Friday, January 09, 2015

rod taylor: reluctant matinee idol

The ever unassuming Rod Taylor, who passed on January 7 at age 84, was a walking contradiction.

He was ruggedly handsome, the stuff of movie stardom, but he had a gentle demeanor and soft, cultured voice that made him much more accessible - and also somewaht difficult to categorize.  Taylor could have easily played both Cary Grant and John Wayne roles (and, occasionally, did), and yet, he was interested in something more intricate and less clearly-defined.  He became a character actor early on in his film career.

And often played supporting roles.  But that didn't seem to matter.

In her reminiscence of his life in The New York Times, Anita Gates recalls a 1964 Times interview in which Taylor quotes advice from the director George Stevens - to respect himself as an actor, even in small roles.  Taylor told the interviewer: "I resolved to work my head off."

And so, his legacy as an actor, his status, was largely self-imposed.  "I would only do the good things," he once confessed during an interview. "I wouldn’t do anything I didn't consider prestige. I'd much rather turn down a starring role in a bad picture and do a small role in a very good picture."

One might say that he stood in his own way from becoming a major player in film - that he consciously avoided the limelight, a requisite of stardom, and simply made movies.  His personal life was a mystery.  He acted.

Taylor was what one would call an adjustable wrench as an actor.  He was Australian, born and bred, but you'd never know it.  There wasn't a hint of an accent and, when he played the title role in "Young Cassidy" (1965), based on the early life of Irish playwright Sean O'Casey (and one of the rare occasions when he carried a film), he seemed authentically Irish.

"Young Cassidy" should have put Taylor in the heady company of past Oscar nominees and winners. It was initiated as a pet project of the venerable John Ford.  But Ford fell ill early in the production and he handed the directing reigns over to Jack Cardiff, the great cinematographer who occasionally dabbled in directing ("Sons and Lovers," "My Geisha). Cardiff receives sole credit as the director of "Young Cassidy," which was also curiously billed as "a John Ford film."

Indifferently released by MGM, "Young Cassidy" went nowhere and, instead, Taylor would be more closely associated with George Pal's fan hit, "The Time Machine" (1960), and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963) throughout his career, which remained fascinating neverthless:

