By Scott Eyman
Rod Taylor considered himself retired. Then Quentin Tarantino came calling.
“I don’t even have an agent anymore,” says Taylor by phone from Beverly Hills. “But one day my business manager called and said, ‘I got a call from this strange guy. Tara … Taranteen … something like that.’ I said, ‘Well did you get his number?’ So I called him and Quentin was in a casting meeting, and they told me to be sure and stay at the number I was at.
“And Quentin called, and went straight into the movies of mine that he likes. And then he said, ‘How about doing a movie with me? I want you to play Churchill. We’re shooting in Germany.’
“I said, ‘Well, you’re just across the channel from Albert Finney, aren’t you?’ And he said, ‘Well, if Rod Taylor turns me down, then I’ll get Albert Finney.’ ”
He got Taylor, who plays Churchill in the set-up scene for Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s World War II movie with Brad Pitt, which opens today. It’s the first time Taylor’s been seen in awhile, since at the age of 79, he had settled into a comfortable, active retirement that didn’t include acting.
Taylor was one of the primary leading men of the 1960s, starting out at the very top in 1956 with George Stevens on Giant, and continuing with starring roles for Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds), John Ford (Young Cassidy), two movies opposite Doris Day, and a succession of good, very tough action pictures — Darker Than Amber, in which he played Travis McGee, and Dark of the Sun. For Baby Boomers, his most prestigious credit may well be The Time Machine, or the voice of Pongo in 101 Dalmatians.
He agreed to do Inglourious Basterds because of Tarantino’s passion for movies.
“Quentin’s magical. He thinks of nothing but movies. I enjoyed every second of the 10 days. He does three takes of every shot, no more, no less. One day I asked him ‘Why are we doing another take?’
“Because we f——- love making movies.’
Taylor let the makeup people worry about the outside, and he focused on the inside. He watched dozens of DVDs to get Churchill’s voice, complete with lisp, and the hunched body language.
Taylor characterizes some of the other directors he worked for thusly. “Ford was a painter in oils; Hitchcock was an architect. George Stevens was fatherly, cuddling, but then he’d turn around and be brutal to Elizabeth Taylor.
“Quentin is crazy — genius crazy. He has no idea of time; he’ll go till 9 at night. One night I said to the assistant, ‘Do I get to have dinner with my wife?’ ‘It could be 11 tonight, Mr. Taylor.’
“Finally, they told me we were done and I went to my dressing room, and a little assistant said, ‘Mr. Tarantino wants you to wait here, he wants a meeting.’
“Five minutes later he knocks on the door with a bucket of Victoria bitters, made by Foster’s. Ice cold. In cans. ‘OK,’ he says, ‘let’s talk movies!’
“He particularly loves Dark of the Sun. After two hours of talking, I said, ‘The guys are waiting to take the makeup off me.’ So he took his beer and called on someone else.”
Taylor is a joyous, high-energy raconteur, full of life. Something about the shoot confused him, however. The young members of the German crew knew all about him and peppered him with questions about his movies. “It turns out that Quentin had run all my movies and made people stay after work to look at them. They had seen Dark of the Sun, they had seen Young Cassidy.”
Tarantino’s use of the camera is very precise, which means his actors also have to be precise, although Taylor says that the predominant feeling is one of freedom. “He’s not confining, he’s not strictly disciplined. He lets you go. Whatever you want to do. He’s brilliant with actors, and he’s totally passionate. One day I was on the set, and he was behind the camera, and I’m watching him looking at me. Not looking at me as Churchill, looking at me.
“What? What’s the matter?”
“ ‘I’ve got Rod Taylor on my set,’ he said. He was so overjoyed. He lies down at the feet of the people he likes.”