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.