Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 20, 2014
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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