Share the Rod: A Retrospective on Rod Taylor

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 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 new Warner Archives title 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 Hotel) and even contributed his voice to an iconic Disney animated character. 

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

Rod Taylor, now (amazingly) 81 years old, was born in a suburb of Sydney, 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, bug-eyed 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 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 actor 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 birds around the San Francisco area to go ballistic on their human neighbors.

Of 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 VIPs, 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 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).             

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.

In 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 of Dark of the Sun that exist.

During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, 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 The Train Robbers and Richard Harris 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.

Here, 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.

  • Bill Pentland

    Dark of the Sun was a pretty good film; I’ve been trying to get a hold of it in DVD for some time – is it available now?

  • Tony D.

    Great article. I’m a big fan of Rod Taylor’s, ever since seeing the time machine as a boy in theaters. I would very much like to see Darker Than Amber, his turn as MacDonald’s Travis McGee, come out on DVD in it’s original, uncut version, one in which the action sequences are so crudely edited.

  • Tony D.

    Update to my earlier comment”…one in which the action sequences are NOT so crudely edited”…..

  • Blair Kramer.

    To me, Rod Taylor will always be the Brit with the American accent who fought the Morloks one million years in the future! I love the original “Time Machine!”

  • Juanita Curtis

    Rod Taylor is very much an Australian – he is very versatile. I will always remember him in Time Machine – the original and best. He combined masculinity with sensitivity and contrary to his opinion he was not ugly – I thought he had rugged good looks.

  • Judith R

    Fell in love with Rod when I first watched his TV show “Hong Kong.” He was great in the Time Machine and the Birds. When I was young, I used to write to the TV stars and ask them for a photograph. Rod sent me a post card with his picture on it and in his own handwriting thanked me for watching his show. They had some great stars back when…

  • Blair Kramer.

    Rod Taylor is Australian, not American? He sure sounds as though he has an American accent in “The Time Machine.” Anyway, I guess I stand corrected. I know he played more than a few American characters in Westerns and other films, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” being among them. All I can say is, he coulda’ fooled me (and I suppose, he did!).

  • movieirv

    Dark of the Sun just came out and is avaialble at http://www.moviesunlimited.com

  • movieirv

    Re: Darker than Amber
    Fans have been asking for the uncut version of this film for a long time. In recent decades, only the truncated one has been shown and it has severely been edited to tone down the violence. BTW, Darker’s director Robert Clouse wanted Rod taylor for the part John Saxon eventually took in enter the Dragon. Rod didn’t get it because he was so much taller than star Bruce Lee.

  • movieirv

    Blair: He coulda fooled me as well. for years, I assumed he was American and, if not that, British.

  • movieirv

    tony D: Thanks for the nice words. glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Jim Crawford

    Dark of the Sun is out at last! I think it is one of Taylor’s best roles. His cameo role in the Aussie movie “The Picture Show Man’ is just great.It is also a very amusing movie.

  • Watt Hyer

    I’ve always been a big fan, too. Glad to hear Dark of the Sun is finally coming out. Darker Than Amber needs to be released, too. I watched that film every day we played it in the theatre where I worked, fascinated by the fight scenes. It only lasted a week. I was living in Jackson Hole when Clint Eastwood made Any Which Way You Can and got the opportunity to have a great conversation with William Smith over a glass(es) of wine. I told him how much I enjoyed DTA and he said it was the best stunt work he had ever been involved with in films. Truly a great action film.

  • Marsha Tanksley

    Years ago they used to have two movies – what they called an “A” the big movie and the “B” that was a tag along – I first saw Rod Taylor in a “B” movie called “Step Down to Terror” and when I left the theatre that was the movie I told my friends about – not the “blockbuster” – he’s terrific because he’s subtle – talent will out.

  • Classic Movie Lover

    I loved him in Hotel. Wonderful movie great cast. It is a very entertaining movie in that it has drama, humor, romance and intrigue.

