Rod Taylor: An Appreciation of the Under-Appreciated

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Taylor starred as H.G. Wells in the 1960 classic 'The Time Machine.'

The actor, who died Wednesday, is rarely mentioned as one of finest to come out of Australia. As his countryman, Rhett Bartlett, points out for THR, 'We always wanted more'

Rod Taylor, who died this week in Los Angeles at age 84, was one of Australia’s most successful film exports. His accomplishments can stand beside those of Tasmanian Errol Flynn in the 1930s and Geoffrey Rush of Queensland in the 2000s. Yet he was vastly under-appreciated in his home country.

Australians love it when one of their own succeeds in Hollywood, and they have even greater affection for them when they come home, returning to their roots. 

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The Sydney native touched down in Hollywood in 1955 and didn't make an Australia movie until 1977. Ironically, that was the nostalgic, 1920s-set The Picture Show Man, when he played a brash American silent film distributor determined to monopolize the industry in any way he could. Taylor, in fact, rarely played Australians.

Draw a circle around Taylor's career from 1955-65, and you justifiably can rate that period with the heydays of any Australian actor, before or since.

A young Taylor more than held his own against heavyweights Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson in Hell on Frisco Bay (1955). He stood out as a trigger-happy gunslinger looking for glory against Sterling Hayden in Top Gun (1955). And he was convincing (somehow) when he battled those phony giant spiders in World Without End (1956), his first sizable role.
 
He was jilted by Elizabeth Taylor in favor of Rock Hudson in Giant (1956), tormented Montgomery Clift in the Civil War-set Raintree County (1957) and played the earnest medical student in the opening scene of Separate Tables (1958). All were supporting roles that never overstayed their welcome. We always wanted more. 
 
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And then there are his two most famous roles — as the star of the much-loved The Time Machine (1960), where he was passionate, sensitive and convincing as H. George Wells amid those Oscar-winning special effects, and then as Hitchcock's leading man, playing the strong, resourceful Mitch Brenner in The Birds (1963).  
 
His work during this time spanned almost every genre: sci-fi (The Time Machine), horror (The Birds), animation (1961’s 101 Dalmatians, as the voice of Pongo); drama (1956’s The Catered Affair), breezy romantic comedies (1963’s Sunday in New York with Jane Fonda and 1965’s Do Not Disturb with Doris Day) and biopics (as playwright Sean O’Casey in 1965’s Young Cassidy).
 
And I haven’t even touched on his TV appearances in the adventure series Hong Kong, The Twilight Zone, General Electric Theatre and Playhouse 90.
 
All this from 1955-65.
 
Two months ago, I submitted his name to the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts — which celebrates our country's greatest achievements in film and television — for its lifetime achievement award. Because Rod Taylor was rarely mentioned in Australia when we spoke of success stories. Because he was the son of a steelworker who forged his way to Hollywood. Because he started his career near the sprockets of a movie frame, then ended up front and center.
 
Rhett Bartlett is a film expert, a reviewer with ABC Radio in Melbourne, a voting member of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts and a movie lover. He can be found on Twitter at @dialmformovies and through his website, www.dialmformovies.net.
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