‘King of the Coral Sea’ interview

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.

What accent?

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.

Rod, with his father and mother in the 1960s.

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.”

Building character

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.

Dangerous business

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.”

Rod Taylor and Lloyd Berrell, before the fight

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.

Western stars and “Hong Kong”

Sometimes the wealth of Rod Taylor material I want to share makes it hard to know where to begin. Just to start chipping away at the stack, I thought I’d post something simple: A single photograph.

One parade and a Mai Tai later, the story (as always) led in unexpected directions.

Rod Taylor
From left: Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Sheb Woolley (Rawhide), Rod Taylor (Hong Kong), John Smith (Laramie), Luana Patten (actress & John Smith’s wife), James Arness (Gunsmoke), Henry Calvin (Zorro), Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), Victoria Shaw (actress & Roger Smith’s wife), Eric Fleming (Rawhide), Clint Eastwood (Rawhide), Betty Lynn (Texas John Slaughter), Tom Tryon (Texas John Slaughter).

Last year, I bought the above photo in an eBay auction of items from the James Arness family collection. The description said it was a group of CBS Western stars from the 1960s. Yes, there are several CBS TV stars, notably James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame and Clint Eastwood from “Rawhide.” But there are also Disney stars and … Rod Taylor, star of of the ABC show “Hong Kong.”

What was the story behind this photo?

A plunge into Newspapers.com turned up the answer: These stars and more were part of San Francisco’s third annual Pacific Festival, held Sept. 9-18, 1960.

Specifically, the celebrities were featured in the festival’s Youth Parade on Sept. 10, 1960. The parade took three hours, starting at 4 p.m. at the Ferry Building and rolling up Market Street to the Civic Center. About 200,000 spectators lined the parade route to watch the procession of stars, bands, floats, Samurai swordsmen, a Chinese dragon, military units and costumed representatives from 44 nations around the Pacific Ocean.

James Arness — Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” — was the parade’s grand marshal and rode the route on horseback, as did some of the other Western stars. Other parade marshals were carried along on floats.

At the time, the premiere of Rod’s first TV show was about two weeks away, so naturally he rode on a float befitting “Hong Kong.” In looking for someone to accompany him on the float, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce reached out to Mai Tai Sing, the civic-minded owner of a local establishment.

A native of the Bay Area, Mai Tai Sing had been educated in Hong Kong and then returned to California as a teenager. She toured the U.S. as a dancer before joining her brothers in opening the Ricksha bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The popular cocktail lounge had a piano bar and attracted many show business types, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and the Beatles.

At the conclusion of the parade, upon Mai Tai Sing’s invitation, Rod Taylor became another famous name at the Ricksha.

Not long after Rod returned Los Angeles and “Hong Kong,” Jack Kruschen left the show. He played Tully, owner of Tully’s Bar, a rough-and-tumble watering hole that was a prime locale in the TV series. Obviously a change in venue was needed and the decision was made to make a plush Chinese restaurant — the Golden Dragon — a new permanent set for the show.

Now the restaurant needed a hostess. Rod knew a natural — the hostess from the Ricksha in San Francisco.

“We kept in touch after he returned to Los Angeles,” Mai Tai Sing said in a January 1961 interview with columnist Joan Crosby, “but I wasn’t prepared later when he telephoned me to ask if I’d like to be in the series.”

Mai Tai Sing and the Golden Dragon made their “Hong Kong” debut in the show’s 13th episode, airing Dec. 21, 1960.

Reflecting on the first few episodes, Mai Tai told a Miami Herald interviewer in January 1961, “I find myself getting keyed up on the set. Acting is all so new to me. At such times, however, Rod has been wonderful. He’s quieted me down and told me to act natural, just the way I do in my own club in San Francisco.”

The two shared a brief romance and “Hong Kong” was canceled after another 13 episodes. Both Rod Taylor and Mai Tai Sing proceeded to have long lives and successful careers. Sing died in 2018, and you can read more about her in an excellent obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

Back to the mystery picture that started this post…. Here’s the full line-up of stars who were rounded up for the third annual Pacific Festival Youth Parade in 1960:

  • James Arness of “Gunsmoke.”
  • Rod Taylor of “Hong Kong.”
  • Eric Fleming, Sheb Wooley, Clint Eastwood and Paul Brinegar of “Rawhide.”
  • John Smith and Robert Fuller of “Laramie.”
  • Tom Tryon and Betty Lynn of “Texas John Slaughter.”
  • Henry Calvin of “Zorro.”
  • Roger Smith of “77 Sunset Strip.”
  • Kathy Nolan of “The Real McCoys.”
  • Actresses Luana Patten and Victoria Shaw.
  • Michael Landon and Pernell Roberts of “Bonanza.”
  • John Russell and Peter Brown of “Lawman.”
  • Richard Simmons of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”
  • Don Sherwood, a San Francisco disc jockey.
  • Bob March of “Captain Satellite” in Oakland, California.

A new era

Today is a big milestone in the Rod Taylor universe: Jan. 11, 2020, would have been Rod’s 90th birthday. It’s also the 19th anniversary of the Complete Rod Taylor Site.

And it’s the first day for this long-thought-about blog.

The Rod Taylor Blog will be used to announce updates to the site, share new discoveries, present details about Rod’s life and work, and more. It’ll be a bit more personal than the Updates web page it replaces, and there’ll be opportunities for readers to comment and interact.

An even bigger New Year’s resolution is aimed Jan. 11, 2021, which will mark the 20th anniversary of this website! Twenty years! That’s eons in internet time.

An early version of the website banner, from dial-up days.

I’ll be working on redesigning the Complete Rod Taylor Site website behind the scenes to make it easier to view on mobile devices and to add information and photos that I’ve been putting aside for “later.” The redesign will be a big undertaking, as I’ll be learning new technology and rebuilding a huuuuuge website. I’ve been wanting to do this for a few years, but the learning curve and the size of the job has been scaring me off. But it’s time to get going. I’m up for the challenge and and full of resolve!

When I first launched the website in 2001, I thought carefully about what to name it. I looked at other “fan sites” and noticed that when it came to the filmography section, there usually was only a list. I pledged to delve deeper. Even at the start, you could click any title and get information about each particular movie, TV show, theater production or radio show. In that way, I felt the reader could get “complete” information. Thus was born The Complete Rod Taylor Site.

The title was a bit of a folly, as no website is ever completed! But it’s been a great joy adding details, information, photos and video over the years.

And even in its earliest stages, I’m happy to note that Rod was impressed, as he wrote in emails during the spring of 2001:

I am in awe … what a huge project. You have more memorabilia and know more about ‘me’ than ‘me.’ … Sydney radio, too???? Everybody I happen to talk to agrees with me that you are one hell of a website creator, Mrs. T.

– Rod Taylor, 2001

Those are big accolades to live up to and nearly 20 years later, this website is devoted more than ever to keeping his legacy alive.