January 31, 2024 | Neil Crone

A Fistful Of Facts About Rod Taylor, Hollywood's Brawling Aussie

You could take Rod Taylor out of the Outback, but you couldn't take the Outback out of Rod Taylor—and that's something the people of Old Hollywood had to learn the hard way. 

1. He Was Actually Australian

Although the majority of his screen characters were American, Rod Taylor was actually born and raised in Australia. An accomplished artist, he flip-flopped between a career in fine art and acting. His mother pushed him towards painting, but after witnessing Sir Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III, Taylor knew that acting was for him.

Still, his mom put up a fight.

Portrait Photo of the actor Rod Taylor in the movie Philippe Freyhof, Flickr

2. He Defied His Mother

Taylor’s mother was an accomplished children’s book author and his father was a commercial artist. Mom pushed hard for him to follow in their footsteps, badgering him to attend a technical school. Taylor was having none of it though, and dropped out to audition for theatre school.

In the long term, it was the right decision. This next decision was...not so good.

Portrait photo of the actor Rod Taylor (1930-2015)Truus, Bob & Jan too!, Flickr

3. He Had A Doomed Relationship

In 1951, feeling like his career was finally hitting its stride and life was falling into place, 21-year-old Rod Taylor decided to get married. He’d fallen in love with a model named Peggy Williams. The two wed, but the bloom came off the rose in short order. Within a scant three years the marriage began to fall apart—and the rumored reason why was explosive.

Grayscale Portrait Publicity photo of Rod Taylor for Raintree CountyMovie studio, Wikimedia Commons

4. He Was Divorced But Not Charged

Rod Taylor always claimed that his brief marriage to Williams ended because the two of them were simply too young to have a happy marriage. Unfortunately, as part of the divorce proceedings, his soon-to-be ex-wife claimed he beat her. No charges were ever laid, but the shadow of the accusation followed Taylor throughout his career.

And with good reason.

Grayscale Portrait Publicity photo of the actor Rod Taylor for film The VIPmovie studio, Wikimedia Commons


5. He Liked To Mix It Up

Taylor was a big, muscular man who in many ways was the prototypical Australian male. He loved his drink, he spoke his mind, and he had been a very successful amateur boxer—with the broken nose to prove it. The combination of these three traits often led to arguments and confrontations, even when he started working as an actor.

In short order, he developed a terrible reputation: Rod Taylor was a hard-drinking, mercurial personality who would happily fight at the drop of a hat. But he still needed the success to back it up.

Photo of Rod Taylor as journalist Glenn Evans and Lloyd Bochner as Inspector Neil Campbell from the television program Hong Kong.ABC Television, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Got His First Film Role

In 1951, Rod Taylor took a role in a short documentary, Inland With Sturt. The film featured a reenactment of the adventures of Taylor’s actual ancestor, Charles Sturt, a famous British explorer of the Australian outback. In the picture, Taylor portrayed George Macleay, Sturt’s right-hand man.

He’d had his first taste of working in front of a camera, and he liked it. But in the meantime, he was enjoying surprising success in another medium.

Screenshot from the movie The Catered Affair (1956)MGM, The Catered Affair (1956)

7. He Used His Hands For More Than Just Punching

Taylor was a skilled potter, selling his own creations to help pay for his acting school. While working on his pottery, he listened to Australian radio soap operas. One day he thought, “I can do that”. He auditioned for a part, and his deep, raspy voice became an instant hit on the radio. It didn’t take long for him to be in demand.

Screenshot from the movie The Catered Affair (1956)MGM, The Catered Affair (1956)

8. He Became A Full-Time Radio Star

Radio producers soon lined up to offer Taylor roles in their radio programs. He had huge successes starring in dozens of shows, including Tarzan, The Dambusters, and Blue Hills. At one point he was recording more than twenty different shows a week, hopping from studio to studio. Thrilled to be working full time and finally making a decent living, he took his work seriously. Sometimes a little too seriously.

