A treasure arrived in my email this week! Thanks to a gentleman in Australia, we can now travel back in time and listen to 24-year-old Rod Taylor speak about his first major motion picture role in “King of the Coral Sea.”
The audio recording was done in advance of the film’s release in September 1954. It’s sort of a one-sided conversation: You hear Rod and director Lee Robinson give answers, but you don’t hear the questions. The recording was distributed to radio stations along with a script that allowed local broadcasters to serve as the interviewers. Although there’s no record of the questions asked, you can guess from the context pretty well.
Here is the interview, via YouTube. I edited out the long pauses (where the interview questions would have been) and added some still images and video clips from the movie’s promotional material — just to provide some visual interest. Many thanks to Bill Ayres who shared this audio gem from his collection. Keep scrolling below for more insights.
Lee Robinson provides the first answer, then Rod comes on. He describes his role in “King of the Coral Sea” as “an American ex-GI who settles in the islands” and notes — with a Yankee twang — that “I’ve sort of specialized in American accents on radio.”
Indeed he did, and throughout his Hollywood film career he often called himself a “phony American” because of this very talent. But his rather British voice in the interview is somewhat of a put-on too.
I often get asked if Rod uses his “real” voice in his role as an Australian in “The VIPs.” In that movie, his Aussie accent is probably a bit of an exaggeration because director Anthony Asquith asked Rod to play up Australian phrases and mannerisms.
Rod’s manner of speech has had many influences, from his family life and his professional training.
Author Stephen Vagg pointed out in “Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches” that at the time Rod began working, Australian actors were influenced by British styles of performance. Case in point: Rod repeatedly cites Laurence Olivier as being his inspiration to pursue acting. Moreover, Rod chose to use the more British-sounding “Rodney” as his acting credit in his early days.
Rod’s early recorded voice exudes the “cultured, smooth-sounding tones that attempted to hide any Australian inflections,” Vagg wrote. He also noted that Rod’s speaking voice had an even earlier divided influence: He was raised in a household featuring a refined English mother and a rugged Australian father.
His dad was a big influence in a much later role — that of Daddy-o in 1994’s “Welcome to Woop Woop.” Regarding his broad Aussie accent and attitudes in that movie, Rod said, “That was my father.”
Back to the 1954 interview… The missing question likely asked Rod whether he preferred radio or film work. Rod says that he enjoyed the film work because it gave him an opportunity to concentrate on one role.
In another interview promoting “King of the Coral Sea” (ABC Weekly, Nov. 28, 1953), Rod expressed a similar sentiment in regard to radio, stating a preference for sustained character work. At the time he was playing Paddy Carmody, the lead role in a Sunday night serial, “Sundowners.” (That’s the role Robert Mitchum had in the 1960 film version.) In his earlier work, he raced around from station to station recording radio plays and guest roles.
In the interview, Robinson relates that no stuntmen or doubles were used during “King of the Coral Sea.” Although Rod did not have any of the scuba scenes, he still experienced some dangerous diving moments off camera. He said when he first tried the diving gear, “I turned the wrong valve and got water instead of air.”
He confessed to another misadventure when he was “crayfishing between scenes.” He saw a dark shape below him in the water. Fortunately, it wasn’t a shark but a quick-thinking swimmer who spared him from landing on a giant sting ray!
Planning and punches
In discussing the business of movie-making, Robinson described the long process that went into creating “King of the Coral Sea.”
“There’s about six months’ work to plan and prepare the production,” he said. “Five and a half weeks shooting at Thursday Island for the main story. About two months at Green Island on the Barrier Reef filming underwater shots.”
All that for a movie that’s about an hour and a half.
That compression prompted Rod to talk about a fight scene in the film. He lamented, “We were two months planning it, two weeks rehearsing it, two days filming it, and it lasts about two minutes on the screen.”
The filmed fisticuffs between Rod and Lloyd Berrell took place in waist-deep water, which posed more of a hazard than you might imagine. ABC Weekly (Sept. 12, 1953) reported that Rod got too close at one time and took a “beautiful right from Lloyd!”
A report in the Sydney Daily Telegraph (Aug. 30, 1953) had a similar account. As seems typical for Rod Taylor fight scenes, “their blows became too realistic, and they knocked each other half-unconscious.” The two actors had to be dragged out of the surf, and Berrell said, “We were very sick for an hour or so while they pumped a few pints of seawater out of us.”
Take a bow
In the interview, Robinson has much praise for Rod, saying toward the end, “We think he’s the best potential star material in Australia today.”
Indeed, within a few months, Rod had won a radio prize and took off for Hollywood.