Five best of Rod Taylor

Researching Rod Taylor’s biography entailed me viewing pretty much everything he’d ever acted in that was still on record and available. (There’s still a few TV shows and a lot of radio I would like to get my hands on.) Here are my five favourite films and performances of his.

1)         The Time Machine (1960) – Rod’s first lead in a feature and still one of his best performances: scientist, dreamer, action man, lover, time traveller. Made under the radar by George Pal at MGM it’s been an audience favourite ever since – deservedly.

2)         The Birds (1963) – Hitchcock’s last uncontested classic about an unexplained bird attack in a small coastal town. Tippi Hedren and Rod were cast as cheaper alternatives to Grace Kelly and Cary Grant and they pull it off. Why were they never re-teamed in another film?

3)         36 Hours (1964) – WW2 thriller where Rod plays a very sympathetic German who tries to convince American officer James Garner that the war has ended so he’ll give up details of the D-Day landing. A real gem.

4)         Young Cassidy (1965) – hard-to-find biopic of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, this was originally directed by John Ford, who fell ill during shooting and had to be replaced by Jack Cardiff. Rod gives a great performance in the lead role, managing to hold his own with Maggie Smith and Julie Christie.

5)         Dark of the Sun (1968) – a favourite of Tarantino and Scorsese, this is a gripping guys-on-a-mission film set during the Simba rebellion of 1960s Congo. It has everything: chainsaws, ex-Nazis, drunk doctors, trains, hookers, diamonds, nuns, racism, male rape, a literal ticking clock, and a genuinely different ending for an action film.

Special mention: Welcome to Woop Woop (1998) Stephan Elliot’s unpopular follow up to Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a film with many flaws, but gives Rod his best chance in 25 years as Daddy-O, the patriarch of a small town stuck in the 1950s, and he’s brilliant – scary, touching, and funny all at the same time.

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Random tips if you ever want to write a biography about someone

Anyone out there interested in writing a biography might be interested in these lessons I learned from the experience of Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood.

1)         It’s going to take you forever. But you can’t think of that when you’re doing it – just lie to yourself (and your partner) that it won’t take long.

2)         The best way to get people’s phone numbers for interviews is through recommendations. Whenever you interview someone, always try to ask at the end if they can think of anyone else who’d be good to talk to – and get the phone numbers there and then if you can.

3)         Another good source for phone numbers is – surprise – the phone book. I found it a lot easier to get them directly out of the phone book than through agents or guilds. Although you do find yourself praying that the person you’re tracking down as a long convoluted surname rather than “Smith.”

4)         The internet is not the solution to all your problems. You will at some stage have to go to the library and go through microfiche, old newspapers and musty books. Not everything has been digitized yet. Of course, sometimes things are digitized after you’ve already done the work – this happened to me with old Sydney Morning Heralds, and google news archive. What took me a week could have taken a day. Still, it’s a risk you have to face.

5)         Americans sometimes have trouble understanding the Australian accent over the phone. It can be easier to just put an American accent on when you’re speaking with them.

Writing Rod Taylor

This is an article I wrote for a magazine about the process of writing my book, “Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood”.

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a book on Rod Taylor the second-most common response is, “Why Rod Taylor?” The most common is of course, “Who the hell’s Rod Taylor?” – which doesn’t auger well for my eventual sales. Not that money is the reason I wrote it. Why did I, then?

For two reasons, mostly. Firstly, because I’ve always wanted to write a book – a full-length, proper non-fiction book, one sold in stores and borrowed in libraries and listed in references and referred to in essays. Secondly, because Rod Taylor deserved a book. In the years between Errol Flynn and Mel Gibson he was the biggest Australian film star in Hollywood. His only real competition, Peter Finch, was based mostly in Britain – and besides, he was born in England. Rod was born and raised in Australia (Sydney, to be precise) before heading over to the US to enjoy success.

Rod was never a massive star – one writer described him as “A2 level”, which is fair enough. Nonetheless he still racked up a fairly impressive list of credits. Most people have heard of The Time Machine and The Birds – these two films are classics, still watched frequently today; The Time Machine was remade unmemorably in 2002 and they keep threatening to remake The Birds. He also made a couple of cult classics – Dark of the Sun, 36 Hours, Zabriskie Point – and provided the voice for one of the 101 Dalmatians. And there’s a bunch of movies which always seemed to be playing on TV during Sunday afternoons when I was growing up: Sunday in New York, Ask Any Girl, The VIPs, The Liquidator, Hotel, The Glass Bottom Boat… I loved all these films, particularly Dark of the Sun, and Rod’s performances in them. “He’s Australian, you know,” my mother told me once, when I was young. Australian?! Starring in Hollywood films in the 60s? I knew about Errol Flynn and George Lazenby but didn’t realise there was this other Aussie star running rampant in the pre-revival days. I’ve been interested in Rod’s career ever since.

Rod isn’t very well known today, even in Australia. On one hand I can understand it – his output from the early 70s on has been pretty dire. When he gave a good performance or was in a decent film/TV show, no one turned up to see it; whenever he came back to Australia to make movies, he either had a nothing role (The Picture Show Man) or the public stayed away in droves, despite Rod’s own excellence (Welcome to Woop Woop). He recently had a part in Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s massively popular war epic – sure, it wasn’t a very big role (as Winston Churchill) and isn’t a very good section of the film (distracted by Mike Myers’ British accent), but you would have thought it’d have given rise to a rash of articles, publicity, etc. But no! I hoped a biography would help rectify this. And so I commenced writing the book that would become Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood.

Even though I’d never written a full-length book I realised – d’uh – it would be a big commitment so I dipped my toe in the water slowly. It started with a screen studies assignment when I was a student at AFTRS back in 1999. I discovered that if I enlarged this into an MA (Honours) degree, AFTRS would give me some funds to help with my research. It wasn’t much money, but it was the encouragement I needed, and I was off.