    • Galaxy472

      A truly great movie!!

  • Michael Harp

    He is the original Mel Gibson & a real Australian. Thanks for all your years of entertainment.

  • Elliot Slutzky

    “Dark Of The Sun” the DVD(WB Archive) that is
    now available is butchered and edited that it
    is not even the same feature that was released
    theatrically. At least warn the public how badly this feature has been edited. I expect this from the AMC channel, but to buy this DVD is so disappointing that it is not worth the time, effort, or money, this is a waste.

  • Robin

    The Rod Taylor movie I want the most is The Hell With Heroes which seems to have disappeared. It’s a good movie and co-stars Claudia Cardinale and Harry Guardino.

    I have no idea why Universal have not released this movie on disc.

  • Diane

    Thank you so much for this terrific tribute and retrospective of Rod Taylor’s career. You captured it so very well, accurately and with great feeling.

    Best,
    Diane
    http://www.rodtaylorsite.com

  • Gary

    I have made a point of showing all 8 of my grandchildren The Time Machine. This undoubtedly is Rod Taylor ar his best. The VIP’s is also a great piece of work alongside Maggie Smith…

    Not many can act like he can…

  • Chuck Neumann

    I have always been a fan of Rod Taylor. Nice article. I thought he was outstanding in “The Time Machine”, “The Birds” and “Hotel”, but he was good in all his roles. His TV series were all short lived, but all fun to watch. He was very good as a guest star too, especially in “The Twilight Zone” as an Air Force officer who slowly faded away. Good in a number of “Murder She Wrote” episodes too. Enjoy retired life, Mr. Taylor, but return to the screen every once and a while.

  • Michelle Malkin

    I remember Rod Taylor mostly from “The Time machine” and “The Birds”, but my crush on him started with the tv show “Hong Kong” which was
    based on the Clark Gable, Susan Hayward, Michael
    Rennie, Gene Barry movie “Hong Kong. Taylor’s
    character was loosely based on Susan Hayward’s
    husband played by Gene Barry in the movie. And,
    Michael Rennie’s character was played by Lloyd Bochner – a perfect choice. Pity the show only lasted one season.

    • hypatiab7

      Oops! I meant “Soldier of Fortune”, not “Hong Kong” as the movie the tv show “Hong Kong” was taken from.

  • jeanine

    I was a Hong Kong fan too!

    • Galaxy472

      Episodes of Hong Kong are available at a Website called “ISWAP”..I have 10 episodes on DVD!

  • Tallywhacker

    Rod’s most impressive film is “Darker than Amber,” which has never been legitimately released on dvd.
    “The Dark of the Sun” is finally available in an outstandingly good rendering as part of the Warner Archives collection. Taylor excelled at staging brutal fistfights. His bouts in “Darker than Amber” and “The Dark of the Sun” with Peter Carsten and William Smith respectively are cinematic masterpieces.

  • Mr. Ed

    Thank you for the excellent bio and reminding us of Rod Taylor’s considerable contribution to movie and tv entertainment. As with many others, I am sure, it was way back in the sixties when I first saw Rod Taylor (and Lloyd Bochner) in the tv show Hong Kong. And yes, The Time Machine with Rod Taylor is among my favorite science fiction movies. Your piece aptly demonstrates the variety and scope of his rich screen performances. And to Mr. Taylor I just want to say Thank you!!

  • Jack Little

    Thanks to the Bearcat series, one of the best adventure series on TV then and now, I fell in love with the StuzBearcat. I wished I could afford one. I have always enjoyed Rod Taylors work and his first one was for me was Bearcats. I met Dennis Cole and I like to add Rod Taylor to that list and get his autograph on the photo with Dennis from the Bearcats series. Enjoy your retirement but i miss seeing you on the screen. Some day Mr. Taylor hope to meet him. Bearcat reunion would be nice.