Screenshot from the movie The Catered Affair (1956)MGM, The Catered Affair (1956)

9. He Was A Method Actor…On The Radio?

One of the almost ridiculous moments in Taylor’s career came while recording the radio drama Reach For The Sky. Taylor’s character, Douglas “Tin Legs”’ Bader, was written as having a limp.

To put himself deeply into the character, Taylor, got a hold of a pair of crutches and hobbled around the studio...while voicing the role. The audience couldn’t see them, but according to Taylor, they helped his performance. And they may have helped him win a huge award.

Screenshot from the movie The Time Machine (1960)MGM, The Time Machine (1960)


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10. He Landed A Feature Role

1954 was a banner year for Rod Taylor. In addition to winning the Rola Award for Best Radio Actor, he was also cast in an Australian Feature film, King of the Coral Sea. His stellar work in that movie, plus the fact that he spent most of his time on-screen, bare chested, caught the eye of some important people.

His career was about to head in a very different direction.

Screenshot from the movie King of the Coral Sea (1954)Southern International, King of the Coral Sea (1954)


11. He Did His First American Movie

Hollywood producers were in Australia, shooting the pirate adventure Long John Silver. The brawny Taylor was cast, oddly, in the role of the blind old hermit, Israel Hands. His portrayal was impressive though. Enough so that many on the film, including the director, urged Taylor to come to Hollywood. They didn't have to ask him twice.

Screenshot from the movie Long John Silver (1954)Treasure Island, Long John Silver (1954)

12. He Went From Radio Star To Beach Bum

Not long after arriving in Los Angeles, Rod Taylor met with legendary Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. It went about as poorly as possible. In Taylor’s words, Wallis took one look at him and said, “Who’s the bum with the broken nose?” Never one to suffer fools, Taylor told Wallis to “Stuff it!”

No matter was this Hollywood bigwig said, Taylor knew he could act. He was going to give it a go. “So I rented a room on Malibu beach and caught fish to eat”. But for all these brave words, the reality was harsh.

Hal B. Wallis. Black and white publicity photograph from Universal PicturesUniversal Studios. Wikimedia Commons

13. He Lived In A One Room Rental

Without much money and with very few job opportunities, Taylor lived in tiny room on a beach in Malibu, "with a piece of curtain across one corner for a wardrobe and a jug and bowl as bathroom." But he had an even more pressing problem: His six-week work visa had run out very quickly.

Now, with no social security card and no work permit, he was about to be in deep trouble.

Screenshot from the movie The Birds (1963)Universal, The Birds(1963)

14. He Was Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Rod Taylor had a real work problem. In order to remain in the country, he had to go through the immigration authorities every single time he landed a job. And it wasn't just annoying—it made it impossible for him to take up non-acting jobs to pay the bills when the roles weren't coming.

But his determination and his pride were about to pay off in a huge way.

Screenshot from the movie The Birds (1963)Universal, The Birds(1963)

15. He Finally Got A Shot

After struggling for two grueling years, Taylor finally got some luck—though it happened through tragedy. After James Dean's fateful car crash, his role as the lead in the Rocky Graziano Boxing movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me, had to be re-cast. Taylor, with his rugged, athletic physique, broken nose and boxing skills, seemed like a perfect fit.

He screen-tested for the role. But it wasn't going to be that easy. Unfortunately he was up against one of the biggest movie stars in history.

Screenshot from the movie The Birds (1963)Universal, The Birds(1963)

16. He Was Knocked Out By A Star

Rod Taylor lost out on the role in Somebody Up There Likes Me to a little-known actor named Paul Newman. But it wasn't all bad news. His audition, in particular the accuracy of his Bronx accent, impressed the head of MGM. So much so that he cast Taylor as a Bronx boy in the film The Catered Affair, starring Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine.

He had finally landed a decent film role—but things were about to get even better for Rod Taylor.

Screenshot from the movie The Catered Affair (1956)MGM, The Catered Affair (1956)


17. He Became A Contract Player

In tandem with the offer of the role in The Catered Affair came an offer from the studio to go on contract. Taylor was offered $450 per week to become a member of the MGM actors stable. More money than he’d seen in years, and he was suddenly part of the MGM team. But contracts could also be canceled, as he learned on his first day.

