Share the Rod: A Retrospective on Rod Taylor

basterds_cigarEditor’s Note: Rod Taylor passed away on Jan. 7, 2015, just a few days short of his 85th birthday. This article was originally published in August of 2011.

The guy playing Winston Churchill looks familiar. He’s got the mannerisms right and he’s smoking the cigar, but can it be…nah….no way. It is! It’s Rod Taylor!

Taylor, in his late seventies, came out of retirement to play the “British Bulldog” for a cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 World War II saga Inglourious Basterds. According to reports, Taylor didn’t want to do it, suggesting Albert Finney for the part instead, but Quentin wouldn’t take no for an answer.

To those who grew up in the 1960s, Rod Taylor was cool. The Australian actor was tough and suave and rugged and even romantic when called on to be.  He was the actor, Roger Ebert wrote, that “always looks calm behind a machine gun.”

Here was the guy who fought Morlocks (with lovely Yvette Mimieux by his side in my all-time favorite film, The Time Machine), battled The Birds (in the Alfred Hitchcock classic), took a dangerous expedition down the Congo with Jim Brown and Mimieux (again) to procure millions in diamonds in the action classic Dark of the Sun), made it with Doris Day (Do Not Disturb, The Glass Bottom Boat) and Jane Fonda (Sunday in New York), managed a huge New Orleans hotel (in, um…Hotel), and even contributed his voice to an iconic Disney animated character.

In a short period of time, Taylor also played ChukaThe Liquidator, Irish writer Sean O’Casey in Young Cassidy, and beach bum/detective Travis McGhee in the 1970 screen adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber.

Rodney Sturt Taylor was born in a suburb of Sydney in January of 1930, the only child of a construction worker/commercial artist father and a mother who was the author of several children’s books. He boxed and painted and attended the East Sydney Technical and fine Arts College. It was seeing Laurence Oliver onstage that cemented his interest in acting. Extensive voice work on radio (including a stint in which he played Tarzan) led to early screen work in such films as Long John Silver with Robert Newton. A trip to London by way of Los Angeles as an award for his radio work never was completed. He stayed in L.A., where he auditioned for the lead role of boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Although Paul Newman got the part, Rod got an MGM contract, so impressive was his tryout.

Soon, he was drawing attention in supporting parts in such major films as The Catered Affair, Giant, Raintree County and Separate Tables. At the same time, he worked regularly in TV, appearing on such series as Studio One, Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, Bus Stop and as the reporter lead in the adventure show Hong Kong.

It was George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, however, that really boosted Taylor’s career. The actor’s turn as George (aka “H. George Wells”), a time-obsessed inventor who concocts a machine that enables him to go forward into the future and backwards into the past, was a huge success with audiences of all ages and helped to make the Oscar-winning picture a classic sci-fi tale. In the film, Taylor was able to show different sides of his persona. He was called on to be intelligent, sensitive and did most of his own stunts when called on to grapple with the hideous, subterranean Morlocks in the movie’s action sequences.

Taylor was quickly enlisted to provide the voice of Pongo, the father canine in search of his litter ordered kidnapped by evil Cruella De Vil, in the 1961 Disney hit 101 Dalmatians. This only added more fuel to the career fire regarding the versatility of this young radio veteran.

Somewhere, Hitch was paying attention. He cast the Aussie in The Birds, in the key role of Mitch Brenner, the criminal lawyer whose attraction to blonde socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) somehow leads the avian residents of the coastal town of Bodega Bay to go ballistic on their human neighbors.

810Of his success in the 1960s, Taylor said: “I was one of the first of the uglies. Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter…were very pretty fellows, and that was the trend. I was one of the first uglies to get lucky.”

Over the next five years, Taylor alternated co-starring parts in interesting high profile projects with leading roles. In A Gathering of Eagles, he’s the Korean War buddy to Rock Hudson’s Air Force commander whose responsibility for shaping things up on his inefficient base gets tougher when he discovers Taylor has a thing for his British wife. With James Garner and Eva Marie Saint, Taylor made 36 Hours, a tricky WWII suspenser, work so neatly.

Rod also joined the likes of another Taylor—Elizabeth—as well as Richard Burton, Orson Welles, Louis Jordan and Oscar-winning Margaret Rutherford as one of The V.I.P.s, waiting in a London lounge for a plane to take off for New York. He took two shots at 1960s spy spoofing, playing a jet-setting British intelligence assassin afraid of flying in The Liquidator (1965) and a research scientist who gets involved with international operatives as well as widowed Doris Day in The Glass Bottom Boat, directed by Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It), the following year.

Jack Cardiff, the famed cinematographer (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) who helmed The Liquidator, called on Taylor again for 1968’s gritty adventure epic Dark of the Sun.

