time to Die (1983) – released four years after being shot, from a story by Mario Puzo – this isn’t a bad war time revenge film with Rod as a CIA man and Rex Harrison as a Nazi general.

* Cry of the Innocent (1980) (TV movie) – solid TV movie from a Frederick Forsyth story with Rod as a man avenging the death of his wife and child.

* Hellinger’s Law (1981) (TV movie) – Rod bucks against type and plays a Texas Mafioso in a decent pilot for a series that never eventuated (a vehicle for Telly Savalas).

* Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981) (TV movie) – not the best movie in the world but Rod is superb as Jackie O’s womanising, boozing father, Black Jack Bouvier – it’s one of his best performances.

* Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story (1982) (TV movie) – one of two films dramatising the royal courtship that galvinised the 80s, with Rod in a small part as Prince Charles’ secretary. Mainly worth watching for a scene where Charles introduces Di to his good friends, the Parker-Bowleses.

* On the Run (1982) – Rod finally plays an Aussie in an Aussie film… only it isn’t much good, a dopey 10BA thriller with Rod as a hitman. Best scene has him kill Alf from Home and Away.

* Masquerade (1983-84) (TV series) – sort of like I Spy meets the Love Boat – Rod and his team of operatives recruit ordinary civilians to do their spy work. Silly high concept 80s adventure series which the public didn’t like but Rod is well cast.

* Marbella (1985) – Rod gets to bed Britt Ekland and others in this high spirited, if dim 80s Spanish heist movie

* Mask of Murder (1985) – a real odd thing – set in the US but shot in Sweden with Rod playing an impotent serial killer. Not particularly great, although Christopher Lee is in it.

* The Outlaws (1986-87) (TV series) – for those who didn’t think Masquerade was high concept enough: Rod plays a sheriff chasing some outlaws and they all find they’re transported to the present day. Too dodgy a concept to ever have legs, but Rod is in fine form.

* Falcon Crest (1988-90) (TV series) – Rod joined the cast of this long running soap, which was famous for employing old Hollywood stars. He got to romance Jane Wyman and go through the standard soap wringer, giving a solid performance.

* Danielle Steel’s Palomino (1991) (TV movie) – one of many adaptations of Steel novels. If you’ve seen one you know what to expect (that’s not a back handed compliment – these movies are better than you think – they just aim at a specific demographic) and Rod is touchingly reunited with Eva Marie Saint.

* Grass Roots (1992) (TV mini series) – a sequel to Chiefs (1983) which was awesome, which this is not. Rod has a small role as a lunatic general.

* Open Season (1996) – one of Rod’s best later performances, he’s the highlight of this unfairly overlooked satire on TV.

* Point of Betrayal (1995) – Rod is touching in this let’s-declare-mum-insane-so-we-can-get-our-hands-on-the-money drama, and contributed some good writing to the film too.

* Welcome to Woop Woop (1997) – Stephan Elliott’s eagerly awaited follow up to Priscilla Queen of the Desert was not as enthusiastically received (to put it mildly), but gave Rod his best role in over 25 years: the tap-dancing, Collingwood-jersey-wearing, meat-pie-eating patriarch Daddy O, a combination of Bob Katter, Black Jack McEwan, and Bob Ellis on speed, lording it over the nightmarish outback town of Woop Woop. Rod grabbed it with both hands, giving a marvellous, completely committed performance that is alternatively terrifying, touching and very funny. More than any other movie he made, it makes you wish he’d worked in Australia more often.

* Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy (1998) – another pilot which didn’t got to series, Rod is a little uncomfortable as an old space general, but adds some necessary gravitas.

* Kaw (2006) – A Birds knock off with Rod as doing some crusty old timer acting.

* Inglourious Basterds (2009) – Quentin Tarantino’s WW2 epic, a marvellous movie, with Rod in a small but important role as Winston Churchill. He’s not super ideally cast and Quentin seems to shoot him in long shot most of the time, bunt it was great to see Rod in a big movie again.

