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Obituaries: Australian actor Rod Taylor

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Swedish actress Anita Ekberg and Australian-American actor Rod Taylor

Swedish actress Anita Ekberg and Australian-American actor Rod Taylor

AP

Swedish actress Anita Ekberg and Australian-American actor Rod Taylor

Rod Taylor, who has died aged 84, was an early pioneer in what would much later become a flood of talented actors from Australia taking on leading roles in Hollywood.

By the time Alfred Hitchcock cast him opposite Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963), Taylor had long cast off his Aussie vowels for an American twang as he played a ruggedly handsome hero convincingly menaced, along with the rest of the human cast, by a homicidal avian horde.

It was the sort of role that would have been played in Hitchcock's earlier films by Cary Grant or James Stewart; but the director admitted that because of the necessarily inflated special effects budget he could not on this occasion afford a bigger star. The screenwriter on the film, Evan Hunter, amusingly described Taylor's performance as "so full of machismo, you'd expect him to have a steer thrown over his shoulder".

Not that Taylor was exactly a stranger to Hollywood when Hitchcock picked him for what will probably remain the actor's most enduring credit across a long career in film and on television. Three years earlier he had played H G Wells's intrepid time-traveller in The Time Machine (1960).It was the first of many leading roles which had clearly beckoned ever since Taylor had first been signed to the traditional seven-year 'slave' contract by MGM in 1956.

As a result of that contract he was given small roles in some extremely high-profile studio productions such as Giant (1956), Raintree County (1957) and Separate Tables (1958). But with star-laden casts that included the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, David Niven, Wendy Hiller and Deborah Kerr, his 'supporting' contributions were effectively invisible. However, after The Time Machine and The Birds, as well as a warm-hearted "voice" performance as Pongo in Disney's animated canine classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Taylor was to become swiftly translated to "above the title" status.

The son of a steel contractor and a children's book writer, Rodney Sturt Taylor was born in Sydney on January 11, 1930. He trained first as a commercial artist before deciding on a career as an actor after seeing various productions, notably Richard III, during Sir Laurence Olivier's trailblazing Old Vic tour of Australia in 1948.

Work in radio - he played both the intrepid British air ace Douglas Bader in an adaptation of Reach for the Sky and Tarzan - and on stage followed. He then landed his first film roles, as an American in the people-smuggling thriller King of the Coral Sea (1954), and, in the same year, portraying Israel Hands in Long John Silver, a sequel to Treasure Island.

It was, however, Taylor's prowess on the airwaves that led him to quit his native Australia in the 1950s, after winning a radio talent contest. Part of the prize was an air ticket to Los Angeles and London. Taylor stopped off in LA on the first leg - and never really left.

Once he had cemented his stardom in Hollywood, his roles - mostly of the virile, action-man variety - came thick and fast, notably in three films directed by Jack Cardiff, the British film-maker better known for his great cinematography. There was Young Cassidy (1965), as the aspiring playwright Sean O'Casey; The Liquidator (1966), one of the earliest and best of the James Bond spoofs; and The Mercenaries (1968), a bloodily violent adaptation of Wilbur Smith's Congo-set bestseller, Dark of the Sun, with Taylor as a hard-nosed but well-meaning major caught up in the heart of darkness.

Later in his career Taylor occasionally returned to Australia to make home-grown films such as The Picture Show Man (1977), as a travelling projectionist in the pre-talkies 1920s, and Welcome to Woop Woop (1997), chewing up the scenery as a foul-mouthed, small-town tyrant in the Outback. In these Taylor was able, unusually, to play in his native accent.

He had grabbed that rare opportunity with both hands in Anthony Asquith's comedy drama The V.I.P.s (1963) - opposite Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jordan and Margaret Rutherford - as an Australian tycoon giving his secretly adoring assistant Maggie Smith a hard time as he tries to seal a last-minute deal.

Urged out of retirement by Quentin Tarantino in 2009, his final showy cameo was as a cigar-smoking Winston Churchill in Tarantino's revisionist Second World War thriller Inglourious Basterds.

Taylor, who died on January 7 - four days before his 85th birthday which was the day Anita Ekberg, one of his great romances, died - was thrice married. He is survived by a daughter from his second marriage, Felicia, a reporter for CNN, and by his third wife, Carol, whom he married in 1980.

Sunday Independent