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Rod and Duke

Rod Taylor's friendship with John Wayne was one of the most important relationships of his life. It started in the early 1960s, about a decade before they made "The Train Robbers" together in 1973. 

As Rod tells it in the documentary, "Pulling No Punches":

I was invited to dinner at Duke Wayne's when he lived in the Valley. And he was going to make a movie with Dean Martin, who also became a good friend. And I went over and it was a lovely kind of "in group" of guys who liked each other, and I was allowed into the group and suddenly felt very much at home.

A Rod Taylor visit to the Wayne home in Encino, California, in about 1963 reveals a lot about the two actors' connection. Wayne's wife, Pilar, tells the story in her book, "John Wayne: My life with the Duke":

Duke called one afternoon to announce that Taylor would be our guest for dinner that night. The meal was a convivial affair with lots of storytelling. Ö I retired at a reasonable hour, leaving the two men to their drinks and conversation. To my surprise they were still at it when I got up the next morning. Our familyís activities swirled around them all day as they continued drinking and talking.

Taylor stayed for supper that night, and once again I retired early. The next morning Duke and Taylor were still at it, drinking and talking, and, again, they kept it up all day. I didnít even need to ask if Taylor would stay for dinner that night Ė we just set and extra plate. The marathon conversation ended that night while I slept. When I woke up in the morning Duke was in bed beside me in an exhausted sleep.

Those three days were typical of Duke. When he met someone he liked, he just had to know everything about them Ė immediately.

As Rod is apt to say about friends, colleagues and leading ladies, "We fell in love like a couple of drunken sailors." (And he did say that about Wayne, in a 1998 interview for "60 Minutes" in Australia.)

"I didnít feel that I would fit with him comfortably, but we immediately liked each other," Rod told author Scott Eyman in an interview for "John Wayne: The Life and Legend."

Rod may have felt hesitation at first because of Wayneís stature compared with his own at the time. Or it may have been Wayne's notorious political stances. But as he told Scott Eyman, Rod found that you didnít have to be conservative to be well-regarded by Duke:

I would call him an Old Nazi, and he didnít care. He didnít change his mind about anything, but he didnít care because he didnít have rules or regulations about who was entitled to be his friend.

One thing perplexed Rod, however. "He loved Nixon," Rod said. "Jesus, how do you do that? Reagan I can understand, but Nixon?"

Politics may not have come between the two men, but poker surely did.

Christopher George, Rod Taylor and John Wayne
playing cards on the set of "The Train Robbers."


"Dukeís great joy in life was to beat the shit out of me in poker," Rod told author Scott Eyman. "I never truly won."

Duke's joy was on display during a 1975 Australian edition of "This is Your Life." The tributes to Rod included a taped message from John Wayne. Duke gave a heartfelt message, praising Rod as a good actor and a fine human being. But in closing, he called out, "When it comes to playing poker Ė Rod, don't stay away too long!"

Murray Neidorf, Rodís business manager, acknowledged that Rod is good at a lot of things, but playing cards is not one of them.

"Wayne hustled him in cards," Neidorf said in an interview for the "Pulling No Punches" documentary. He recalled a time when Rod told him, "You gotta write a check to John Wayne for $2,000." Neidorf was livid, but sent the check. "The beautiful thing about Wayne," Neidorf said, "he never cashed the check."

That was the good news about Rodís losing. Rod paid his debts, but Wayne seemed only in it for the bragging rights.

"One of the last times I was at his house [in Newport, California], I was looking at this monstrous wall of trophies and honorary diplomas,Ē Rod told Scott Eyman. "It was an enormous display, and on the bottom was a line of my uncashed checks, nicely framed, from all of our poker games."

While telling the story in "Pulling no Punches," Rod said Wayne would point, with emphasis, "That's from Taylor." Chuckling, Rod said, "He loved it!"

Plenty of poker was played behind the scenes on the set of "The Train Robbers," with cards and cash (liar's poker). A September 1972 issue of Coronet magazine described the scene in Rodís trailer:

Duke Wayne had joined the party and everybody was playing liarís poker. Taylor glanced at the assembly [Bobby Vinton, Jerry Gatlin, John Wayne]. "There are some of Hollywoodís greatest liars sitting here right now," he laughed.


Rod Taylor was almost in a movie with John Wayne in 1964  Ė "Circus World." Filming took place in cities throughout Spain in the autumn of 1963. But Rod backed out the day before shooting was to begin.