Screenshot from the movie The Catered Affair (1956)MGM, The Catered Affair (1956)

18. He Got A Dose Of Reality

On the first day Rod Taylor reported for work as a contracted player at MGM studios, a humbling experience brought him back down to earth: “I walked through the big arches as Clark Gable was leaving the place. He was walking out with armfuls of stuff from his dressing room. It was strange and quite sad. I walked in, Gable walked out”.

Taylor’s own loyalty to his new employer would be tested quicker than he realized.

Grayscale portrait photo of the actor Clark GableMovie studio, Wikimedia Commons

19. He Was Asked To Make A Big Change

In 1955 MGM already had a couple of Taylors on their roster. Superstar Elizabeth Taylor and the dashing Robert Taylor. To that end, studio head Dore Schary called his newest recruit into his office and informed him that he would have to change his name. Never one to kowtow, Taylor smirked and said “Ok, in that case, I’ll be Rod Schary!” His bravado paid off and he got to remain Rod Taylor.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American Actress Elizabeth Taylor in a publicity photo by MGMMGM publicity still, Wikimedia Commons

20. He Wasn’t Even On The List

In 1960, MGM was in pre-production for the film version of H G Wells classic Sci-fi story The Time MachineWith George Pal directing, the studio’s shortlist for the lead role included James Mason, Paul Scofield, and David Niven; all heavy hitters. Rod Taylor wasn’t even talked about. But the film's low budget ($600K) and the high price-tags of the aforementioned stars eventually worked in Taylor’s favor.

Screenshot from the movie The Time Machine (1960)MGM, The Time Machine (1960)

21. He Was Offered His First Lead

In time, the studio decided to take a chance on a more youthful, athletic, and frankly, less expensive leading man for The Time Machine. Taylor was offered his first leading role. Incredibly, he turned it down initially, not interested in doing what he felt was a science fiction movie. A timely phone call saved him from making a huge mistake.

Screenshot from the movie The Time Machine (1960)MGM, The Time Machine (1960)

22. He Was Talked Into It

George Pal, the man hired to direct The Time Machine, desperately wanted Taylor for the part. He called Taylor and convinced him that he wasn’t making a science fiction picture, he was making an HG Wells picture. He also explained to Taylor that this was his first time directing and he could use the actors' help.

Still unsure if he was making a mistake or not, Taylor agreed to do the film. He would soon find out.

Screenshot from the movie The Time Machine (1960)MGM, The Time Machine (1960)


23. He Had His First Smash

The Time Machine was a marvel of special effects in a pre-digital age. It was also a casting nightmare. Taylor was just under six feet tall so, to make him larger and more impressive, all of the actors playing the Eloi and Morlocks needed to be much shorter.

Nonetheless, the film was hugely popular with audiences and critics alike. Taylor’s career immediately skyrocketed. He had proven that he had the chops to handle the lead in a complicated film. Doors—and checkbooks—began to open.

Screenshot from the movie The Time Machine (1960)MGM, The Time Machine (1960)

24. He Made A Bizarre Decision

In 1960, hot on the heels of his success with The Time Machine, Taylor made what some have felt was a questionable career choice. He accepted the lead role in a television action series; Hong Kong. At a time when movie studios were suddenly sitting up and taking notice of the handsome young star, he opted to work in TV instead. But he had one very good reason to do it.

Grayscale photo of Yvette Mimieux and Rod Taylor from the movir Film Star Vintage, Flickr

25. He Hit The Motherlode

One of the main reasons Taylor may have taken the lead in Hong Kong was the staggering paycheck. At $3,750 per episode (roughly $30,000 in today’s wages) Taylor, who had only a handful of guest-starring TV credits to his name, was suddenly the highest paid actor in a one-hour television show. He was on top of his game and the critics thought so too.

