The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Rod Taylor
Last week, we took a look at the career of Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who's likely in the very prime of his career. This week, we switch gears to examine the life of an actor who never really received his due, even though at his peak he was maybe one role away from becoming a megastar.
Given the non-stop barrage of tragic news this week, it’s no surprise that the passing of a now mostly-obscure leading man from the sixties didn’t get much play in the media. However, Rod Taylor is an actor whose career deserves a closer look, and being the author of a column called “the good, the bad and the badass” I’d be crazy not to take this opportunity to write about a guy who – at his peak – was the very definition of the term badass.
Often called the precursor to Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, Aussie Rod Taylor was quite the heartthrob in his day, having starred in a long slew of dramas, comedies, and most frequently – action movies – that were popular with 1960's moviegoers. Taylor first blasted onto the scene as the hero of George Pal’s adaptation of H.G Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE. While probably too brawny to play a scientist, the film’s become a sci-fi classic and Taylor’s great in it, cutting a very Sean Connery-style virile figure. His follow-up, Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS firmly established him as a star, and throughout the decade Taylor made tons of movies, many of which are obscure now, but are also well-worth checking out.
Off-screen, Taylor was probably even more of a badass than the characters he played, living it up at the Playboy mansion and famously brawling with co-star Jim Brown (apparently Taylor won). If that’s not badass I don’t know what is. His career tapered off in the seventies, and by the eighties he was starring in a slew of failed TV series. By the nineties he was almost totally obscure, except for the occasional appearance on WALKER: TEXAS RANGER (he played a recurring role). Recently, Taylor popped up as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, with QT being on record as a huge fan of his work. Sadly, Taylor passed away this week but, at eighty-five, he lived a good life and left behind a strong body of work, which we’ll now get into…
DARK OF THE SUN is a staggering good film and one that's almost completely obscure despite several famous fans, including Tarantino. Set in the Belgian Congo, Taylor plays a mercenary sent to retrieve a stash of diamonds from a mine company's vault that's right in the middle of an isolated town due to be attacked by the rebel Simba army. Everyone in town is going to be slaughtered, but Taylor's bosses couldn't care less, they just want the diamonds. Forced to pair up with an unrepentant former SS officer (based on a real-life mercenary named Siegfried Muller), Taylor and his best buddy (played by the enduringly badass Jim Brown) set off to recover the diamonds. The movie itself is almost unfathomably violent considering the period (1968) making THE WILD BUNCH look like an episode of SESAME STREET by comparison. This movie is so rough that at one point, Taylor and the Nazi guy get into a chainsaw fight and Taylor attempts to use a train to decapitate his psychotic opponent. It also has an incredible musical score by Jacques Loussier, that wound up being prominently featured in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Sadly, this isn't the easiest film to see but TCM has been known to show it on occasion (they'll likely play it this month to commemorate Taylor's passing) even though the print isn't the best. I just ordered the MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD from Warner Archive, which I've heard is excellent.
One of Taylor's most succesful films was THE VIP'S, in which he co-starred with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were then (1963) at the height of their popularity. It's a sudsy soap, and not really of much interest nowdays – were it not for the fact that none other than a young Maggie Smith plays Taylor's love interest. I recently read a book about Taylor and apparently the two had a bit of a thing going on, and she eventually ended up paired with Taylor again in the much better YOUNG CASSIDY (a collaboration between Taylor's DARK OF THE SUN director Jack Cardiff and John Ford).
A few months ago, when I wrote up the late James Garner, I mentioned the film 36 HOURS. While that's definitely a James Garner-film, Rod Taylor all but steals the show as the sympathetic antagonist. Garner plays an WW2 Intelligence officer with key knowledge of the forthcoming D-Day invasion who's kidnapped by the Nazis, drugged, and led to believe that he's actually woken up in the year 1964 and that the war is over. Taylor plays the psychiatrist trying to get him to spill the beans, but in a unique twist, he's portrayed as a relatively humane guy, forced into collaborating with the SS against his better judgment. It's a slick little thriller and worth discovering (it airs frequently on TCM as well).
While not a great movie, the 1970 Taylor vehicle DARKER THAN AMBER has one incredible scene. So far the only bigscreen version of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, the movie was pretty much only intended as filler by its studio (the short-lived National General Pictures) but Taylor, who always excelled at fight scenes put his stamp on the movie's climax, featuring a bloody brawl between him and famous tough guy William Smith. Why is the fight so good? According to legend (which Smith himself later confirmed in an interview on his now defunct website) the fight was real, with one actor accidentally striking the other, leading to a full-on fight. Smith admitted to breaking Taylor's nose during the fight, while – he in turn – wound up with three broken ribs. The fight is so good that the movie's director, Robert Clouse, was hired to do ENTER THE DRAGON shortly after and both Smith and Taylor (according to Wikipedia) were considered to play the John Saxon part. Check out the fight below and be amazed at its brutality.
5. YOUNG CASSIDY
4. 36 HOURS
3. THE TIME MACHINE
2. THE BIRDS
1. DARK OF THE SUN
While Rod Taylor never got to experience a full-on comeback, to connoisseurs of classic cinema, he remains a cult figure whose performances have all stood the test of time.
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