    • Galaxy472

      I have all the episodes of Bearcats, including the Pilot  Episode “Powderkeg”

  • Kelly Barrios

    rod Taylor has done many guest roles on television series like “Walker, Texas ranger” but I remember he did two series that I loved – “Outlaws” and “Masquerade” both of which I am still a fan. I wish that these would come out on dvd.He has proven that he can handle not only drama but comedy with such ease. Such a talent!

  • NANCY

    I loved Rod Taylor in the Time Machine and the Birds. He was also in my favorite tv series Murder,She Wrote in the 2 part episode Nan’s Ghost which was my favorite. He was with another of my favorite actress Doris Day in Glass Bottomed Boat. To me he will always be George and I would have gone anywhere with him in the Time Machine.

  • Ray

    Surprised and glad to see so many Rod Taylor fans.
    I loved Hong Kong and wish it would come out on
    DVD. Time Machine,of course, just great, a classic.
    Years ago I was drafted and we had one stop at the
    PX where I bought a book called Train to Katanga by
    Wilbur Smith and it was extremely intense. Later
    while stationed in Germany, I took a leave in Lon-
    don and The Mercenaries was playing in Piccadilly
    Circus. When I finally returned to San Francisco
    there was a sneak preview one night and it hinted
    at a war film in the Congo. I told my friends they had to see this. I was certain, and it was,
    Dark of the Sun; one of my all time favorites.

  • Ken Johnson

    Hi,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your well investigated article on an Australian icon,as a Movie lover but also as an Australian I thank you very much.
    Kind Regards Ken

  • gerard

    Rod Taylor in a show always told me it would be be worth watching. He was great in 36 Hours with James Garner and in two westerns Chuka and The Train Robbers with John Wayne and Ben Johnson and The Birds. I remember fondly Hong Kong his old tv show and his stand out performance in Dark Of The Sun. Yes Rod Taylor was always worth watching in anything he appeared in. No doubt about it he was a real favourite of mine, glad his shows at long last are being released.

  • Michael McKenna

    Rod Taylor is – and always was – a WONDERFULLY versatile actor who could easily play rugged action heroes (The Time Machine; Dark of the Sun), portray dramatic leading men or featured roles with style and sensitivity (The VIPs; The Birds; Hotel; The Catered Affair), and – when the occasion called for it – enter the comedic fray, and easily keep pace with Jane Fonda & Doris Day (Sunday in New York; The Glass Bottom Boat). Mr. Taylor’s innate humanity, masculinity and honesty show through in all of his roles. Thank you, Sir, for the excellence you have continuously displayed in many wonderful films and performances!

  • Kathy

    I saw the Time Machine while I was still living in Europe and it left me with wonderful memories. Not the least of which was how very attractive and sexy Rod Taylor was. After I saw it again in America, it was a renewed thrill, and I always looked forward to seeing any of his work. A fan forever…Much love to you, Sir, for all the wonderful entertainment you have given all these years.

  • Robert P.

    I believe the movie attributed to Gable, Hayward, Rennie and Barry as “Hong Kong”, was actually “Soldier of Fortune”. None the less, thanks Mr. Taylor for ALL of your good works over the years.

  • David Orme

    For those who are’nt aware, Rod’s first movie role was released recently, here in Australia, it was called Long John Silver. (U.S. title, Return to Treasure Island) In it he played blind Ben Gunn, complete with bushy white beard, worth a look if you can get a copy.

  • Melanie

    I’ve liked everything Rod Taylor has been in, and Rod Taylor in every role he’s played. He is quite ubiquitous, and I always had a crush on him. From Doris Day to Maggie Smith, he could handle all women, and any man for that matter. I always found him handsome, dashing and even debonair in his various roles. He still looks good.

