Rod Steiger

Although Rod Steiger had survived to see the start of his 77th summer, when he finally gave in July 3 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 torpedo man 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 bristled at the way he was treated. “We live in a country that worships youth and has a 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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