Tuesday, July 8

My First Favorite Aussie

There were two Aussies before him in the forms of Errol Flynn and Peter Finch, but I hadn't paid much attention to them.  Rod Taylor, in all his handsome, cocky, masculine, muscular glory, spoke to me and he certainly qualifies to start our sweep of the 1960s since that was the decade of his greatest fame.

Taylor was born in 1930 in Sydney to a tough working-class father and a refined English mother.  He would acquire many traits from both of his parents.  Outwardly, he was his father through and through... rugged, brash, conceited and brazen with a propensity for brawling and slugging back the pints.  Or another way to put it... Aussie all the way.  From his mother he formed an acquaintance with culture and he had a creative, poetic side to his nature. 

His diverse nature was apparent as he was growing up when he developed keen interests in drawing and art and boxing.  He thought he might like to take a stab at being a professional painter.  At the same time, he discovered a love for going to the gym where he became strong, fit, healthy and mighty hunky.  The ladies were turned on to him and he to them and he was never at a loss for a date, never short on confidence.

While still a young man, he heard radio soaps and declared I bet I could do that.  It was true he had a deep, rich voice that often dipped into humor and fun.  He knew he could mimic pretty well and had a good ear for accents.  But after English acting royalty Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh toured Down Under, Taylor gave up notions about professional painting and decided to become an actor.  He started on radio and soon segued into stage acting and then the movies.  He made his Australian movie debut in 1954 playing an American in King of the Coral Sea but it was his appearance that same year in the Australian-filmed but American-financed, Long John Silver, that brought him to the U.S.  And except for very brief visits, he would not return to Australia for good for many years. 

He arrived in America with his well-developed swagger and an attitude that America was lucky to get him.  He got an agent and was soon in small roles opposite Bette Davis and Joan Collins (now there's an odd couple) in The Virgin Queen and with Alan Ladd in Hell on Frisco Bay.  He got a small but plum role as the fiance Elizabeth Taylor dumps for Rock Hudson in George Stevens' 1956 epic, Giant.  It was the first time I noticed him and I was impressed... not at all bad on the eyes, he could act and I confess that swagger was a sight to behold.  I know I added him to my ever-growing list of those to keep tabs on.

MGM noticed him, too, putting him under a seven-year contract.  He was hired at a time they were looking at gaggle of new talent.  They saw most likely that dual nature in him... tough, cocky, capable, heroic and his ability to sit down with a refined lady and speak of books and music and fine art.  A few more of his roles would showcase those latter traits, but it was probably in his DNA that he would become an action star... that was just too much raw masculinity to keep bottled up.

In 1956 he made a sweet little film called The Catered Affair.  It was originally written by the esteemed Paddy Chayefsky and the MGM screenplay was adapted by the no-less-esteemed Gore Vidal.  So the words were certainly there in a somber story directed by the great Richard Brooks.  That story concerned a poor Bronx couple on the verge of paying for the wedding of their daughter, a wedding they wish wouldn't take place.  It starred Bette Davis, looking to take on a different type of role and she just wasn't quite right for it.  Not that her acting was poor (puh-leeze) but we always knew she was Bette Davis and could never be that meek.  It did allow Ernest Borgnine and Debbie Reynolds to stretch their talents.  Taylor was good as the intended husband but anyone around at the time could have been just as good in the part.   I liked it.

In 1957 he made his second film with Elizabeth Taylor, the Civil War drama, Raintree County, in which he played a scrappy townsman who liked to make life difficult for an idealist-teacher played by Montgomery Clift.  It was another lucky move for Taylor to be seen in such an important film.  The same could be said for an even smaller role as a hotel guest in the esteemed Separate Tables, costarring Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, David Niven and Burt Lancaster.

As the 1960s arrived, Taylor was actually a bit dissatisfied with where his career had taken him.  The pictures were impressive but his roles were not.  He wanted to be noticed... he always had.  So he did something that started him on a whole other path... television.  He signed up for Hong Kong, the first of his five series (not to mention a long guest-starring stint on Falcon Crest).  None of his TV series ever lasted long but it provided some bucks for booze and women and glamor homes and cars.  It was somewhere in here that Taylor may have shifted his emphasis from acting to stardom.  He did so want to become a star.

With Yvette Mimieux in "The Time Machine"

Then came The Time Machine (1960).  I have never understood its success but, oh well, there you are.  Based on the H.G. Wells' classic, Taylor plays the author himself (called George here) who time travels and discovers, instead of the Utopian society he is searching for, a couple of hostile species.  The film had then and has now a loyal following but I always found it kinda cheesy.  Of course it did have Taylor and the ethereal Yvette Mimieux (coming up as the subject of a posting on the 60s).  The Time Machine would, without a doubt, be one of two films for which Rod Taylor would be best remembered.

