Steiger found his characters in himself

The actor, who died yesterday, played many famous figures

Appreciation

July 10, 2002|By Jay Boyar | Jay Boyar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Intense. Brilliant. Exciting. Difficult.

These were the kinds of adjectives that attached themselves to Rod Steiger, the Oscar-winning star of such classics as In the Heat of the Night and On the Waterfront who died yesterday at age 77.

Steiger died at a Los Angeles-area hospital of pneumonia and kidney failure, said his publicist, Lori DeWaal.

Born Rodney Stephen Steiger on April 14, 1925, in Westhampton, N.Y., he quit school at age 16 to join the Navy and served on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he found his way to the Actors Studio where he became a "Method actor," learning to look within himself for the key to a character.

"Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, the school directors, taught me to act from the inside out," Steiger said in a 1956 interview. "I learned what it means to talk to other persons in the story instead of reading lines in a phony voice."

It was with fellow Method actor Marlon Brando that Steiger had his first great film success in On the Waterfront (1954), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. As Brando's mob-connected older brother, he shared the memorable taxi-cab scene in which Brando tells Steiger's character, "I coulda been a contenda."

Waterfront director Kazan wrote in his 1988 autobiography, A Life, that he shot Brando's close-ups first because the actor had to leave the set early. Steiger complained that Kazan was favoring Brando. "I believe what had happened hurt his self-esteem but not his performance," Kazan wrote. "If Steiger has played a scene better than that one, I have yet to see it."

Burly and tightly wound, Steiger was also nominated for an Oscar for his brooding performance as a bitter Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker (1965). He finally won the big prize for his role as a gum-chewing redneck police chief opposite Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967).

A seemingly compulsive worker, Steiger appeared in more than 70 feature films of varying quality, in addition to numerous stage and television vehicles.

Among other famous figures, he portrayed Mussolini, Rasputin, Pope John XXIII, Rudolf Hess, Pontius Pilate, Napoleon, W.C. Fields and Al Capone. His most notable films include The Loved One (1965), Doctor Zhivago (1965), No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), The Chosen (1981) and, as himself, The Player (1992).

"I'm 60 percent virgin and 40 percent whore," Steiger said in a 2000 TV interview. "I've not sold out that much, and I've made my own mistakes."

One of those was when the former serviceman famously turned down the title role in Patton on the grounds that he didn't want to "glorify war." George C. Scott won an Oscar for the performance. Refusing the role, he said, was his "dumbest career move."

Steiger was subject to periods of depression and, during the '80s, he did little work for eight years. "I couldn't get out of bed in the morning," he said. But he recovered and was soon busier than ever.

The actor was married and divorced four times: to Sally Gracie, actress Claire Bloom, Sherry Nelson and Paula Ellis. He and Bloom had a daughter, Anna, now an opera singer. A son, Michael Winston, was born to him and Ellis in 1993. In 2000, he married Joan Benedict.

The "difficult" tag stuck to Steiger early, after a crew member on some long-forgotten film started to spritz him delicately with water. When Steiger asked why, the man told him that the next scene involved a big storm.

"I picked the bucket up and threw it all over myself. I said, `That's a storm!' And, of course, he goes back and says, `This guy's difficult.'

"They called Montgomery Clift difficult, Marlon Brando difficult, Dustin Hoffman difficult, myself difficult, Al Pacino difficult, Robert De Niro difficult, Daniel Day Lewis difficult.

"If that's difficult, I want to be difficult for the rest of my life."

Jay Boyer is a movie critic for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire reports contributed to this article.

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