HOT ROD

During the annual list of celebrity obituaries that pervaded various media outlets at year’s end, I was particularly saddened to read of the death of Australian Rod Taylor, at the ripe old age of 84. Though he died early in 2015, his passing simply escaped my notice, much like his once-promising career faded, by no means into obscurity, but beyond the pale of recognition and popularity that once seemed his inevitable due.

After making his screen debut in Australia in a couple of inconsequential efforts, Taylor set out for Hollywood, where he was cast in a number of TV series, including Cheyenne and The Twilight Zone. During the Eisenhower years, he managed to get minor roles in some major films, including Raintree County and Giant. I remember first seeing him in World Without End (1956), as a back-up to stone-faced Hugh Marlowe (of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers fame); Taylor playing the funny, hunky astronaut lost in time.

It was in 1960, however, that he scored his first major starring role, one that made him a genuine icon in the galaxy of science-fiction films. As the Time Traveler in George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (Special Effects Oscar winner), Taylor made an indelible impression on a whole generation of sci-fi fans – kids, teenagers (like me), and adults.

Three years later, his star continued its ascendancy when he was cast by Alfred Hitchcock as the male lead in The Birds. For Hitchcock himself, ice-queen Tippi Hedren (Melanie Griffith’s mom) was the star, but it was really Taylor who anchored the film, bringing weight and conviction to the human elements in the movie. Hitchcock’s presence, as God on-camera and director off-camera, might have overshadowed Taylor (as Hitchcock did with so many of his performers), but it was Taylor whom we liked and admired. He’s the one who saves the day, if not the morrow (whatever Hitchcock’s ambivalent ending suggests).

But after The Birds, despite appearing in a number of good films – Darker Than Amber, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, and the WWII thriller 36 Hours) – Taylor never quite made it to the top tier. He was never at a loss for work, but starring roles in major features seemed to elude him. Eventually, he returned to his native Australia, continuing to work there, and making a memorable final appearance as Winston Churchill in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Notice of Taylor’s death sent me looking for two of his films from the late ’60s which made a solid impression on me at the time – Young Cassidy (1965), in which he played a fictionalized version of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey opposite Julie Christie and Maggie Smith, and then Dark of the Sun (1968), in which he was a mercenary in the Congo, fighting alongside former football star Jim Brown.

Young Cassidy was to have been directed by John Ford, but the filmmaker’s sudden illness two weeks into production resulted in Jack Cardiff (Oscar-winning cinematographer, Black Narcissus) taking over the reins. The movie is quite good, focusing on O’Casey’s early days and his rise to prominence, Taylor playing the two-fisted playwright with sensitivity and intelligence. One can only imagine what a master like Ford might’ve done with his beloved Irish material; maybe something like The Quiet Man 12 years earlier.

Regardless, Rod Taylor’s next film for Cardiff three years later was quite different, emphasizing the rugged physical appeal of the barrel-chested star. Extremely violent for its time, Dark of the Sun reunited Taylor with his Time Machine star Yvette Mimieux; he played a mercenary trying to rescue a train-load of refugees in the midst of a bloody civil war. Taylor radiates brawn and conviction as he discovers his soul in the carnage.

The film is exciting despite a cliché-ridden script that features (shades of Ford’s Stagecoach) an alcoholic doctor delivering a baby on the verge of an attack. Taylor, though, is still impressive, as is costar Jim Brown who, like Woody Strode before him, discovered a new career off the gridiron.

The consummate Time Traveler, Rod Taylor was a class act indeed.

 

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