10 Things You Might Not Know About Rod Taylor

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I’ve always liked Rod Taylor. The broad shouldered, barrel-chested actor with a booming voice is intimidating on screen but there’s a warmth in his smile that’s undeniably inviting. He was universally good in every film genre he took part in and made the challenging transition from serious drama to action movies, thrillers and romantic comedies seem effortless. He was at home in military fatigues or a three piece suit and that breadth and depth of character makes him extremely fun to watch. Tonight TCM viewers can tune in and catch Taylor in a few of his best films including THE BIRDS (1963), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), DARK OF THE SUN (1968), SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963) and HOTEL (1967) so it seemed like a good time to share some of the interesting facts I recently discovered about him after reading Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood. Stephen Vagg’s 2010 book is typical of most movie star biographies and provides a general overview of Taylor’s career as well as his personal life. I didn’t know much about the Australian born actor beforehand so it was an eye-opening read that gave me a new appreciation for Taylor as well as the film’s he appeared in.

1. Rodney “Rod” Sturt Taylor was named after his great-great grand uncle, the British explorer Charles Sturt who famously led several important explorations into Australia. In an unusual coincidence, Rod Taylor’s first film role was in the short film, INLAND WITH STURT (1950), which detailed Charles Stuart’s historic voyage down the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers in Australia with his friend and fellow explorer, George Macleay. Taylor played the role of Macleay.

2. Taylor attended the East Sydney Technical and Fine Arts College where he was able to develop his natural talents as an exceptional painter, illustrator and pottery artist. While attending school, Taylor also became seriously interested in sports and would spend his weekends at Sydney’s Mona Vale Surf Club. He was allowed free overnight accommodation at the clubhouse in exchange for working as a lifeguard during the day. He eventually became a captain of the surf club and helped design the Mona Vale Surf Cub badge. During this period, Taylor also became a proficient boxer, which helped him develop his hand and eye coordination. When he landed in Hollywood, Taylor insisted on doing many of his own stunts and his athletic skills gave his fight sequences a realistic edge. Acclaimed stuntman Louie Elias (SPARTACUS; 1960, KID GALAHAD; 1962, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT; 1966, PLANET OF THE APES; 1968, TRUE GRIT; 1969, THE WILD BUNCH; 1969, VANISHING POINT; 1971, Etc.) once said of Rod Taylor that, “Rod could do a fight scene as good as any stuntman.”

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Athlete, artist and all-around Renaissance man.

3. After leaving school, Taylor worked as a commercial artist in Sydney painting window display backdrops and at Martin Boyd Pottery where he designed household items such as ashtrays and mugs. He also briefly went into business with college friends and fellow artists David & Hermia Boyd along with Taylor’s one-time girlfriend Beryl Eager. The four created custom made household items including hand painted dinner sets until Hermia became pregnant and the group decided to end their creative partnership. David & Hermia Boyd would go on to become two of Australia’s most acclaimed potters and Beryl Eager eventually became an editor for Vogue magazine while Taylor, as we all know, became an actor. But he never gave up his artistic pursuits and Taylor still maintains a personal art studio in his home.

4. He was bitten by the acting bug after seeing Laurence Olivier in a 1948 stage production of Richard III organized by the Old Vic Company that toured Australia and New Zealand. In a 1971 interview Taylor said, “I suppose I owe everything to Sir Laurence Olivier…Sir Larry’s performance that night clinched the deal. After seeing him, I knew I would never be anything but an actor.”

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Laurence Olivier and young Rod Taylor.

5. Taylor got his start in acting by performing in Australian radio dramas before moving onto short and full-length films. He was a great mimic and could manage many accents, which made him extremely popular with listeners. His biggest radio success was a dramatic retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes where Taylor played the vine-swinging hero. He eventually won the prestigious Rola Award for his radio acting in 1954, which gave him some much needed recognition along with the confidence to leave the confines of Australia and head to Hollywood.

