He made many movies and tv appearances — at least 150 credits overall –and eventually won a best actor Academy Award for playing a Southern sheriff saddled with a black detective (Sidney Poitier) he comes to respect in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night.
Yet Rod Steiger was sufficiently self aware to realize that although he often received star billing (and salary) he was never really a star. For one big thing, he never looked the part.
I needed that, he said after his Oscar win. I’m only 42. Paul Newman is 43, Marlon Brando is 43, but I look like their father.
Star or not, there is no doubt that Steiger, who died in 2002 at the age of 77, was a profoundly serious working actor.
The product of a Dickensian childhood; his father abandoned his alcoholic mother (the pair was a song-and-dance team) in the depths of the Great Depression. What may have saved the actor was Pearl Harbor. Steiger fudged his age, and enlisted at 16 in the U.S. Navy becoming a torpedo man seeing service aboard a destroyer in the Pacific theater.
The GI bill allowed him to study acting in the postwar period, notably at the Actors Studio, that Mecca of method acting which at the time was Hollywood’s most talented farm team. Steiger also had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.
In the late Forties and early Fifties, theater was flourishing and television was hitting its stride during its so-called classic period. Dozens of live tv performance roles opened up.
One of Steiger’s best leading parts was the title role in an hour-long tube version of Paddy Chayevsky’s play, Marty. (Steiger turned down the part in the subsequent movie adaptation; Ernest Borgnine won a best actor Oscar for the role.)
Then came Hollywood, and the role that propelled Steiger’s career — that of Charley Malloy, Marlon Brando’s corrupt older brother in On The Waterfront. The delicate intensity of their back-of-the-taxi-cab conversation must be seen to be fully appreciated. Critics consider it now a part of cinema history. (The role won Steiger a supporting actor nomination.)
Over ensuing decades, Steiger was often cast in historical dramas or as a heavy, some alarmingly mannered and overblown , but all compellingly personal, writes British critic David Thomson.
In no special order, the actor has played Napoleon (1970’s Waterloo), Il Duce (in 1974 Mussolini Ultimo Alto), W.C. Fields (in 1976’s W.C. Fields and Me) and Pontious Pilate (in 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth; see below).
His startlingly convincing bad guy roles include the vicious movie producer in 1955’s The Big Knife; as Al Capone in the 1959 biopic; and as a brutal boxing promoter in 1956’s The Harder They Fall, Humphrey Bogart’s final film.
Steiger loved playing heavily accented foreigners, and made many pictures in Europe. He regarded his best performance as that of the guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 outing, The Pawnbroker. His performance won Steiger another Oscar nomination. (See the movie and brace yourselves for a near over-the-top portrayal.)
Steiger certainly had a busy personal life. He churned through five spouses in a half century, most notably actress Claire Bloom. Their 10-year union (which produced a daughter, opera singer Anna Steiger) resulted in two films: The Illustrated Man and Three Into Two Won’t Go (both 1969).