Rod Taylor, a virile leading man who excelled as the resourceful hero of 1960s dramas such as “The Birds,” “The Time Machine” and “Dark of the Sun,” and who showed an understated finesse in screen comedies, died Jan. 7 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.
His daughter, Felicia Taylor, a former CNN and CNBC correspondent, announced the death but did not provide a cause.
The Australian-born Mr. Taylor arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1950s furnished with rugged good looks and a powerful physique shaped during years as a surfer and amateur boxer. He also displayed a zesty, at times impertinent, charisma.
At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, studio boss Dore Schary asked Mr. Taylor to change his name because they already had two Taylors — Elizabeth and Robert — who were major stars.
“Okay,” he replied. “In that case, I’ll be Rod Schary.”
He kept his name and waited years, patiently and strategically, for his career to catch fire.
“I did one wise thing,” he told the New York Times in 1964. “I was offered certain things but held out in a kind of long-range determination that it was better to take good parts even if they were little ones.”
Thus came a string of supporting roles in big-budget productions such as “Giant” (1956), “Raintree County” (1957) and “Separate Tables” (1958) — films in which he hardly registered opposite such high-wattage players as Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Montgomery Clift.
Mr. Taylor’s supporting role as a wolfish would-be seducer of Shirley MacLaine in “Ask Any Girl” (1959) earned him greater attention at MGM. His reward was a starring role in “The Time Machine” (1960), an engrossing if loose adaptation of the H.G. Wells science-fiction thriller.
Playing a time-traveling, Victorian-era scientist, he lands in the distant future and rescues a comely blonde (Yvette Mimieux) who belongs to a race of people harvested for food by mutant cannibal rulers.
The film received warm but not ecstatic reviews, and MGM did not seem quite sure what to do with Mr. Taylor.
He was the voice of Pongo in the animated film “101 Dalmatians” (1961), and the studio loaned him to ABC in 1960 for a starring role as a journalist in the adventure series “Hong Kong.”
Director Alfred Hitchcock wanted him for “The Birds” (1963), a thriller about marauding sea gulls and other winged villains.
Critically speaking, Mr. Taylor and Tippi Hedren as his love interest seemed incidental to the terrifying and inexplicable tale of homicidal birds. Hitchcock reportedly cast Mr. Taylor in the role because he seemed physically robust enough to stand up to the director’s gruesome demands.
“They had all these sea gulls — by now very angry — in a kind of box,” Mr. Taylor told an Australian interviewer in 1998. “And at the end of the box was a replica of the window of the house, and I was supposed to reach in and close the shutters of the window.
“As I reach in . . . these birds are eating my arm, and Hitchcock would say, ‘Lovely. More. Wait there Rod. No, wait there Rod.’ They’re eating my arm! ‘No, wait a minute. All right. Cut.’ ”
By the end, Mr. Taylor said, he was “bleeding and shredded.”
“The Birds” was a hit and thrust Mr. Taylor to a top tier of movie stardom for the next few years. He was among the cavalcade of stars to populate “The V.I.P.s” (1963), in which he was an Australian tractor tycoon, and “Hotel” (1967), in which he played the harried manager.
Mr. Taylor showed himself a capable farceur in “Sunday in New York” (1963) opposite Jane Fonda, but his charms could not save the Doris Day comic capers “Do Not Disturb” (1965) and “The Glass Bottom Boat” (1966).
He earned strong reviews opposite Maggie Smith in “Young Cassidy” (1965) for his portrayal of the brawling Irish playwright Sean O’Casey. He soon returned to comfortable ground in action films and dramas, such as “Fate Is the Hunter” (1964) and “36 Hours” (1964), the second as a German-American who becomes increasingly conflicted assisting the Nazis in an elaborate scheme to uncover the D-Day invasion.
He spoofed James Bond in “The Liquidator” (1965) and played a Western gunslinger who helps defend an Army outpost from an Indian uprising in “Chuka” (1967). One of his best and grittiest films was “Dark of the Sun” (1968), in which he played a cynical mercenary in Congo.
Mr. Taylor’s career plummeted in the 1970s with a run of critically drubbed films. They included director Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” (1970), in which he played a real estate executive and the lover of a California hippie; the John Wayne Western “The Train Robbers” (1973); and the title role in “Trader Horn” (1973).
He returned to TV work as the star of the short-lived adventure series “Bearcats” in 1971 and “The Oregon Trail” in 1977, followed by recurring roles on “Murder, She Wrote,” “Falcon Crest” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He also played “Black Jack” Bouvier, the father of the title character played by Jaclyn Smith, in the 1981 TV movie “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.”
Director Quentin Tarantino, a fan of “Dark of the Sun,” lured Mr. Taylor out of retirement to play a cameo as the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the revisionist war film “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).
Rodney Sturt Taylor was born in Sydney on Jan. 11, 1930. His father was a steel contractor, and his mother wrote plays and children’s books. Mr. Taylor was on a path to an engineering career until he saw Laurence Olivier in a 1948 touring production of “Richard III.”
“Sir Larry’s performance that night clinched the deal,” he once said. “I knew I would never be anything but an actor.”
He performed in radio dramas, notably as Tarzan, before winning featured roles in Australian films such as “King of the Coral Sea” (1953) starring the popular Chips Rafferty.
MGM beckoned. Mr. Taylor was a contender to play boxing champion Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) but lost out to Paul Newman. But Mr. Taylor’s ability to slip into a Brooklyn accent led to his casting as a bridegroom to Debbie Reynolds in the Paddy Chayefsky comedy “The Catered Affair” (1956).
His marriages to models Peggy Williams and Mary Hilem ended in divorce. In 1982, he wed Carol Kikumura, an actress and dancer. Survivors include his wife and a daughter from his second marriage.
“There comes a time when you’re over the hill and there are plenty of great looking younger actors who can take your place,” Mr. Taylor said in a 1987 interview. “The action stars of today are making some wonderful films. There are no ‘I could do it better’ feelings in me.The younger they come, the better they get. That’s why Olympic records are broken.”