Screenshot from the TV Series Hong Kong (1960-1961)20th Century Fox, Hong Kong (1960-1961)

26. He Was Making A Splash In Tinseltown

Taylor’s star was rising quickly. So much so that famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper listed him as one of Hollywood's Twenty-One Most Promising Stars. PhotoPlay magazine referred to him as “a breath of fresh air in a stale-air town”. 

His fans agreed—and they quickly turned frantic.

Grayscale Publicity photo of Hedda Hopper from Stars of the PhotoplayPhotoplay magazine, Wikimedia Commons

27. He Got His Own Fan Club

Becoming the star of a television action series may have appeared to be a step down from doing film work, but it didn’t hurt Taylor’s popularity in the least. In fact, it sent it through the roof. Unsurprisingly comprised almost entirely of young women and girls, his official fan club sprang into existence almost overnight. 

He was riding high…but what goes up, also comes down.

Screenshot from the movie The Birds (1963)Universal, The Birds(1963)

28. He Was Canceled

In spite of Taylor's fans, Hong Kong was canceled after only 26 episodes. It still might’ve been a very important stepping stone in Taylor’s career, if only he’d had the smarts to realize it. He was now free to do more film work, and the suave, debonair character he’d played in the show had been noticed by another producer—and this producer was about to cast a life-changing role.

Screenshot from the TV Series Hong Kong (1960-1961)20th Century Fox, Hong Kong (1960-1961)

29. He Got An Iconic Audition

In 1961, Albert R Broccoli was producing a movie based on Ian Fleming’s spy novel, Dr NoThe film would introduce the world to the iconic character of James Bond. Taylor, with his hard-boiled good looks and natural charm, would be a perfect fit for the dashing superspy. Broccoli certainly seemed to think so.

The producer invited Taylor to screen test for the character. Taylor’s response, however, was not what he expected.

Screenshot from the movie The Birds (1963)Universal, The Birds(1963)

30. He Made A Classically Bad Call

Taylor was becoming known for his bravado and self confidence—some called it arrogance. When the Dr No people reached out to him about this new role, he blew off the screen test. He thought the role was beneath him. It was a decision he would regret to the end of his days. 

"Every time a new Bond picture became a smash hit," he later admitted, "I tore out my hair".

Screenshot from the movie The Birds (1963)Universal, The Birds(1963)

31. He Voiced Pongo

Taylor may have felt James Bond was beneath him, but, for some reason, he had no qualms at all about taking on the character of a cartoon dog. In 1961 he voiced the character of Pongo in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. Reaching back to his days as a radio star, Taylor turned in a remarkably charming, funny performance. 

His work paid off, and the film ended up being one of the biggest box-office draws of the year. But his on-screen days weren’t done just yet.

Rod Taylor 24Rank, The High Commissioner(1968)

32. He Traveled To Italy And Fell In Love With A Swede

In 1962, Taylor stepped back into feature films. He traveled to Italy to make the unremarkable Seven Seas to Calaisin which he played a goateed Sir Francis Drake. The film was completely forgettable—but what was not was his torrid, even rocky, love affair and sudden engagement to Swedish beauty Anita Ekberg.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the actress Anita EkbergParamount-photo by Bud Frakes., Wikimedia Commons

33. He Wanted To Be The Boss

Taylor and Ekberg seemed very much in love but there were problems early on. She lived and worked in Italy where she was a star and he lived in Hollywood. In his own words “I’m just old-fashioned enough to believe that the husband should be the boss of the family. I’ve no intention of going to Rome and hanging around the set while she makes a movie”. 

That kind of chauvinism was not going to sit well with the Swedish starlet. Ekberg had a mind of her own.

Anita Ekberg at the 30th Annual Academy Awards held at the Pantages Theatre in Los AngelesLos Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

34. He Felt He Was Being Rushed

Shortly into their relationship, the impetuous Ekberg announced to the press she and Taylor were going to get married. Her "fiancé" didn’t like that. And the two of them seemingly came to blows over it. 

As Taylor himself described the relationship “That Anita Ekberg, what a woman! She was all woman…she could also punch like a man…yeah she was a fun lady”!