The second of those was, of course, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 opus to our flighted friends that made them look pretty flighty indeed.  Residents of a small town on a bay are attacked and even killed by the title stars and Taylor is not only heroic but a gentleman throughout.  He was ably supported by the delicious Suzanne Pleshette as a schoolteacher, the dazzling Jessica Tandy and some blonde woman who was kind of shrill.  Hitchcock was sorry that he didn't use Taylor for the John Gavin role in Psycho and made it up to him with The Birds.  

He and Maggie Smith were the best thing about 1963's The VIPs.  He got to play an Australian for a change and a rich one, and she played his secretary who is secretly in love with him.  They would appear together again in a couple of years and would become lifelong friends.

I always sat smiling in a theater when Taylor did comedy.  He usually worked in some comedy in all his roles, but 1963's Sunday in New York was all-out comedy.,, in this case romantic comedy and a decent one, done long before Hollywood saturated the market with them.  He and Jane Fonda were so smashingly paired that I question why they didn't work together again.

In 1963 he married his second model (he had divorced one before leaving Australia) and had enjoyed a fling with France Nuyen and a highly-publicised one with Anita Ekberg.  (Nuyen and Ekberg... boy, does this man know a thing or two about variety). 

He was wonderful in 1964's Fate Is the Hunter as the pilot whose plane crash becomes the centerpiece of the plot.  He was also quite good in 1965's 36 Hours as a disguised Nazi officer out to convince an American intelligence officer suffering from amnesia that the war is over so that information can be gathered.   It was a thriller extraordinaire.

Also in 1965 he starred as John Ford's Young Cassidy and gave the performance of his career.  He may be best-remembered for two other films but this is the film that finally made Rod Taylor the actor he wanted to be.  Perfectly cast as a laborer who wants to be a playwright, it shed light on the two distinct sides of Taylor's personality.  Based on the real-life of famed Irish playwright, Sean O'Casey, it allowed Taylor to display a wide range of talents, including tender romances with Maggie Smith and Julie Christie.  Ford liked Taylor a lot... that manly camaraderie knows no borders.  I am not sure why the movie didn't get greater acclaim going for it but it wasn't quite up there.  Taylor must have been very disappointed.

Then came the good news and the bad news.  The good is that he got to be the leading man to the biggest female movie star of the day... Doris Day.  The bad news is that their two films together, Do Not Disturb and The Glass-Bottom Boat are two of the worst things she ever did.  Horrible, horrible, horrible.  He was fine and very Brooks Brothers as the manager of Hotel, heading a glittering all-star cast in what was essentially little more than a soaper.

In 1968, under the direction of the great Jack Cardiff, Taylor starred in my second favorite of all his films and one of the best action films of the 1960s, Darker Than Amber.  Reunited with Yvette Mimieux and co-starring Jim Brown, they light up the African skies with their derring-do as mercenaries out to recover uncut diamonds from warring factions.  Mmmm, I might have to put this in the old DVD player tonight.

From here on, Taylor made a lot of crap, both on the large and small screens.  It's not even worth trying to mention any of them.  Almost without exception, I missed them all.  He had gotten a pretty swelled head, a combination of ego and booze.  His reputation suffered as a result.

I had not heard much of anything about him until one day I was watching a DVD at a friend's house in 1997 and saw a film called Welcome to Woop Woop.  My friend and I were Johnathon Schaech fans and he was the star.  It concerned a motley crew who lived in a weird little town in the Aussie outback and there was Taylor, foul-mouthed and bloated and oh-so-much older as one of the leaders. 

As Winston Churchill in "Inglourious Basterds"

Then a dozen more years went by and I was reading the credits after seeing my favorite Tarantino movie, Inglourious Basterds, and saw that Rod Taylor played Winston Churchill.  Must be another Rod Taylor, I told myself as I spun with imdb.  But no, it was good old Rod, totally unrecognizable.  

He is 84 today, married for the third time, and living in Australia again, where he is largely forgotten or unknown by many of his countrymen today, it has been said.  But he was the leading Hollywood-based Australian star for over 20 years.  It is too bad that he never became the prestige star he clearly wanted to be but he provided me with many an entertaining moment in those dark theaters.

Thanks, Mate.

One of those 60s films



  1. 36 HOURS, this is the title I was despertely looking for. Well, I did not remember it and this is something which can happen to people of my age. Thanks! Yes it was an extraordinary film ; now I can look for the DVD.
    Sunday in New York, was one of my favorite Rod's movies. And what a shock was for me when I realized that he had a role in Giant too.
    I surely think that this post is ABSOLUTELY the best You ever wrote. Thanks again.Ciao

    1. Wow, thanks, Carlo, for the lovely compliment.