6. Breaking into Hollywood was fairly easy for the handsome muscular actor and he was quickly able to find roles in television dramas as well as feature-length films. But his biggest break came in 1955 when he was cast in GIANT (1956) playing Elizabeth Taylor’s love interest before Rock Hudson sweeps her off her feet. Taylor learned a lot while working with a cast that also included the young wunderkind James Dean along with some incredible supporting players but it was his relationship with director George Stevens that had the most lasting impact on young Rod. According to Rod Taylor “I landed in Hollywood with a pretty smug attitude. A talk I had once with George Stevens put me on the right trail. He told me to respect myself as an actor, even a bit one. And I began to see the industry in a bigger perspective and I resolved to work my head off…He warned me never to be impressed by the wrong values, never to compromise if I felt I was right and to believe in what I do and be happy about it regardless of criticism. Just the thought that such a famous director would take the time to help me at that time was overwhelming. And I’ll try to follow his advice until I die.” As for Stevens, the director thought Rod Taylor was “an extraordinarily talented player” with “many graces of the acting art plus an inimitable flair for pure mimicry. “ Stevens predicted that Taylor would become “a star of real distinction.”

7. Rod Taylor’s first serious romance in Hollywood was with the voluptuous Swedish blond bombshell, Anita Ekberg. Taylor had been married briefly once and divorced in Australia but he was single by the time he arrived in the City of Angels. He met Ekberg in 1959 during a stopover in Italy while he was filming an episode of the WESTINGHOUSE DESILU PLAYHOUSE for television. Ekberg was there getting ready to shoot Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960) and the two hit it off immediately. Their vivacious personalities, love for life and mutual interest in acting were just some the reasons they apparently got along so well. Their highly publicized relationship lasted 3 years and they were almost married in 1962 but Taylor broke it off before their nuptials could take place. He later said of their romance that “I couldn’t keep up with the pace. It was like an Errol Flynn movie every day…I love Anita and I hope I’ll always have her friendship.” But he also added “I wish she would discard this caricature of herself which she shows to the world and be her real self.”

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On the set of GIANT and with one-time fiancé Anita Ekberg.

8. In 1961 Rod Taylor got a personal call from Walt Disney who wanted him to be the voice of Pongo, a clever Dalmatian who fathers 15 puppies that are kidnapped by the fur loving villainess, Cruella De Vil. The vocal skills that Taylor had developed during his radio career were used to great effect and he managed to give the dog a distinct personality that’s still enchanting children and adults today. 101 DALMATIONS became one of the most critically acclaimed and successful films that Disney produced and it remains the most financially successful film that Taylor appeared in.

9. When Michelangelo Antonioni came to Hollywood to cast ZABRISKI POINT (1970) he was looking for a believable actor to play the prosperous real-estate executive, Lee Allen. According to the film’s pressbook the role had to be filled by someone “in his mid to late 30s, poised and articulate, independent and sufficiently attractive to persuade an almost-hippie Daria (Daria Halprin) to work for him.” A number of actors were suggested for the roll, including Rod Taylor, but Antonioni wasn’t interested in him until he spotted Taylor at a Beverly Hills’ restaurant. The director watched Taylor all throughout lunch observing his actions and afterward proclaimed that he was the perfect man to fill the roll of Lee Allen. The controversial film became one of the more unusual credits in Taylor’s filmography but I’d argue that it’s one of the best movies he appeared in. When it was initially released critics were not kind but Antonioni stood by his film and Rod Taylor’s performance calling him a “good actor” and claiming “He did everything exactly, he was very humble, very co-operative and I would say I worked well with him.” In recent years ZABRISKI POINT has undergone a critical reevaluation and its cult status is undeniable.

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Pongo might be Taylor’s most beloved role but Taylor’s most beloved costar was Maggie Smith.

10. My final noteworthy takeaway from Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood is the obvious love and respect that he has for his favorite costar, the marvelous Maggie Smith. Taylor and Smith appeared in two films together, THE V.I.P.S (1960) and YOUNG CASSIDY (1965). The rough and tumble Taylor and the wistful and witty Smith might seem like an odd match but if you’ve seen them together you know that they share an undeniable onscreen chemistry and brought out the best in one another. The two reportedly carried on their relationship off-screen during the making of THE V.I.P.S and when YOUNG CASSIDY was being cast it was Taylor who suggested Smith for the role of Nora, his young love in the film. During the making of YOUNG CASSIDY their affair was reignited and Taylor has admitted that he almost left his wife at the time (Mary Hilem) to marry Maggie Smith but Smith rejected his proposal. She undoubtedly knew Taylor was a bit of a womanizer in the 60s who had trouble settling down with any one person. Much like the characters of young Cassidy and Nora in the film, the two actors permanently parted ways which gives the ending of YOUNG CASSIDY a bittersweet poignancy. But Taylor never forgot Maggie Smith and always talks about her fondly in interviews claiming that he thinks of her “with a lot of love.”