Grayscale Publicity Portrait photo of Anita EkbergMGm, Wikimedia Commons

35. He Earned A Reputation As A Womanizer

Unsurprisingly, Taylor’s engagement to Ekberg lasted less than a year, and they never made it to the aisle. Quite possibly because he was busy pursuing a number of other women, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Debbie Reynolds and centerfold Pat Sheehan. As he confessed, "I make love to as many women [as] will let me…and that's the truth." He could party just as hard with his male friends as well.

Portrait of Zsa Zsa Gabor wearing a white dress and a coatkate gabrielle, Flickr

36. He Was A Drinking Buddy Of John Wayne

Taylor and  became very close friends on the set of The Train RobbersThe two of them once had a marathon three-day drinking and poker playing binge at Wayne’s home in Encino. As Taylor described their friendship, “We fell in love like a couple of drunken sailors.” But a good poker player he most definitely was not.

Portrait Photo of the actor John Wayne, wearing cowboy hat and dark suit, facing the cameraPA Images, Getty Images

37. He Lost A Lot Of Money Playing Poker

Taylor loved drinking, the company of like-minded tough guys, and playing poker. He was a great drinker—but a lousy card player. At one point, Taylor was so deeply in poker debt to John Wayne, he had his business manager write him a check for $2000. But want to hear something uncharacteristically sweet about The Duke?

Wayne’s friendship with Taylor was such that he never cashed that check or any of the others that followed.

American film star John Wayne (1907 - 1979) promoting his latest film 'McQ'. Wearing a dark blue suit, facing the cameraHulton Archive, Getty Images

38. He Was Compared To Errol Flynn

Inevitably, after years of chasing women, gambling and hard drinking, comparisons began to spring up between Taylor and another notorious Australian partier. “Errol Flynn is alive and well…but these days his name is Rod Taylor”, announced Sydney’s Daily Mirror in 1972. 

Taylor, for his part, chafed at the comparison, making a dubious distinction between his naughty behavior and Flynn’s. Meanwhile, Taylor thought he’d found marital bliss yet again.

Christopher Lee FactsGetty Images

39. He Married A Second Time

In 1963, Taylor’s partying subsided enough for him to actually choose one woman to be with. He married Mary Hilem, a model. The Tiger couldn’t change his stripes however, and the marriage lasted only 6 years. Even some of those at the wedding had their doubts. As Rod was walking down the aisle with his new bride, he noticed John Wayne shaking his head. Not a good sign, if you ask me...

Screenshot from the movie The High Commissioner(1968)Rank, The High Commissioner(1968)

40. He Knew He’d Made A Mistake

One of the main reasons Taylor's marriage to Hilem didn’t last was that, although she was a model, she just never really fit into the Hollywood scene. What was everything to Taylor, barely registered with her. 

At their wedding reception, Hilem is reported to have pointed and said “Who is that tall man?” “That’s John Wayne”! replied a baffled Taylor. It was only a matter of time.

Screenshot from the movie The High Commissioner(1968)Rank, The High Commissioner(1968)

41. He Got A Daughter And A Whopping Bill

The relationship was a blessing and a curse for Taylor. Hilem, gave him a daughter, Felicia, whom he loved dearly—and a $60,000 annual alimony payment that he didn’t love quite as much. 

His personal life had changed—and his career was about to as well.

Screenshot from the movie The High Commissioner(1968)Rank, The High Commissioner(1968)

42. A Famous Director Approached Him

In 1963, none other than Alfred Hitchcock, was preparing a film adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story about a small town terrorized by marauding birds. Hitch invited Taylor to lunch at Universal Studios, to discuss the lead role. 

The plain-talking Taylor found Hitchcock a strange man to engage with, and the meeting did not go well from his perspective. Hitch however liked the straight-talking Aussie and hired him.

