In the 1950s, Hollywood was filled with suave and stylish stars like Cary Grant and William Holden, and the brooding method actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean.
And then there was Rod Taylor, who was in a class all his own.
Hollywood’s top director, Alfred Hitchcock, cast him in “The Birds” (1963), Walt Disney wanted him to voice a Dalmatian, and even Albert “Cubby” Broccoli approached Rod Taylor about playing James Bond. (He refused because he thought that sort of story was best for television—it would never work in films—later saying this was the stupidest remark he ever made).
A 2016 documentary, “Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches” highlights this standout actor’s life and work. Rod Taylor himself helps tell his story through an interview that was filmed in 2012.
Rugged, handsome and stylish, Rod Taylor was also proud of his Australian roots. Earlier Australian stars, like Errol Flynn were often believed to be British, due to grooming by Hollywood publicity departments.
“Unlike Errol Flynn and Peter Finch who largely went unrecognized as ‘Australians’ in Hollywood, Rod never shied away from his Australian heritage and character, and he frequently played Australians on screen in films such as The High Commissioner and The VIPs,” said the film’s producer Stephan Wellink and director Robert De Young in an e-mail interview. “One of our themes in the documentary was that Rod unconsciously paved the way for the representation of Australian masculinity on the Hollywood screen, and that direct, no nonsense, rugged image of the Australian male actor largely persists today.”
The documentary chronicles Rod Taylor’s early life and how he didn’t start off wanting to be an actor. He studied fine art and sculpting at East Sydney Technical College, which is now the National Art School located in New South Wales, Australia—which was “full of great looking chicks.”
“I really loved it but I felt I didn’t fit in,” he said in the film’s interview.
Along with art, Taylor became active in athletics and was the head of the surfing club—a fit lifestyle that he carried on for the rest of his life. A 1968 press book even said Rod Taylor did 500 pushups a day.
His early employment included painting backdrops and scenes for department stores, and while he would paint, he would listen to the radio.
“I was painting pottery and listening to these awful radio serials and I was thinking, ‘You know, I can do that,” he said.
And from radio Taylor was led to film. In his first film, “King of the Coral Sea” (1952)—credited as Rodney Taylor—he played an American because he was good with accents. Some Australian actors would take their career to England, but, Taylor’s interests lay in Hollywood.
Within a year of starting in Hollywood, Taylor was cast in roles in important films: he co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in “The Catered Affair” (1956) and appears in Elizabeth Taylor films “Giant” (1956) and “Raintree County” (1957).
His breakout role came with “The Time Machine” (1960), directed by George Pal, who Taylor calls “the dearest little goblin” that he ever met.
The combination of “The Time Machine” and his next project were what made Rod Taylor a star. While waiting for the release of “The Time Machine,” Taylor did something that was considered career suicide for a film star at that time—he went to television. Taylor was the star of the show “Hong Kong” (1960-61), where he played a tough foreign correspondent.
“With Hong Kong being a (TV) series, it was a faster route to being an established leading man by doing the television series than it would be taking your chances and slowly getting feature after feature,” Taylor said. “So your entry into a good feature could be because of television.”
From there, Taylor starred with some with some of Hollywood’s top leading stars including Doris Day, Jane Fonda, James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Glenn Ford, Maggie Smith, and even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the star studded “V.I.P.s” (1963).
As for “101 Dalmatians,” Taylor wasn’t keen on the role.
“They called me up to do it and I was immensely disappointed. I was cheap and I could do an English accent…,” Taylor said. “I was more famous with kids than anybody because I played this English doggy.”
Rod Taylor had the rare quality of versatility—he wasn’t only handsome or suave. He could be intellectual, gruff, a likable bad guy, a killer, an adventurer, a romancer, or a man of action. The documentary highlights this by taking a look at some of his top films—from “Sunday in New York” (1962) to “Dark of the Sun” (1968). Taylor’s personal favorite—also what he calls his “least profitable”—was “Young Cassidy” (1965), co-starring Maggie Smith, Julie Christie, Dame Edith Evans, Flora Robson and Michael Redgrave.
The documentary includes interviews with actors who worked with Taylor including Tippi Hedren, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, Veronica Cartwright, and Stephan Elliott. Personal friends, such as longtime business manager Murray Neidorf and attorney and family friend Nicholas Eddy are also interviewed. Australian actors Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and director Baz Luhrmann also weigh in.
“Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches” highlights a star that isn’t often recognized. I love to see a Rod Taylor performance in a film, because he always adds something extra with his presence. While I have seen most of his feature films, I learned several new things—such that he had his own television series and he was such an accomplished artist! I also didn’t realize that Rod Taylor played Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards” (2009), which was his last film. And if I’m truly honest—I adored hearing Rod Taylor say “doggy” while discussing “101 Dalmatians.”
I remember being crushed when he passed away in January 2015. Two years have passed since his death, and it was a treat to see him interviewed throughout this documentary; hearing him laugh and discuss his life and career. Most importantly, I didn’t realize that Rod Taylor was one of the first actors to be so openly Australian while others tried to act more British. His Australian pride really shone through, especially as he discussed how certain films or shows were popular in his home of Australia.
Comet Over Hollywood interviewed producer Stephan Wellink and director Robert De Young via e-mail about what inspired the project:
Stephan Wellink: This film is my homage to Rod and my father. I became a Rod Taylor fan when my father took me to see The Time Machine at our local film house in the outer western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. I remember Dad telling me that Rod was an Australian, from Lidcombe, and it was a thrill to know that the “man in the time machine” was a “Westie” just like me! For some years, I thought the life and times of Rod Taylor would make an entertaining documentary and in a quiet moment, I wrote a synopsis outlining the reasons and filed it. I dusted off the outline after I met Robert de Young at a social function. Robert had just completed a documentary on Errol Flynn and I told him of my idea for a film on Rod Taylor, which he liked. This meeting was the key to moving forward and Pulling No Punches was realized because of our shared enthusiasm for the project, a willingness to combine our complementary skills, perseverance and a preparedness to share in the hard work.
Robert de Young: I’d just completed the documentary on Errol Flynn when Stephan Wellink approached me about working with him on a film about Rod Taylor. I knew less about Rod’s career, but the more we talked about the film and examined the arc of his career in Australia and Hollywood, the clearer it became that Rod was a very important, and under-recognised, Australian actor. It was clear that Stephan’s knowledge of Rod’s work and his passion about telling this story, matched my own love of Flynn’s films, and I felt we had a strong story to tell and a solid creative team. Unlike Errol and fellow actor Peter Finch, Rod stamped an enduring idea of a uniquely Australian masculine identity, and we felt that the next generation of actors like Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe owed something to the persona that Rod created in Hollywood on and off-screen.
Did Rod Taylor have any influence on the film making process or offer any advice on what to include or not include?
We were very fortunate that Rod agreed to work with us. He was a wonderful raconteur and provided the desired light and shade needed to propel the narrative. Rod did not make demands about style or content of the film. The only thing he asked was that it be an entertaining film that reflected his approach to life and work. We decided to call the film “Pulling No Punches” because Rod was so direct about his acting and personal experiences in Hollywood, even if the stories didn’t always paint him in the best light!
Rod Taylor had a large body of work that spanned more than 50 years. It must have been a difficult process to narrow down which films to discuss. How did you decide the selection of films that were highlighted?
An early editorial decision was to focus predominantly on Rod’s career with an emphasis on the period 1950s – 1970s when he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. We also wanted Rod to guide us through the ups and downs of his career with great frankness, which he does, as the film weaves through a web of sequences around his most significant work. We didn’t focus, for example, on “The Picture Show Man,” another film he did back in Australia, because Rod didn’t say too much about the film and we didn’t have any other interviews to support a discussion of that film. We included his work on the television series Hong Kong (1960 – 61), because it highlighted his success on film and television which was a rare combination for an actor in those years.
How did Mr. Taylor’s 2015 death affect or influence the production of the documentary?
It was devastating to learn of Rod’s passing and our biggest regret was that he did not live to see the film. His passing made us even more determined to finish the film in honour of a life well-lived. We should also acknowledge the great bravery of his widow Carol, because we had to go back to visit her to obtain some of Rod’s more personal photos we needed for the film — this was very painful for her, but like us, she wanted to support his memory and our representation of Rod in the film.
“Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches” is currently being shown around the world at film festivals. The next screening will be at the Burbank International Film Festival on September 10. After the screening, there will be a question and answer portion follow with Tippi Hedren and Veronica Cartwright.