14 Responses 10 Things You Might Not Know About Rod Taylor
Posted By Mike D : November 20, 2014 10:12 pm

I was chatting with William Smith at a Lone Pine Film Festival and asked him who was the toughest actor he ever worked with. Without hesitation he said “Rod Taylor! He just liked to fight.” According to William Smith, once filming wrapped up for the day, the two of them would hit some bar for a few drinks. Then the night would usually end with Rod Taylor starting a brawl. They also did some damage to each other when filming ‘Darker Than Amber’.

Posted By LD : November 20, 2014 10:24 pm

Thank you the info about Rod Taylor. I knew very little about him but have always appreciated his work from A CATERED AFFAIR to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I did not know he was the voice of Pongo. Impressed. A talented and attractive actor with his fair share of testosterone.

Posted By LD : November 20, 2014 10:25 pm

Sorry. Correction it’s THE CATERED AFFAIR.

Posted By SergioM : November 20, 2014 11:15 pm

I’ve always thought that Taylor was one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood and you just don’t have any “real men” actors on the screen anymore. He was the one of the few last of a vanishing breed. And as for fighting and stunt work in movies Taylor was one of the best who could hold his own with any stuntman. Check out the fight scene in Darker Than Amber

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0igiQA5jvI

Posted By swac44 : November 21, 2014 2:39 pm

Copying from a discussion with KL and RHS on Facebook, I recommend seeking out some of Taylor’s later Australian films, like The Picture Show Man and Welcome to Woop Woop. The former is a loving tribute to the early days of Aussie film exhibition, when distributors would have representatives taking films and projectors into the outback for the residents in far-flung regions, and the latter is one of the strangest comedies you’ll ever see, about a small town cargo cult obsessed with South Pacific. Hopefully they’re not too hard to track down!

Posted By Pamela Porter : November 21, 2014 3:02 pm

(swoon!) Love him!

He’s also the father of NY-area/CNN newsanchor Felicia (Rodrica Sturt) Taylor.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 21, 2014 6:51 pm

Thanks for all the enthusiastic comments! Great to see that there are other Rod Taylor fans out there. I still need to see THE CATERED AFFAIR so thanks for mentioning that one, LD. And swac, I’m curious about The Picture Show Man and Welcome to Woop Woop so thanks for sharing those recommendations as well!

Posted By george : November 21, 2014 10:30 pm

Anyone else think (as I do) that Robin Williams looked a lot like Rod Taylor?

Taylor was also good in the Twilight Zone episode, “And When the Sky Was Opened” (1959).

Posted By Doug : November 21, 2014 11:50 pm

Taylor even did all right in the Doris Day vehicle, “The Glass Bottom Boat”.

Posted By Shuvcat : November 22, 2014 12:06 am

@george, that was one of the first things I thought when I first saw Time Machine. Made me almost want to see Robin in a remake. (this was of course before I saw the ’03 version)
I was not aware Taylor was in 101 Dalmatians either.

Posted By Stephen Vagg : November 22, 2014 3:13 am

Thanks for shining a light on Rod Taylor, Kimberly (and mentioning my book). It’s great that TCM helps ensure some of the classic Rod Taylor films still get regular showings – he was really at his peak in the 60s at MGM. To those keen on checking out his less familiar performances I urge them to try to source his late 50s/early 60s TV work (tricky to source but some is on line) and also see “Woop Woop” and “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy” – the latter two films are flawed, but Rod’s performances are excellent. Also Diane Tomasik’s superb website http://www.rodtaylorsite.com/index.shtml

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 23, 2014 5:16 pm

Thanks so much for stopping by & joining the conversation about Rod, Stephen! I enjoyed your book and learned a lot about the actor that I hadn’t known before. I’m very curious about WOOP WOOP now since you’re the second person that’s recommended it. The last film I was Taylor in was INGLORIOUS BASTARDS and I thought he was terrific. It’s great that he’s still with us & working.

Posted By doug n : November 23, 2014 10:30 pm

I think of Rod Taylor as Australia’s answer to James Garner–a durable leading man who could play action roles, sure, but who was welcome in romantic comedy and straight drama. Thanks for providing the background to such an enduring and successful artist.

Posted By Bill Filber : November 23, 2014 10:50 pm

Just wanted to say hello and how much I enjoy watching the old movies with Mr. Taylor, from the Time Machine, to the Birds, including few others. He is not only a great actor, but a great person with an open personality that accepts the public, Rod is not snobbish but down to earth. I wish him many more happy and healthy years, thanks again Mr. Taylor for the childhood memories and dreams…God Bless.

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