  • After coming to America from Australia, Taylor worked in a handful of movies (including Frank Tuttle's nifty "Hell on Frisco Bay") before coming to the attention of MGM scouts, who were looking for just the right actor to play boxer Rocky Garziano in Robert Wise's biopic, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956).  Paul Newman got the role, of course, but Metro liked Taylor enough to sign him to brief contract and cast him opposite Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine in Richard Brooks' "The Catered Affair" as Debbie Reynolds' patient, bespectacled fiancé.  The film has a Paddy Chayfesky script by way of Gore Vidal.
  • He would subsequently work with Newman in an uncredited bit the same year in MGM's "The Rack."
  • In 1956 and '57, Taylor appeared in two Elizabeth Taylor films - Stevens' "Giant" and Edward Dmytryk's "Raintree County," respectively.
  • In 1958 and '59, he appeared in two David Niven movies - Delbert Mann's film of Terence Rattigan's "Separate Tables" and Charles Walters' romantic comedy "Ask Any Girl," respectively.  Taylor was one of the guys (the other being Gig Young) cast opposite Shirley MacLaine's "girl" in the Walters film.
  • Then came "The Time Machine," followed a year later (1961) by Disney's "101 Dalmations," in which Taylor provided the voice of Pongo.
  • The same year, Taylor was the star of ABC's short-lived cult series, "Hong Kong," in which he played an American journalist whose job brings him into contact with the seedier element of the title city.  Among the directors of the 26 episodes were Ida Lupino, Stuart Rosenberg, Budd Boetticher, Boris Sagal, Paul Henried, Christian Nyby, Don Taylor and Arthur Hiller.
  • The years 1963 and 1964 were the most vital, career-wise, for Taylor.  He appeared in no less than six titles, all good. Besides "The Birds," he reunited with Elizabeth Taylor in Anthony Asquith's immensely popular "The V.I.P.s," took on Rock Hudson in Delbert Mann's "A Gathering of Eagles," tried to seduce Jane Fonda (in his Cary Grant role) in Peter Tewksbury's "Sunday in New York," starred with Glenn Ford, Nancy Kwan and Suzanne Pleshette (his "The Birds" co-star) in Ralph Nelson's airplane thriller, "Fate Is the Hunter" and, along with Eva Marie Saint, tried to fool James Garner in George Seaton's excellent "36 Hours," from a Roald Dahl story.
  • Then came "Young Cassidy."  Taylor's two leading ladies were Julie Christie and ... Maggie Smith, with whom he had teamed in "The V.I.P.s" (above photo)  Audiences went to see "The V.I.P.s" for E. Taylor and Richard Burton, but they fell in love with R. Taylor and Smith, a terrific team.  Too bad there were only two films.
  • In 1965 and '66, Taylor made two back-to-back titles with Doris Day. After filming Ralph Levy's "Do Not Disturb" and getting on so well (they had animal activism in common; see photo below), the two teamed up for  Frank Tashlin's antic "The Glass Bottom Boat."
  • 1967.  The film is "Hotel," based on the Arthur Hailey novel.  The director is Richard Quine.
  • In 1968, another film for Cardiff, the much-admired "Dark of the Sun," followed by Joseph Sargent's war flick, "The Hell with Heroes" and Robert Clouse's Travis McGee caper, "Darker Than Amber" - clearly Taylor's John Wayne period.  (He would eventually  co-star with Wayne himself in Burt Kennedy's "The Train Robbers.")
  • And in 1970, he appeared as Daria Halprin's older lover in Michelangelo Antonioni's controversial "Zabriskie Point."
After that, Taylor pretty much disappeared, going home to Australia where he acted occasionally in local films and visiting America infrequently for a spot on a TV series.

He returned to American filmmaking for Quentino Tarantino who offered Taylor what would be his final movie role - the part of Winston Churchill in "Inglorious Basterds" (2009).

Not surprisingly, Taylor turned down the role at first, suggesting that Albert Finney should play the part.

Note in Passing:  There are many standout cinematic moments in "The Birds," chief among them Hitchcock's use of three still shots of Tippi Hedren - looking in horror from the right, center and left - as she witnesses a bird attack from the window of the restaurant, and Hitch's use of some fabulous character actors as denizens of the restaurant (Lonny Chapman, Ethel Griffiths, Elizabeth Wilson, Charles MacGraw, Doreen Lang, Karl Swenson, Malcolm Atterbury and Joe Mantell, among them).

But my favorite moment in the film is a small one, a bit of charming repartee,  when Taylor flirtatiously suggests Hedren's reason for popping up unexpectedly in Bodega Bay. "I think you like me," he smiles.

"I loathe you!," she snaps back.

That's Rod and Tippi above with Ethel Griffiths and Charles MacGraw.


Sheila said...

Yes, Taylor and Smith made a great team and should have made more films together. I love them in both the movies you mention.

Jason Reese said...

This is going to sound weird, but I love him s Pongo in "101 Dalmations." His voice added a level of sophistication to a pooch who clearly deserved it!

Kiki said...

I have been a Rod Taylor fan since the early 60s series "Hong Kong." Some years back, I watched him being interviewed. He seemed very content looking back on his life and career.

wwolfe said...

Thanks for mentioning "36 Hours." I discovered that one on TCM and found it very entertaining. Taylor does a good job of showing a decent man who knows he's working for bad people and accepts his fate gracefully. It's always both surprising and admirable to discover a successful performer who chose to walk away from Hollywood on his or her own terms. In Taylor's case, his exit makes sense because he never seemed desperate for the audience to love him. Paradoxically, that made him more appealing.

joe baltake said...

"36 Hours" is a terrific film. Also terrifically underrated. A very clever thriller.

Alex said...

Rod Taylor came close to marrying Anita Ekberg, who also just recently died. They dated and were engaged for a while.