B&W photo of Alfred Hitchcock wearing black suit and looking at camera - 1955Ante Brkan, Wikimedia Commons

43. He Was Literally Terrified Of The Birds

If Taylor’s portrayal of a man terrified by flocks of murderous crows, ravens, and seagulls seems real, it’s because it is. Told initially that mechanical birds would be used for all the “attack” scenes, it soon became apparent that the fake birds didn’t look convincing. Taylor and his co-star, Tippi Hedren, were forced to do scenes fighting with real, angry, pecking birds. Before long though, Taylor would be fighting with real, angry humans.

Screenshot From the movie The Birds (1963)Advertising Hitchcock, Flickr

44. He Leapt Into Action Movies

As he aged, Taylor started doing action films and playing grittier characters. And he was very good at it. While filming a fight scene with actor William Smith, in the film Darker Than Ambera mistimed punch escalated things into a real fight. Legend has it that Taylor broke Smith's ribs and Smith re-broke Taylor’s nose. Incredibly, once they realized the fight was real, rather than stop, Taylor demanded that the camera keep rolling. It was his first on-set fight, but would not be his last.

William Smith (actor) in the film Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)Sequoia Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

45. He Punched Out Richard Harris

While filming The Deadly Trackers, Taylor co-starred with Richard Harris, who was also fond of a drink and a punch-up. Rumor had it the two of them fought almost constantly, with Taylor routinely getting the better of Harris. It got so bad at one point that William Smith, the actor Taylor had brawled with in Darker Than Amber, was hired to keep Taylor from fighting with Harris. However, there was another actor who might have been his match.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Actor Richard HarrisCity of Boston Archives, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

46. He Butted Heads With Jim Brown

On the film Dark Of The SunTaylor’s ego collided with that of another Alpha male. Legendarily feared football player Jim Brown was making inroads into acting and the two men developed a strange relationship. One minute they’d be circling each other like wolves. The next, Taylor would be generously offering Brown acting tips. 

It’s not known whether they actually came to blows, but in later years, Taylor had nothing but praise for his adversary.

NFL player Jim Brown of the Cleveland BrownsTopps, Wikimedia Commons

47. He Drifted Into Television Again

In time, Taylor eschewed tough-guy roles for mellower characters on TV. Unlike some macho actors who couldn’t abandon their leading man status, Taylor was sanguine about the transition. "Pretending to still be the tough man of action isn't dignified for me any more. There comes a time when you're over the hill and there are plenty of great looking younger actors who can take your place”. 

Ready to retire, he received one last offer he couldn’t refuse.

Screenshot from the movie The High Commissioner(1968)Rank, The High Commissioner(1968)

48. He Was A Favorite Of Tarantino’s

Taylor’s Dark Of The Sun was a cult favorite of director Quentin Tarantino. So, when Tarantino needed an actor to portray Winston Churchill in his film Inglourious Basterds, he immediately thought of Taylor. Taylor, who now relished opportunities to play “ugly old dinosaurs” leapt at the chance. Heavily made-up, the once ruggedly handsome leading man is barely recognizable. It would be his final appearance in a feature film.

Director Quentin Tarantino standing by a poster for his film 'Pulp Fiction' - 1994Martyn Goodacre, Getty Images

49. He Was Finally Happily Married

In 1980, Taylor married his third and final wife, Carol Kikumura. The two had met almost two decades earlier when she was a background performer in Hong Kong. After seeing Taylor in a television series in the 70s, Kikumura, then living in Las Vegas, called him on a whim. 

Her pickup line was less than conventional: She told him he’d gotten fat. Taylor, then in LA, told her to “Come here and say that!” She did and they never looked back.

Screenshot from the TV Series Hong Kong (1960-1961)20th Century Fox, Hong Kong (1960-1961)

50. He Happily Embraced Old Age

For the last three decades of his life, Taylor and Kikumira happily shared a love of art, cooking and good wine. He made only occasional appearances in television and film and he was okay with that. In the words of his daughter Felicia "My dad loved his work. Being an actor was his passion – calling it an honorable art and something he couldn't live without."

On January 7, 2015 after a dinner with family, Rod Taylor passed from a heart attack.

Screenshot from the movie The High Commissioner(1968)Rank, The High Commissioner(1968)

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