By Ed Garea
If there were one word that would describe the life and career of Rod Taylor, it would be Persistence.
Coming to Los Angeles with few precious credits, Taylor worked his way from the bottom up, taking anything that came his way and never letting down until his big break came.
The star of such favorite films as The Time Machine and The Birds, Taylor died at his home on January 7 at age 84. Daughter Felicia Taylor, a former correspondent and anchor for CNN and CNBC, announced his death to the press.
Taylor was only the second Australian actor, after Errol Flynn, to gain fame on the Silver Screen.
Taylor was born Rodney Sturt Taylor on January 11, 1930, in Sydney, Australia, the only child of steel-construction worker and draftsman William Taylor and his wife, the former Mona Stewart, a children’s book author.
Growing up in the suburb of Lidcombe, Taylor’s first aspiration was to become an artist. As a teenager, he studied at East Sydney Technical and Fine Arts College. But the friends he made while there interested him in acting, and when he saw Sir Laurence Olivier in a Royal Vic tour of Shakespeare’s Richard III, his decision was firmly cemented.
His first professional appearance was in a local 1947 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance. 1951 marked his screen debut with an appearance in an Australian short, Inland With Sturt, about the famed British explorer Captain Charles Sturt, who was Taylor’s great-great-uncle. He also had a role in the 1953 Australian production of King of the Coral Sea, written by and starring Chips Rafferty. He was fourth-billed as “Jack Janiero,” a character who, along with Rafferty, takes over a sea salvage firm owned by a dissolute playboy and turns it into a going concern.
Taylor also made dozens of radio appearances and won a radio-acting award that would finance a trip to London, where he hoped to advance his career.
Before leaving for England, however, he won a small part in Long John Silver (1954), a sequel to Treasure Island, filmed in Australia with Hollywood stars. This inspired him to make a stop in Los Angeles to check out job opportunities. Though he was rejected by a major talent agency, he decided to stay awhile and try his luck.
This marked the beginning of a long, hard climb to stardom. He started with a role in the television production of Studio 57, following that with a role in Lux Video Theatre. Films were harder to break into. There was an uncredited role in 1955’s The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis; a small role in the Sterling Hayden Western, Top Gun (1955); and a tiny role in the 1955 Alan Ladd-Edward G. Robinson crime drama, Hell on Frisco Bay.
His next role was meatier, playing astronaut Herb Ellis in World Without End (1956), an above-average sci-fi flick made by the below-average Allied Artists studio. He followed that with a decent role as Debbie Reynolds’ fiancé in The Catered Affair (1956), and as the debonair boyfriend Elizabeth Taylor jilts for visiting Texan Rock Hudson in Giant (1956). His performance in Giant began to win notice, but it was soon back to small supporting roles, including a turn in the acclaimed Separate Tables (1958). Apart from the movies, Taylor made ends meet by appearing in a number of television shows.
It was in 1960, when he was cast as the star of George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1960), that Taylor finally broke through to stardom. He also starred as an American newspaper correspondent in the short-lived television series Hong Kong (1960-61), and as the voice of Pongo, the puppies’ father in the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians (1961). But it was his starring role as the object of heiress Tippi Hedren and later fighting off flocks of enraged birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963 that solidified his stature as a major star.
1963 was a busy year for Taylor, as he followed The Birds with a co-starring role in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton drama, The V.I.P.s, a co-starring role with Rock Hudson in the war drama A Gathering of Eagles, and a starring role with Jane Fonda in the romantic comedy Sunday in New York. He won acclaim for his portrayal of German Major Walter Gerber in the World War II thriller 36 Hours (1964) with James Garner and Eva Marie Saint, and as Irish playwright Sean O’Casey in Jack Cardiff’s 1965 biopic Young Cassidy.
Other notable roles in the ‘60s included starring with Doris Day in the comedies Do Not Disturb (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), and the lead role in the adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1967). The ‘70s saw him working mainly in television series and movies with the occasional foray into a film such as Zabriskie Point (1970), The Train Robbers (1973) with John Wayne and Ann-Margret, and the remake of the 1931 MGM classic Trader Horn (1973).
As the 1980s dawned, Taylor made only an occasional film, preferring to star instead in television movies and mini-series. His best-known role was as the title character’s father, Black Jack Bouvier in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981). He also had a recurring role from 1988 to 1990 in the nighttime soap Falcon Crest as Frank Agretti, the title vineyard’s long lost owner.
Perhaps his oddest role was as Doc, the town doctor/coroner in the 2007 Sci-Fi (now Syfy) original movie, Kaw, about a town besieged by thousands of flesh-eating ravens. He also came out of retirement at the behest of Quentin Tarantino to play Winston Churchill in his 2009 World War II film, Inglourious Basterds.
Taylor was married three times and divorced twice. His first marriage was to Australian model Peggy Williams, which lasted from 1951 to 1954. His second wife was American fashion model Mary Hilem (1963-69), with whom he had daughter Felicia. In 1980, he married American actress and dancer Carol Kikumura, who, along with daughter Felicia, survives him.
TCM will honor Taylor with an evening of his films on January 29. The evening is scheduled as follows:
8:00 pm – THE TIME MACHINE (MGM, 1960): Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux. George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s dystopia set in the year 802,701 with humans divided into peaceful Eloi and cannibalistic Morlocks.
10:00 pm – THE BIRDS (Universal, 1962): Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren. Alfred Hitchcock directed this ultimate tale of nature-gone-wild when birds suddenly begin attacking humans.
12:15 am – SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (MGM, 1964): Rod Taylor, Jane Fonda. A philandering pilot changes his ways fast when his sister contemplates a premarital fling.
2:15 am – YOUNG CASSIDY (MGM, 1965): Rod Taylor, Flora Robson, & Jack MacGowran. This is the story of playwright Sean O’Caseys’ involvement in the Irish rebellion of 1910.