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Leading Man Rod Taylor Dead At 84

by Lloyd Gufferson - The Oregon Herald Friday January 9, 2015    4:33 PM

Handsome leading man Rod Taylor died of natural causes Wednesday, his rep tells PEOPLE. He was 84.

The Australia-born movie star appeared in more than 50 Hollywood films throughout his career, from The Time Machine and The Train Robbers to The Catered Affair. More recently, he voiced Pongo in Disney's family-favorite 101 Dalmatians and played Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds.

His death was announced by his daughter, Felicia Taylor, a former correspondent and anchor for CNN and CNBC.

Mr. Taylor was only the second Australian actor, after Errol Flynn (who was born in Tasmania), to achieve major Hollywood stardom, though many moviegoers did not know his origins. He made more than 50 films but played Australians in only a handful. In his most famous roles, he played a Briton and an American. His "Time Machine" character, an inventor, was known as H. George Wells, for H. G. Wells, the British author of the classic time-travel novel on which the film was based. In "The Birds," Mr. Taylor was a California lawyer who offers a ride to a reckless blond heiress (Tippi Hedren) and ends up fighting off gangs of the homicidal title characters.

And it was back to the British accent in his last film. The director Quentin Tarantino persuaded Mr. Taylor to make a comeback of sorts by playing Winston Churchill in his 2009 World War II film, "Inglourious Basterds."

Rodney Sturt Taylor was born on Jan. 11, 1930, in Sydney, Australia. The only child of William Taylor, a steel-construction contractor and draftsman, and the former Mona Stewart, a children's book author, he grew up in Lidcombe, a Sydney suburb.

At first he planned to become an artist, and as a teenager he studied at the East Sydney Technical and Fine Arts College. But through friends he became interested in acting, and seeing Laurence Olivier in "Richard III" on an Old Vic tour cemented his decision to become an actor.

Mr. Taylor's first professional appearance was in a local 1947 production of George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance." His first screen appearance was in an Australian short, "Inland With Sturt" (1951), about the British explorer Capt. Charles Sturt, his great-great-great-uncle. Mr. Taylor also appeared on dozens of radio shows and won a radio acting award that included enough prize money to finance a trip to London, where he hoped to expand his career.

Before leaving, he won a small part in "Long John Silver" (1954), a pirate movie being filmed in Australia with Hollywood stars. That inspired him to make a stop in Los Angeles, where he was rejected by a major talent agency but decided to stay in town anyway.

After a tiny uncredited role in the Bette Davis film "The Virgin Queen" (1955), he appeared in "Hell on Frisco Bay" (1955), a crime movie starring Alan Ladd, and as Debbie Reynolds's fiancé in "The Catered Affair" (1956).

That same year he was noticed as the debonair boyfriend Elizabeth Taylor's character throws over for a visiting Texan (Rock Hudson) in "Giant." Four years, two movies and a number of guest appearances on television series later, he was cast in "The Time Machine."

The 1960s were a busy time for Mr. Taylor. He began by starring as an American newspaper correspondent in the short-lived television series "Hong Kong" (1960-61), and securing his place in children's movie history as the voice of Pongo, the puppies' father, in the animated movie "101 Dalmatians" (1961). In addition to "The Birds," his 1963 films included "The V.I.P.'s," with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and "Sunday in New York," a romantic comedy in which he starred opposite Jane Fonda. He followed those with a portrayal of the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey in "Young Cassidy" (1965), starring roles in the Doris Day comedies "Do Not Disturb" and "The Glass Bottom Boat" (both 1966) and the lead in "Hotel" (1967), based on the Arthur Hailey novel.

As an Australian he played a countryman in only a few films, among them "The V.I.P.'s," as Maggie Smith's aggressive boss; "The High Commissioner" (1968), as a detective sent to London to retrieve a diplomat; and, when he was in his 60s, "Welcome to Woop Woop" (1997), an Australian farce in which he played a grizzled hick patriarch.

Mr. Taylor made a dozen films in the 1970s, including Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" (1970), in which he played the young hippie heroine's boss, and "The Picture Show Man" (1977), an Australian production first shown in the United States in 1980. (He played an American.)

For most of the next three decades, Mr. Taylor made only the occasional film but appeared in numerous television movies; one 1981 role was as the title character's father, Black Jack Bouvier, in "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy." From 1988 to 1990 he had a recurring role, as the title vineyard's long-lost owner, Frank Agretti, on the nighttime soap "Falcon Crest."

His penultimate film role was in "Kaw" (2007), a low-budget horror movie about crazed ravens attacking a small town, inspired by "The Birds." Mr. Taylor's character appeared in the last half-hour as the much-needed voice of calm reason.

Mr. Taylor married three times and divorced twice. His first wife was Peggy Williams (1951-54), an Australian model. His second was Mary Hilem (1963-69), an American fashion model with whom he had a daughter. He married Carol Kikumura, an American actress and dancer, in 1980. Besides his daughter, she also survives him. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.

In 1964, at the height of his fame, Mr. Taylor talked to The New York Times about his career. "With me, it's been part luck and part sheer, regimented planning," he said.

He recalled being influenced by the director George Stevens's advice to respect himself as an actor, even in bit parts.

After that, Mr. Taylor said, "I resolved to work my head off."

The Time Machine was directed by George Pal and premiered on 17th August 1960. Starring Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore and Whit Bissell. Screenplay by David Duncan based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Music by Russell Garcia. 103mins.

London 1900. George Wells arrives late for dinner and explains to his waiting friends that he had built a time machine and travelled to the future, the year 802,701 to be exact and there he encountered the peaceful race of the Eloi and their ghastly masters, the Morlocks.

George falls for the charms of one of the Eloi, the beautiful Weena. He was horrified to discover that the Morlocks were cannibals, feeding on the Eloi. When his friends leave after dismissing his story as preposterous, George decides to go back to 802,701 and help the Eloi build a better future without the Morlocks.

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was born in Kent, England, and is famous for his works of science fiction. He wrote an astonishing variety of sci-fi tales all hugely influential –

The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods (1904), In the Days of the Comet (1906), The War in the Air (1908) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933).

The Time Machine was also a social commentary, in the future the elite upper class became too comfortable and lazy and eventually evolved into the mindless beautiful Eloi, while the downtrodden working class after generations of hard labour, poor living conditions and malnutrition went underground becoming the Morlocks.

Photo: Rod Taylor in The Time Machine.
Photo 2: Rod Taylor in The Birds.
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