Wayne was cast as Matt Masters, a former Wild West performer and owner of the circus. After finding success touring across America in the late 1800s, Masters wants to take his circus/Wild West show to Europe. Rod was cast as Steve McCabe, one of the circus' rodeo riding stars. McCabe has his eye on a partnership in the circus. He also develops an eye for Masters' adopted daughter, Toni, a trapeze performer played by Claudia Cardinale.

The circus faces many disasters along the way -- much like the production of the movie.

The producer, Sam Bronston, was in financial trouble and his organization was plagued with infighting. The director had been Frank Capra, who had already rewritten much of the script, but he was replaced by Henry Hathaway. Rewriting continued.

Stephen Vagg relates the story in his book, "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood":

When Rod arrived in Madrid, he discovered the project in a state of utter chaos. Ö Rod read the most recent draft of the script and found that his part had been whittled down from what he originally signed on for. His character now did little in the story except romance Claudia Cardinale. Ö Hathaway promised Rod he would oversee a rewrite, but the director clearly had his hands full dealing with hundreds of extras, animals, large sets, etc. The day before shooting began, Rod quit the film and flew home.

Actor John Smith of TVís "Laramie" took over the role.

In "John Wayne, the Life and Legend," Scott Eyman wrote:

For Wayne, "Circus World" was little more than a paycheck, but it introduced Taylor into Wayne's orbit. Soon, John Ford cast Taylor as the star of "Young Cassidy" ... and Taylor found himself drawn toward the inner circle. [Rod told Eyman], "Working with Ford gave me a certain cachet in Duke's eyes. He had such an emotional thing about Ford. I honestly think that he was still intimidated by Ford, and Duke was always amazed that Ford didnít scare me. Ö In any case, he took it for granted that I was in the family."


The next near-miss for Rod to co-star with John Wayne was "War Wagon" (1967). He was under consideration for the part of Lomax. Scott Eyman wrote that Wayne went to studio chief Lew Wasserman to lobby for Rod, but the role went to Kirk Douglas, who was already under contract with Universal.

The earliest opportunity to work together came before their friendship developed. Director Howard Hawks had considered Rod for a role in "Rio Bravo" (1959), but it went to Ricky Nelson.


Scott Eyman related a funny exchange that happed around the time of "War Wagon." Wayne asked Rod what he was working on. "The second of two pictures with Doris Day," Rod replied, referring to "The Glass Bottom Boat," which had followed "Do Not Disturb."

This information prompted Wayne to erupt in a fit of jealousy. "I would crawl over the mountains of Beverly Hills on my hands and knees if I could do a movie with Doris Day!"

Rod just had to laugh. "All that macho bullshit, all those menís men that he played, and what he really wanted was for someone to offer him a romantic comedy.Ē

As newlyweds Mary and Rod Taylor exit the church, John Wayne, left, throws rice with other guests (wife Pilar Wayne and Vincente Minelli pictured here).


John and Pilar Wayne were guests at Rod's second marriage, when he wed fashion model Mary Hilem on June 1, 1963, at Westwood Community Methodist Church.

Rod told Scott Eyman that as Mary was walking down the aisle, he noticed that Wayne was shaking his head slowly from side to side, as if to say, "No way, no way in hell."

Rod said, "What made it worse was that he turned out to be right!"

Perhaps one of the reasons it didn't work was that Mary didn't seem to relate to the Hollywood scene. At their wedding reception, Mary asked Rod, "Who's that tall man?" Rod answered, "That's John Wayne."


Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan looks on as Rod Taylor addresses John Wayne during the Headliner of the Year Award, 1970. (Photo courtesy of Stephan Wellink.)

Rod Taylor was one of the celebrities who "roasted" John Wayne at the Greater Los Angeles Press Club's Ninth Annual Headliner Award Banquet. More than 1,000 people attended the event in the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on June 3, 1970.

The Headliner Award is presented each year to a California man or woman chosen by the Board of Directors of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club as the outstanding newsmaker of the year. A couple of months prior to the event, Wayne had won the Oscar as Best Actor for his performance in "True Grit."

In addition to Rod, the entertainers included Glen Campbell, Ricardo Montalban, Rod Taylor, Claire Trevor, Ray Bolger, Lorne Green, Jonathan Winters and Pat Buttram. Former Headliners in attendance included Gov. Ronald Reagan (and wife Nancy), former Gov. Edmund G. Brown, U.S. Senator George Murphy, Mayor Sam Yorty.




Train Robbers page

John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman


John Wayne arrives at Rod Taylor's wedding to Mary Hilem in 1963.

Duke sends regards to Rod Taylor during "This is Your Life" in 1975