Rod’s Christmas greeting

A special message from Rod Taylor and an unusually heavy snowfall in Britain brought a glimpse of a white Christmas to summertime Australia in 1967.

The Christmas Day broadcast also delivered a sneak peek at Rod’s next movie, “The High Commissioner” (1968), one of many special promotional efforts for the film in which Rod Taylor plays an Australian detective on an important assignment in London.

Rod Taylor, at far right, recording special messages for Australia.

Rod recorded the Christmas message on the grounds of the Hall Barn estate, a grand old ancestral home in Beaconsfied, Buckinghamshire, about 20 miles northwest of London. The setting was a frosty one, as England saw an unusually snowy winter in 1967-68.

“It was a notable occasion,” declared the Australiasian Exhibitor in its Jan. 4, 1968, issue, stating that it was “the first time that a film distribution company and an Australian television network had combined to present a Christmas message from an international film star whilst his current film was still in production.”

Australia’s Channel 7 network scheduled the message in peak viewing times in all the major city stations across the continent on Christmas evening.

Millions of people saw Rod’s Christmas greeting and also were treated to a scene from the movie. “The High Commssioner” (known as “Nobody Runs Forever” in the U.K.) was not scheduled to wrap shooting until the end of January 1968 and wouldn’t be released until later in 1968. Thus, it was quite an achievement to get a film clip for the December 1967 TV broadcast.

Coordinating the message and the film clip took six weeks of organization between Sydney and London, involving British Empire Films, Pinewood Studios, the Rank Organisation’s overseas publicity department, and Channel 7 executives. The latter had to arrange special time slots and distribution of the film for all the stations — Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberrra.

Director Ralph Thomas actress Camilla Sparv and Rod Taylor, in his Aussie shearing jacket.

In “The High Commissioner,” Rod plays an Australian detective on a major assignment in London. It was one of the rare times in his career that Rod, an Aussie, actually played an Australian.

A London-based contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Sally K. Brass, interviewed Rod while he was filming in “the drawing room of the Australian High Commissioner to London.” She described Rod as “standing against an elegant background of antiques, objets d’art and valuable oil paintings which furnish the Jacobean mansion in Beaconsfield where ‘Nobody Runs Forever’ is being filmed.”

“His shooting schedule was tough that day,” Brass wrote, wryly. Rod’s scenes called for him to make passes at Camilla Sparv all morning. Then, the afternoon would be devoted to rehearsals for a bedroom scene with Daliah Lavi.

Daliah Lavi and Rod Taylor

Lunchtime was spent at the Saracen’s Head, a pub also known as the Royal Saracen’s Head thanks to a legend that King Richard the Lionheart once drank there. The complete Los Angeles Times article is here (PDF).

Another big promotional effort for “The High Commissioner” occurred in September 1968, when Rod went to Australia for the movie’s premiere and met with Prime Minister John Gorton. More on the movie and the meeting can be found on the page for “The High Commissioner” on the Rod Taylor Site.

Snapshots: ‘Chuka’ and the Taylors

Rod Taylor was the producer one film during his long career: a 1967 Western titled “Chuka” in which he also played the title role. I’m working on a lengthy project about the film, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share some special snapshots from behind the scenes.

Rod’s parents, Bill and Mona Taylor, made the trek from Australia in 1966 while Rod was making “Chuka.” These photos are from a small photo album that had once belonged to Bill Taylor and were acquired through the magic of eBay.

  • Photo of Ernest Borgnine, Mona Taylor and Bill Taylor.
  • Photo of Mona Taylor, Bill Taylor and Ernest Borgnine.
  • Photo of Mona and Bill Taylor, Mary and Rod Taylor.
  • Photo of Mona Taylor. John Mills, Bill Taylor, Rod Taylor and Mary Taylor.

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.