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.

7 thoughts on “Writing Rod Taylor

  1. Rod’s disinterest both while the book was under construction and later after its publication is puzzling for a person in the Industry he’s in. You’d expect that good or bad historical information is still of interest to the movie viewing public and might also engender an interest by current Movie makers to consider utilising this actor with so much experience for older roles such as we see from Jack Nicholson (who everybody loves to hate but know that anything he’s in will have some meat to it), Michael Cain, Peter O’Toole etc…..

    • Hey Darryl
      Thanks for your comment. To be fair on Rod, he didn’t know me from a bar of soap – it was my first book after all. And I can imagine it must be a little creepy to have a total stranger poking into his life and making judgements on his work from afar. My main regrets on his non-response are two fold (a) he could have corrected any errors (which I tried to avoid as much as possible but are inevitable) and (b) I would have loved to get his opinion on certain things. Your examples of Nicholson, Caine and O’Toole are spot on though – it’s a shame Rod never enjoyed the juicy roles these guys did in the sunset of his career. It’s never too late though – he’s still alive and kicking. Hopefully we’ll see a few more Rod performances yet.

      • Stephen

        I have recently rediscovered Rod Taylor when I found most of the episodes of Hong Kong on youtube (but in youtube quality). It has become one of my favourite shows. I can’t believe how great this show was (even though it was filmed in Hollywood) and how Rod was really top of his game.

        I will have to get your book from Amazon. How much of it is devoted to the Hong Kong series and who did you interview from the series? Can’t wait to read it.

  2. Hey Mike – yes a bit of the book is devoted to Hong Kong as it was a crucial show in the development in Rod’s career. Rod had been in Hollywood for a number of years, getting decent supporting roles, but never quite getting that big break. In 1959 he was cast in The Time Machine, which has become a classic, but took a long time in post production – so he accepted a role to star in Hong Kong. He was reluctant to star in a TV series – he wanted to be a movie star – but the pay was good and so was the role. I agree he was terrific in the series, and it was a fun show. It never quite clicked with the ratings, which I never understood; on one hand was a shame but on the other allowed Rod to pursue his feature film career (which stepped into a higher gear later on). The part Rod played in Hong Kong established his screen persona that he would portray in the 60s and 70s – tough with men, gentle with women, sophisticated yet two fisted etc. – far more than The Time Machine did. The series was incredibly popular in Rod’s home country of Australia – the third most popular show of the year. I tried to speak with as many people on Hong Kong as possible – many have passed on unfortunately but I did get hold of people like Arthur Hiller, William Froug, and Bob Blees. There’s an excellent page on the show on The Complete Rod Taylor site (the website – http://rodtaylorsite.com/hongkong.shtml). It’s good Hong Kong can be seen on You Tube – I would love a DVD to be issued with commentary from Rod but it mightn’t be considered worth the money. Rod made a number of TV series later in his careeer (Bearcats, Oregon Trail, The Outlaws, Falcon Crest) but none of them was as good, for my money, as Hong Kong. He also met his third and final wife on the show so he did pretty well out of it too! Enjoy the book.

  3. Hi Stephen, First let me congratulate you on your book about Rod Taylor!. I enjoyed it immensely, and found it full of gems and ditties that I never knew before!:)…I agree too that it was a shame that Rod did not land some more meatier roles, but as you said, his drinking problem and massive ego sent his career in a nose dive!…I own 12 episodes of Hong Kong on DVD, which I treasure so much!…It’s too bad he never got to be in a movie with Grace Kelly, as I think it would have been a good pairing!:)…I got to meet Rod at the Sydney Premiere of The High Commissioner, and he came across as being a bit over-powering, if you know what I mean?..By the way you mention in your book he was only 5’7″. I am 5′ 8″ and he was slightly taller than me, so I would say 5′-9″ would be closer to the mark!..If you intend to add things to your book at any time, I have a great story to add!
    I also am in contact with Diane in Florida, and often send ideas and photos of Rod, to add to her already amazing collection!:)I can understand Rod being a little nervous about having a book written about him!….There is always more in a persons life, than meets the eye!
    Some of the movies made in the 60’s that I would have liked to have seen Rod star in are:
    The Hill, The Blue Max, Breakfast at Tiffany’s,Failsafe,The Wild Bunch, I’ll Never Forget What’s his Name and The Forbin Project:
    Can you image some movies he could have starred in?
    Thanks again!:)

    • Hey Glenn

      Great to hear from you and thank you for your nice comments on the book. Hong Kong is a really fun show – I’m surprised it didn’t last longer than it did (I’ve met so many Aussies who love it), but on the sunny side for Rod it meant he was freed up to appear in a lot more movies at a key stage in his career. Yes, Rod and Grace would have been a good pairing – Caravans, the film he did want to make with her, was filmed in the late 1970s, not entirely successfully; I think the 60s version would have been better (I’ve read the novel – it seems to suit 60s treatment more, if that makes sense). But I guess Grace had a better gig!!

      It’s entirely possible I got Rod’s height wrong by a few inches… although he did wear “lifts” occasionally to boost his height (in common with many a movie star), so maybe he had some on that day! I am looking at doing a later edition (hopefully fix up a few things) so any info you’ve got would be great.

      Diane is sensational – her website is terrific. All your suggestions for Rod parts are spot on – I would have loved for him to make a movie with Peckinpah, indeed I’m surprised in a way he didn’t because he would have been perfect for most of them. I really like George Peppard as an actor but feel Rod had more warmth and would have been incredible in Tiffany, Blue Max, etc. (Any of Peppard’s roles, really – you can imagine him in all of them. And vice versa for Peppard.)

      My top “unmade Rod Taylor projects” would include the 60s version of The Man Who Would Be King with Richard Burton (I doubt that ever came too close to being made with Rod but imagine it!), Harrow Alley in the early 70s (apparently one of the best unmade scripts ever written) and the sequel to The Time Machine.

      But my personal “dream” role for Rod would have been to appear in an adaptation of the Australian theatre classic, “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll” – filmed in 1959 with John Mills and Ernest Borgnine. Rod was not a big enough star to be in that movie version then but I would have loved for him to make it, say, in the 70s. (The definitive film version of this play remains to be made. I think Russell Crowe should do it, personally).

      All the best and thanks again


      • Hi Stephen,Sorry for my late reply, but I lost the link to your site!:(…Thanks for your input, and yes I agree with all your projects for Rod as well!..Should you want to add some new stories to your book my email address is galaxy472@bigpond.com and I can pass them on to you!..Thanks once again for a great read, oh and by the way, the photo in the book with Rod in a military uniform, where you say you think it is from Fate is the Hunter, it is actually a Still from “Dark of The Sun”…well that’s my rant, and all the best!:)…Glenn

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