Rod Taylor, who passed away on 7th January 2015, four days before his 85th Birthday, was interviewed by Save Hitchcock on 1st June 2012, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. It was one of the last few interviews Rod gave before his death.
Rod Taylor had come to Hollywood in 1955 from Sydney, Australia and, prior to The Birds, had worked his way up through bit parts and TV films. He had been the winner of the Newspaper Critics Best Actor of the Year award and won a plane ticket to London, stopping off in LA. He liked Hollywood so much that he stayed. His first American film was The Virgin Queen (1955), followed by playing Elizabeth Taylor’s fiancé in Giant (1956). His most famous role to date had been George the inventor in MGM’s time-travelling adventure The Time Machine (1960). At 5 ft 11 in, 175 lbs, with light brown hair and blue eyes, Rod was a natural athlete, expert at tennis, surfing and swimming.
Rod went along with his agent, Wilt Melnick of the Louis Shurr Agency, to Hitchcock’s bungalow in January 1961. ‘The initial meeting with Hitchcock was a disaster,’ recalls Rod. ‘I called him by his first name, Alfred this and Alfred that. He went totally white for 20 minutes, and had total misgivings about our meeting.’ Rod thought he didn’t say all the right things and remembers commenting, ‘I hope the birds and things don’t kind of totally outshadow the people.’ Of course, that’s the story… they’re supposed to. So that was number one. Wrong. But then we really talked about ‘making movies’ and how I loved it, and how I was interested in his work. I brought that up and said the right thing. We didn’t get into any deep discussions about the movie itself at all. No ‘What do you think of the character?’ – none of that. It was taken for granted that I loved it and wanted to work with him.’
When they left Hitchcock’s office, Rod said to agent Wilt, ‘Well, you can forget that movie.’ Two days later, Rod got a call from Hitchcock offering him the part. Rod believes that Hitchcock was influenced by Lew Wasserman, who knew him from films such as The Time Machine. Wasserman backed Hitchcock to the hilt and often suggested actors to appear in his movies, and Rod himself was absolutely flattered and astonished that Hitch would want to work with him.
By 2 February 1962, columnist Hedda Hopper in the LA Times was reporting that Hitchcock had signed a four-picture deal with Rod over the next six years, which was negotiated by Wilt Melnick. At the time Rod was engaged to the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, who famously jumped into the Trevi fountain in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Interestingly, the character of Melanie Daniels is also mentioned ‘jumping into a fountain in Rome’, possibly as a sly reference to Ekberg and the La Dolce Vita years of the early 1960s.
Rod was to be paid $50,000 for 12 weeks work and three weeks additional. He would end up working a total of16 weeks because of overruns on the film’s special effects. The four-picture deal was to commence 31 December 1962 and Rod started work on The Birds on 5 March 1962. By 28 May, a multiple-feature contract had been issued between Rod and Alfred Hitchcock Productions, but issues on the set between the director and star, resulted in the contract being suspended.
‘Any warmth or masculinity to the character came from me and not Hitch,’ Rod says. There was one scene, for example, where Rod was required to leap off the dock and come to the aid of Tippi who had just been hit by a seagull. Hitchcock wouldn’t let Rod show overt physical tenderness towards Tippi during that scene. ‘That’s because he didn’t have any experience of behaving like a masculine and rugged man, whether by jumping off the dock or rushing to a woman in need of aid,’ says Rod. ‘He had no streak of tenderness for relationships between men and women and he just didn’t show tenderness in his movies.’
According to Rod, Hitchcock tried every day to cut off any warmth Rod brought to the character. ‘He did give me a few line readings which I ignored.’ A famous publicity still of Hitchcock on location shows him leaning over Rod, one hand paternally on his shoulder, as he looks over the body of Suzanne Pleshette. ‘That’s a very rare glimpse of him standing over me in that still,’ says Rod, ‘fooling everyone into believing that he was fond of me and how gentle he was. Wrong!’ For Rod, the photograph was pure showmanship for publicity’s sake on Hitchcock’s part.
During the filming of The Birds, Rod was engaged to Anita Ekberg, the voluptuous Swedish actress who famously jumped into the Trevi fountain in Rome in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita which set the mood for the permissiveness of the swinging 60s. Hitchcock used this detail to infuse the character of Melanie Daniels, as a ‘shallow, wealthy playgirl’, with the same background of ‘jumping into a fountain in Rome.’
A couple of years earlier, Rod was offered a part in Thunder in the Night which involved location filming in Italy. It was here that he met Anita Ekberg and the two began a tumultuous on/off relationship in front of the world’s paparazzi. Brawls in bars between the two followed, strange gifts exchanged, including a blue bottomed monkey from Anita, to the point that Rod felt like ‘Every day I was starring in an Errol Flynn movie.”
During the filming of The Birds Anita flew out from Rome, to join Rod on location. “He was a handsome young man, always very pleasant,” remembers Birds crew member Mary Bennett. “He was engaged to Anita Ekberg, and they had a fight, and she had thrown the engagement ring. He was looking for it and couldn’t find it and was telling the story to the amused crew.”
The press had a field day while various wedding dates were set between the couple, but they kept being postponed. The engagement was called off months later, after filming of The Birds, and the two stars would go their separate ways, eventually marrying different people within a year of breaking up.
At the end of their lives, the fate of Rod Taylor and Anita Ekberg was curiously entwined. Rod had been married to his third wife Carol for the last 35 years, living happily in Beverly Hills. But Anita would finally settle in Rome, broken and penniless and plagued with ill health. She died four days after Rod, uncannily on Sunday morning, 11th January 2015, on what would have been his 85th birthday.
Read more about Rod and Hitchcock in “The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds” by Kamera Books