My background is writing plays and feature scripts; whenever I’m working on one, I tend not to tell people what I’m doing – I’m of the school that a writer should save their energy for the page rather than telling people. But doing a biography was different – it’s best to tell everyone what you’re doing, because you never know when someone knows someone or thing that will help you. For example: an editing student at AFTRS revealed she once served beers to Rod Taylor’s (alcoholic) first wife at a pub; a man in the music department had a mother who dated Rod at high school. These sort of things happened all the time, and not only did they provide useful information, they helped maintain my enthusiasm.

I spent a lot of the year 2000 interviewing people – Rod’s old school friends, acting colleagues, and so on. I’m glad I did because many of them were getting on in years; I looked at my records the other day and estimated them that about a third of the people I interviewed have since died, including Jon Cleary, June Salter, Bud Tingwell, Millard Kaufman and Lee Robinson. At times I felt like the angel of death.

As for Rod himself, I contacted him via his agent in 2000 and he seemed initially enthusiastic about the project – he was coming out to Sydney before the Olympics, suggested we catch up and sent me some phone numbers of people to call. I followed him up a few months later – no response. A couple of weeks after that – still nothing. Not wanting to seem like a stalker I backed off and went about my work.

A few things happened in 2001 that put the book on the backburner. My girlfriend was hit by a motorbike crossing the road and wound up in a coma; although she subsequently recovered (and went on to direct two feature films), I had to spend a lot of my spare time hanging around hospital wards and/or running errands. And there wasn’t that much time to spare because by then I was working as a researcher for McLeods Daughters – a very all-encompassing job, made twice as hard since I didn’t know what I was doing.  Progress on the book trickled to nothing.

Indeed, there was a time when I considered chucking it all in, until I got a nice email from a lady in Florida, Diane Tomasik. She had read about my project via the wonders of the internet – a Parramatta newspaper did an article about it (Rod grew up in Lidcombe and attended Parramatta High School). It turned out that Diane had set up a tribute site, wanted to know about the book, was there was any information I didn’t mind sharing, etc. etc. I figured why not, since it didn’t look as though I was going to use it, so I sent on a whole heap of stuff, and a friendship formed.

This proved to be perhaps the best investment I ever made in terms of contacts for this book, because whenever Diane came across some information she’d pass it on to me in turn. And she came across a lot of information – copies of films and TV shows, old editions of Rod’s fan club journal (I’m not kidding, such a thing existed, it was called “Rod-lore”). Diane’s enthusiasm really encouraged me to keep going and I started to get back into the project in 2003 and 2004. During those years I was working three days a week as a researcher on The Great Outdoors, which gave me more time to devote to the project. I also went on long overseas trip which served as a combined honeymoon/research expedition, enabling me to access materials and people in London, New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

Research can be a drag but is mostly terrific fun – going through old newspapers and studio records, visiting schools, etc.  It helped that Rod had a wonderfully varied career: he co-starred with Chips Rafferty; acted in amateur theatre; became a major radio actor in Sydney; worked in the Golden Years of Television; was put under contract to MGM during the dying days of the classical system; set up his own production company; made 10BA tax dodge thrillers, Yugoslavian war epics and shonky European straight-to-video heist dramas; 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 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. He even presented an Oscar.

I also kept up my interview component, during the course of which I found out that Rod was not keen on my book at all. He never told me this directly, I only heard in a round-about way from the widow of his former agent; his one-time personal assistant confirmed this, and suggested I drop the project altogether. No reason was given, but hearing this was distressing – I only meant the book to be a tribute. But I never considered begging off; I’d done too much work. And besides, it was a free country – he couldn’t stop me from writing a biography. It just made things a little more difficult.

To be fair, I can see things from Rod’s point of view. Writing the book took me years and it wasn’t as though I had many credentials. Also, I was digging up stuff which Rod may have preferred be forgotten – to wit, the hash he made of his career. Rod was at a peak in the mid/late 60s, but blew it – partly because Hollywood environment changed, partly through his own mistakes. He developed a serious drinking problem and massive ego, became obsessed with his star image, endured a disastrous second marriage, and acted in a lot of schlock to pay the bills. By the time he sorted these problems out towards the end of the 1970s – kicked the grog, met a great girl who became his third wife (they’re still together), reduced the swell in his head – his career had been irreparably damaged. Who wants to be reminded of that? And while I wanted to be positive in my book, I couldn’t ignore the bad things. Still, it was annoying not to have his help.

Things slowed down again over the next few years when I had to deliver the MA Honours to AFTRS. In my time working on the project I’d dealt with something like five different heads of screen studies in as many years at the school; eventually one stayed for a bit longer (though he’s gone now, too) and helped me translate the book into academic-ese. This took a year. Once that was done I had to translate the book back into English. And then there was proofing, and fact-checking, and indexing, and getting photos together, and all that stuff which takes forever and ended up costing me more money than the research.

Once the book was completed, I shopped it around to publishers and it eventually found a home with a US company that specialises in film titles, Bear Manor Media. It’s out now and has been selling well. My best review so far has come from Rod’s former assistant, who didn’t want me to do the project – she thought it was great, fair and balanced. And since then lots of random strangers have written to me saying how much they liked it, and how the book has inspired them to search out Rod’s movies. Whenever you write something that’s a labour of love, be it a book, an article or a play, those are the sort of reactions you live for. That, and the absence of defamation lawsuits. So even though it took me a long time, the book was, and continues to be, an incredibly rewarding experience. I still don’t know what Rod thinks of it all…

Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood” is available from Amazon.