Rod Taylor (1930-2015)… Why He Mattered

For over twenty years, from the death of Errol Flynn until the rise of Mel Gibons, Rod Taylor was the biggest Australian star in Hollywood. He never quite made the top rank of fame (Peter Yeldham described him as “A2” category”) but during his peak years – running roughly from The Time Machine in 1960 until The Deadly Trackers in 1973 − he co-starred twice with the top box-office attraction in the US (Doris Day); was entrusted with two studio “franchises” (The Liquidator, Darker Than Amber); produced and co-wrote his own films (Chuka) and ensured a picture was green-lit merely by his presence in the cast (The Hell With Heroes). He worked with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Michelangelo Antonioni; producers like Walt Disney, Ray Stark and Joe E Levine; and screenwriters such as Gore Vidal, Terence Rattigan and Sam Shephard. His co-stars included Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Maggie Smith, Montgomery Clift and John Wayne. His love life and bank balance were discussed in fan magazines, his opinions on art, politics and women sought by newspapers; he even presented an Oscar. He starred in two films which became undoubted classics (The Time Machine, The Birds) and provided the voice for a third (101 Dalmatians), as well as appearing in a handful of cult favourites (Dark of the Sun, Zabriskie Point) and others that have remained perennial favourites on television and video.

Rod’s popularity declined in the late 1960s after a number of his movies under-performed at the box-office. He developed a problem with alcohol, seemed to become more interested in maintaining his star image than in being an actor and suffered from the economic shakeups that affected the entire film industry. Nonetheless, he remained a star until the late 1980s, playing the lead in numerous TV series, telemovies and European features. In 1997 he delivered one of the best performances of his career in Welcome to Woop Woop; in 2009 he had a small role in the enormously successful Inglorious Basterds.

Rod never had the individuality of the truly great superstars like Errol Flynn or Humphrey Bogart. However, he compensated by being more versatile – a genuinely talented actor, he was comfortable in a variety of genres (especially actioners, dramas and comedies) and could play all sorts of roles, from the romantic comedy of The Glass Bottom Boat to the war time thrills of 36 Hours.

Rod’s best-known characters might best be described as a “sexy intellectual heterosexual man’s man” – that is, someone able to hold his place in a white-collar environment, but who is also capable of physical activities (particularly fighting), is appealing to women and gets along with other men. For instance, in The Time Machine, he plays a scientist who beats up creatures of the future, romances Yvette Mimieux and has a strong friendship with Alan Young; in Young Cassidy he portrays a playwright who digs ditches, brawls with the British, romances Maggie Smith and boozes around Dublin with his mates.

This persona reflected aspects of the real-life Rod Taylor, who liked a drink and a fight, but who also trained at art school and would sketch and paint for relaxation; who was married three times and had an active love life, but who also enjoyed carousing into the small hours with stuntmen. Rod painted, sculpted, drank, womanized, fought and acted – an unusual combination for an Australian man, even today. An early girlfriend, Beryl Eager, perhaps summed Rod up best when she described him as a “Russell Crowe touched with Baryshnikov.”

Rod Taylor also had special importance for his homeland. His great days as an actor came when Australia’s film industry was virtually non-existent, its radio drama dying out, it’s television drama slow to emerge, and it’s theatre struggling. During that time Rod became famous around the world. He never hid his Australian nationality and played Australians in a number of films. At a time when Australians could rarely see or hear themselves on screen, stage and radio, Rod Taylor helped keep Australia in the public eye. Regardless of the nationalities he played, the essence of his characters – rough, tough men who worked with their hands, attractive to women but more comfortable among men – was often in line with the “typical” Australian of myth. This image of Australia, while it certainly had its flaws, was in the main a positive, attractive one – after all, Rod was a handsome, charismatic actor who usually played heroes in films aimed at large audiences.

Rod also helped develop the sort of rugged acting style and screen persona that later Australian-based talent such as Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe would demonstrate. Errol Flynn had already starred in many action movies, but he generally played the classic romantic hero. Rod Taylor’s image was tougher and more no-nonsense; more contemporary and recognisably Australian. It is easy to see the lineage from Rod to later Aussie stars such as Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger and so on. While he often described himself as a “phoney American”, he was a very Australian one, and we are poorer for his passing.