7eaef6368303ff7e58aa6e6c1417176bIn the film, Taylor plays Curry, a stalwart, beret-wearing mercenary in charge of a mission in the Congo that’s two-fold: To save innocents from being killed and tortured by the Simba rebels and to get $25 million in diamonds kept in an underground vault. Joining Curry and local troops on the trip are a native soldier (Jim Brown), a beautiful European missionary (Mimieux) whose husband has been murdered,  a duplicitous ex-Nazi (Peter Carsten) and an alcoholic British doctor (Kenneth More).

Known in England as The Mercenaries and loosely remade with Bruce Willis in 2003 as Tears of the Sun, Dark of the Sun is a mission movie ala The Dirty Dozen, but it’s surprising in many ways. There is a strong political subtext to the film, dealing with various factions who desire control of the Congo, some of which are racially motivated.  It is also an unsparingly rough film, violent and unsettling. Featured in this tightly wound but unpredictable actioner, you’ll find a chainsaw fight, dismemberments, rape and more.  This is one movie where the testosterone is heavy, everyone sweats a lot and you really need a shower MIDWAY through the film.

With that in mind, Tarantino’s love for the film should come as no surprise. In fact, the director incorporated several salutes to Dark of the Sun in Inglourious Basterds, using three musical cues from Jacques Loussier’s stirring score as well as his casting of Taylor as Churchill.

Dark of the Sun didn’t catch on in theaters; MGM reportedly hesitated promoting it as strongly as originally planned, fearing audience reactions to its in-your-face nature and racial elements during volatile times. The film did go on to build a strong cult following over the years, with much written about the various versions that exist.

During the late 1960s and into the ’70s, Taylor tackled some interesting parts before turning his talents to television. His film credits continued to include a mix of leads (starring in the underrated 1968 policer The High Commissioner with Christopher Plummer and a disappointing—and little seen—1973 reworking of Trader Horn) and strong supporting work (with John Wayne in 1973’s The Train Robbers and Richard Harris later that year in The Deadly Trackers, a film that the legendary Samuel Fuller was set to direct before a falling out with Harris).

One of his most unusual roles of his career came in 1970 when Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, hot after the success of his first English-language project Blow Up, cast Taylor as a Los Angeles land developer in Zabriskie Point. Later, the actor admitted that while he was a fan of the filmmaker’s other work, he had not been given a complete script for Zabriskie Point, and had no clue of the much-talked-about trippy nude lovemaking scenes in the film.

After some roles in European tax shelter films and less-than-enthusiastic response for his other features, Taylor took to TV with the highly touted CBS series Bearcats! in 1971. The show featured Taylor and Dennis Cole as freelance soldiers-of-fortune who drove a Stutz Bearcat across the American Southwest of 1914 to take on dangerous assignments. Alas, competition from The Flip Wilson Show proved too strong, stalling Bearcats! out of the gate.

Over the course of the next two decades, Taylor focused primarily on the small screen with guest shots, prominent roles in TV movies and regular assignments in such series as the sagebrusher The Oregon Trail (1976-1977), the thriller Masquerade with Kirstie Alley (1983-1984), the western Outlaws (1986-1987) and a stint on Falcon Crest (1988-1990), in which he played Frank Agretti, husband to vineyard owner Jane Wyman.

Since the beginning of his career, Taylor has also shown a penchant for taking on an occasional offbeat project once in a while. To help boost interest in Australian cinema, he agreed to take a small role in the underseen The Picture Show Man (1977), as the Texan competitor to a man and his son who travel around the roads of New South Wales in the 1920s with a projector and piano, showing folks silent films.  In 1996’s Open Season, Robert Wuhl’s spoof of the TV industry, Taylor is perfectly cast as a ruthless TV executive who claims to make programming decisions based on advice from God.  Perhaps the oddest role of Taylor’s career came in the oddest film of his career, playing the tyrannical mayor of an outback town in Welcome to Woop Woop, Stephen Elliot’s expectedly off-kilter 1997 follow-up to his Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. See it and be amazed by its almost indescribable eccentricity.

Perhaps the most memorable part Taylor has taken since the heyday of his career, though, may have been in 1993’s Time Machine: The Journey Back, an extra on The Time Machine DVD.

time_machineHere, Taylor revisited the role he played in the 1960 classic, as well as narrating a documentary on the making of The Time Machine. In a short segment that’s part of the documentary, George returns to his home in England years after he has disappeared in the Time Machine. He encounters his old friend Filby (played again by Alan Young). George warns Filby about the dangers that await him and mankind and invites him to journey with him into the future. But Filby declines the invitation. George, aware of Filby’s fate, activates the machine, while promising to return to try to save Filby.

After the story ends, Taylor talks about reuniting with Young after an absence of 30 years.  There is footage of the men hugging, a testament to their memorable work together.

Something Rod Taylor, Alan Young nor audiences will not likely forget.