Rod Steiger

Socially conscious Steiger won the Academy
Award for his portrayal of a bigoted Southern sheriff in Jewison’s
1967 hit In the Heat of the Night (with Sidney Poitier).

Although Rod Steiger had survived to see the
start of his 77th summer, when he finally gave in July 3rd to the
health problems that plagued him for years but rarely kept him from
the profession he loved, in truth he never really seemed young.
Partly because of his bulky physicality, but mostly because of his
famously menacing demeanor, he began playing tough, older guys—”heavies,”
he called them—while still in his early 20s, and continued doing
so throughout a 55-year career that included more than 350 television
and feature film roles.

“He was a lion of a man,” said Norman Jewison,
who directed Steiger to his Academy Award-winning performance in In the Heat of the Night. “He was one of the most creative
actors I ever worked with—a joy to direct. I loved him and will
miss him.” Jewison’s heartfelt comments were hardly unique in the
days following Steiger’s passing. Though the actor’s tough guy trademark
was his bread and butter, the affection he inspired in those who
knew him best came from the palpable vulnerability he revealed whenever
his professional mask came off.

Rodney Stephen Steiger was one of the last living
members of America’s Greatest Generation of actors—those whose spirits
were forged during the Great Depression and hardened by the sacrifices
and horrors of WWII. He was one of the last of the famous Method
actors who learned their craft from masters like Lee Strasberg and
Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in 1950s New York.
And he was also one of the last of Hollywood’s mid-20th century
macho breed—guys like Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn, Robert Ryan,
Kirk Douglas and Lee Marvin—who were always so compelling to watch
and who never had a “small” role; guys who’d done a lot of living
before they ever became stars.

Steiger’s old soul persona wasn’t something he learned
at the Actors Studio; a nightmarish childhood gave it to him naturally.
The son of a drifter who eventually abandoned his family during
the Depression, Steiger attended school only sporadically. As young
as eight, he spent his days dragging his alcoholic mother from her
hangouts and into the breadlines. He was all of 16 when he lied
about his age to get into the Navy, where for the duration of the
war he served as a torpedoman on a U.S. destroyer in the South Pacific.
After the war, he attended adult education classes on the G.I. Bill
and joined a civil service acting group, mostly, he admitted, to
meet women. But one of those women convinced him he should make
acting his life’s work, and he found his way to the New School for
Social Research in New York and eventually to the Actors Studio.

When I interviewed Steiger for MovieMaker in 1998 (issue #31), the first question I asked him was about
his role in The Pawnbroker, for my money one of American
cinema’s most bravura performances. He agreed that his portrayal
of a haunted middle-aged Holocaust survivor (which he played while
still in his 30s) was his greatest, and he was as shocked as anyone
in the room when the Academy awarded the Best Actor Oscar to Lee
Marvin for Cat Ballou. He finally won when the Academy corrected
the injustice two years later, in 1967, when his bigoted Southern
sheriff beat out Paul Newman’s charismatic prison hand (Cool
Hand Luke
) and Warren Beatty’s complicated young gangster (Bonnie
and Clyde
). His other nomination came in his iconic role as
Marlon Brando’s bitter older brother in On the Waterfront (Steiger, still in his 20s, forever resented the fact that his costar
left the set whenever he was off-camera).

As fiercely independent as you might imagine, Steiger
never got as many plum parts as he deserved. The fact that he was
sometimes openly hostile to Hollywood probably didn’t help. (He
famously never agreed to signing a studio contract). But just as
often, it was because for much of his career he was very picky.
Too picky, he admitted. He regretted making the “mistake of his
life” when he turned down the role of Patton, opening the door to
George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning performance. And he undoubtedly
had a few second thoughts about turning down the title role in The
Godfather
.

The critics’ biggest complaint was that Steiger tended
to “over-emote;” that he required strong direction to harness his
enormous passions. One said that “like the little girl with a curl
on her forehead, when he was bad he was very, very bad. But when
he was good, Oscar came out to play.”

Steiger saw his art form not just as a means of creative
expression, but as his personal salvation. In his later years, he
bristeled at the way he was treated. “We live in a country that
worships youth and has an hysterical fear of death,” he said. He
believed his skills improved with age, and that fine actors “may
get old, but their sense of poetry never dies.” MM

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