Film actor who excelled in tough-guy roles but had a softer side
Friday 9 January 2015
Rod Taylor, who has died aged 84, was a movie star of some magnitude who never achieved superstar status. He co-starred with Doris Day (twice), Jane Fonda, Rock Hudson and John Wayne; had leading roles in films by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds, 1963) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970); and starred in the perennially popular science-fiction classic The Time Machine (1960). Yet, at the height of Taylor’s career, 20th Century Fox turned him down for the astronaut role in Planet of the Apes (1968), giving it to Charlton Heston, because they considered him a bigger box-office name.
Perhaps Taylor, handsome and with the build of a rugby forward, missed top billing because he was rarely able to demonstrate his flair for playing light comedy, having been too frequently called upon to be stolid and macho – traits that nevertheless made him an ideal action hero in war films and westerns.
He was born in Sydney, Australia, the only child of William Sturt Taylor, a steel construction contractor, and his wife, Mona (nee Thompson), a writer. The name Sturt came from a celebrated forebear, Captain Charles Sturt, a British explorer of the Australian outback in the 19th century. Taylor would make his film debut in a short called Inland With Sturt (1951) about his ancestor.
Taylor attended Parramatta high school in Sydney and studied at East Sydney Technical College before deciding to become an actor on seeing Laurence Olivier in the Old Vic touring company in Australia in 1948. His acting career in his homeland was focused on radio, though he did make two feature films, King of the Coral Sea (1953) and Long John Silver (1954), the latter with Robert Newton doing his famous rolling-eyed interpretation of the title role for the third and last time. Taylor later made an imitation of Newton one of his party pieces.
In 1954, Taylor won an award as best Australian radio actor, which included a paid trip to London via Los Angeles. He stayed in LA with the hope of making it in Hollywood movies. Almost immediately, he got small parts in The Virgin Queen, Hell on Frisco Bay and Top Gun (all in 1955) and a lead in World Without End (1956). The last of these was a rather tacky, loose version of HG Wells’s The Time Machine, with Taylor as a stalwart astronaut entering a time warp – a good rehearsal for his role in the more faithful adaptation four years later.
In 1956, he was screen-tested for the part of the boxer Rocky Graziano in MGM’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), after James Dean, who was to have starred, was killed in a car crash. Although Paul Newman got the role, Taylor impressed the studio enough for them to offer him a significant part in The Catered Affair (aka Wedding Breakfast, 1956) in which, occasionally wearing glasses as a signifier of intellect, he played Ralph, the middle-class fiance of working-class Jane (Debbie Reynolds). “The Brooklyn accent I put on during the test so convinced the producers that I was from New York that they cast me as a Bronx boy. They didn’t know I was just 18 months out of Australia until the movie was half finished,” he said.
In the same year, in Giant, he had a small role as Elizabeth Taylor’s aristocratic English suitor, whom she throws over for a Texas millionaire (Rock Hudson). The two Taylors were together again in Raintree County (1957), she as a southern belle, he as a sleazy politician, the bete noire of a sensitive abolitionist (Montgomery Clift). In Separate Tables (1958), he and Audrey Dalton, as a young honeymoon couple, were closer to the subtle merits of Terence Rattigan’s original stage opus than the rest of the starry cast that included Burt Lancaster, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Rita Hayworth as guests at a genteel English seaside guesthouse.
Ask Any Girl (1959) gave Taylor, though no Cary Grant, one of his few opportunities to play in a romantic comedy, which he did ably. Here he is delightfully caddish as a businessman who attempts to seduce naive Shirley MacLaine by taking her up to his aunt and uncle’s place in the country for the weekend, and forgetting to tell her they will be alone.
Among his other rare comedies were Sunday in New York (1963), in which the tables are turned when Fonda tries to get him into bed; and two lightweight Day vehicles, Do Not Disturb (1965), in which she pretends to make her husband (Taylor) jealous because she thinks he’s having an affair, and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), a spy spoof with Taylor as a research scientist who literally hooks Day while she’s swimming in a mermaid suit.
By then Taylor had established himself as a reliable tough-guy leading man in films such as A Gathering of Eagles (1963) and Fate is the Hunter (1964), in both of which he played pilots. He portrayed one of his rare Australian characters, a self-made industrialist secretly adored by his mousy secretary (Maggie Smith) in the jet-set entertainment The VIPs (1963).
However, his role as George Wells, a Victorian inventor, in George Pal’s The Time Machine was among his most memorable and a personal favourite. The film, which won an Oscar for its special effects, follows the valiant, square-jawed Taylor into the horrors of the future, through two world wars and atomic destruction (in 1966), stopping in the year 802,701, when he helps defeat the hideous, underground-dwelling Morlocks. Three years after The Time Machine, Taylor found himself manfully fighting off a swarm of crazed gulls, crows, sparrows, and more in The Birds, after attempting to melt the heart of a young socialite (Tippi Hedren).
Taylor did not seem ideal to play the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey in Young Cassidy (1965), but in it he gave perhaps his best performance, skilfully combining strength and sensitivity. But from 1967 onwards Taylor honed his persona as an action man, with archetypal performances as a hardened professional gunfighter in Chuka (1967), which he also produced; the ruthless army captain sorting out the civil war in the Congo in The Mercenaries (aka Dark of the Sun, 1968); a laid-back gunslinger hired by Wayne in The Train Robbers (1973); and two “heavies”, a sneering cold-blooded killer in The Deadly Trackers (1973) and a wicked entrepreneur at the beginning of the 20th century in Australia in The Picture Show Man (1977). Antonioni wanted Taylor for the nasty capitalist in Zabriskie Point precisely because he could be aloof and steely.
In the 1980s, though he was seen frequently on television, including a 30-episode stint in the soap opera Falcon Crest (1988-90) as Frank Agretti, the long-suffering third husband of Angela Channing (Jane Wyman), the tyrannical owner of the eponymous wine-making estate, Taylor went into semi-retirement. “Pretending to still be the tough man of action isn’t dignified for me any more,” he told an interviewer in 1987. “There comes a time when you’re over the hill and there are plenty of great-looking younger actors who can take your place. The younger they come, the better they get. That’s why Olympic records are broken.”
Quentin Tarantino, a long-time fan of the actor, gave Taylor the cameo role of Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Taylor is survived by his third wife, Carol, and a daughter, Felicia, from his second marriage.
• Rodney Sturt Taylor, actor, born 11 January 1930; died 7 January 2015