  • Bruce J. Patience

    Yes, interesting piece. I certainly enjoyed doing the research that I did for a lengthy essay that I wrote entitled “Rod Taylor : Hollywood Time Traveler” which was published in “Paracinema” magazine in 2009. “Cinema Retro” also ran a profile on Taylor last year. Perhaps I started a trend !

  • Stephen Hashioka

    Another little seen Rod Taylor film gem is 1964’s Fate is the Hunter with Glenn Ford, Suzanne Pleshette and Nancy Kwan. I can never hear ‘Blue Moon’ without thinking of him.

  • Char

    Great article! I’ve been a Rod Taylor fan from the first movie I saw him in. While there are favorites, I liked everything that utilized his talents (drama, romantic comedy, action). A great talent (those Aussies are something else).

  • DeniseDJ

    It’s great to see all of these responses! The Time Machine was the first sci-fi film I saw as a child, and have loved Mr. Taylor ever since. I’m so glad I taped the “Outlaws” tv show when it was on! Great cast! I just hope the studio will release it some day. One thing has always puzzled me though, whenever the studio talks about 101 Dalmations, they never mention Rod, he’s not on any of the video commentaries or special features, etc.

  • Andy

    What about Rod in “Fate is the Hunter” also with Glenn Ford Wally Cox And Susanne Pleashet ? on dvd anywhere ?

    • Galaxy472

      Another great and underrated movie!!…It does show up on EBay occasionally!

  • John

    This article and all these comments are just great.I have long considered Mr. Taylor to be very underrated as an actor. I ,too, first saw him on “Hong Kong” and saw many of his film efforts in the 60s.It’s quite a range to be in films by Hitchcock,Disney and Antonioni.I recognized him right away in “Inglorious Basterds” and thought way to go ,Quentin, for bringing back a true talent.And,yes, the original “Time Machine” is one of my favorite films.

  • GLENN

    I believe Rod was considered as James Bond beforew Sean Connery, but turned it down!.Likewise for the Omar Sharif role in Dr Zhivago and the Charlton Heston role in Planet of the Apes.He would have been great in all of these movies!
    I too became a fan of Rod Taylor through the Hong Kong TV series, and I have 10 episodes of the show, which I cherish!..If only Scorcese and Eastwood used him, after his return in Inglorious Berstards.Oh well!

  • Moacir

    The first time I’ve seen Rod Taylor
    in the screen was in a sci-fi film
    whose name I forget, where a time
    travel is accomplished (am I wrong?)
    through a rocket ill-ended travel.
    But ‘The Time Machine’ reigns absolute
    in all my sci-fi motion picture memory.
    Mr. Taylor was simply ‘tailored’ for that
    role with Ivette Mimieux.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000210473963 Girvan Paterson

    Rod Taylor was [and is] the best Australian film star since Errol Flynn, thrilled that finally, many of his fine films are being released and appreciated on DVD! I only wish someone at 20th. Century Fox would take note and release the 26 episodes of the magnificently atmospheric series ‘Hong Kong’, a tragedy it’s not available!
    Another one that I’d love to see released is Mr. Taylor’s first ever feature film, the Australian movie from 1953, ‘King of the Coral Sea’ that also starred Chips Rafferty and Charles [Bud] Tingwell, a little gem of a film! Thank you Mr. Taylor for a lifetime of great entertainment, and fine performances! God Bless you.

  • Mary Ruth Hull

    I also fell in love with the acting and personality of Rod Taylor while viewing “Hong Kong”. I would dearly love to have copies of that series. Someone, please hear us about this. Thank you, Mr. Taylor, for all of the hours of great entertainment you have blessed us with over the years. You are a gem! Happy birthday.

    • Galaxy472

      One can buy some episodes of Hong Kong on the site called “ISWAP”.
      I have 10 episodes of the series which I absolutely adore!!
      Why oh why hasn’t 20th Century Fox digitized this series for DVD release?

  • Pingback: Pre-Code, Gladiators, Rod Taylor on Tap from Warner Archive | MovieFanFare()