'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says farewell to one of America’s greatest ever actors - Rod Steiger - who died on 9th July. Rodney Stephen Steiger was born on April 14th 1925 in Westhampton, Long Island, the only child of a Vaudeville song and dance partnership. His parents separated when he was barely a year old and he was brought up alone by his alcoholic mother in various New Jersey cities. He developed an interest in acting whilst a pupil at Newark West Side High School but he quit school at sixteen to enlist in the United States Navy by lying about his age. The war years saw him serving aboard the USS Taussig and, when they were at an end, he was back on Civvy Street employed in the Civil Service with the Office of Dependents and Beneficiaries of the Veteran’s Administration.
In 1947 he finally took the bold step to realise his ambition to become an actor, studying drama for two years at the New School for Social Research in its Dramatic Workshop (more commonly known as the Actors Studio and equally known throughout the theatrical world as the School for Method Acting) under the tutelage of Elia Kazan and Lee Strasburg. Fellow students included Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Stanley and Eva Marie Saint. There he learnt to, quote his own words, “to act from the inside out, to talk to other persons in the story” which incidentally was quoted in the Tom Hutchinson penned biography of Steiger and repeated by the man himself during a BBC radio interview a few years back.
The late forties through to the early months of the fifties saw him working in television making his Broadway debut in 1951 in a revival of Clifford Odets’ “Night Music”. Later the same year he appeared on film for the first time with a smallish part in Fred Zinneman’s “Teresa”. In 1953 he played the part of Marty in the original television production of Paddy Chayefsky’s play about the life of a Bronx butcher who finds love with a shy, prim schoolteacher. When approached to repeat the TV success for a film version he turned it down; a big mistake as the part was given to Ernest Borgnine whose efforts won him an Oscar in 1955.
1954 would be the year of his making; teamed up with one of the tutors/founders of the Actors Studio where he had studied a few years previously, the director Elia Kazan, alongside another former pupil Marlon Brando. “On The Waterfront” was not only a turning point but, without doubt, one of the great American films of that decade with Steiger cast as Brando’s gangster brother Charley’ The Gent’, a killer in a camel hair coat. The method style paid great dividends for “On The Waterfront” but equally could be a liability. A perfect example of this was quick to show its face, the following year to be precise. In 1955, in Fred Zinneman’s film of “Oklahoma”, he was cast as the villain Judd Fry where he loaded the part with so many psychological hang-ups it was indeed totally at odds with the prevailing tone of natural innocence and optimism. This demon would re-occur throughout his career. Cast as Napoleon in “Waterloo” in 1970, Steiger dreamt up a private CV for the Emperor - riddled with sexual disease and drug addiction and suggesting that the night before battle, old Napoleon was bombed out of his skull on Laudanum.
The 'Tales From The Woods' editorial board are of the opinion that Steiger compared to a few classical British actors (the names Olivier and Geilgud spring to mind) when forced to work beneath their status (or a question of take the money and run) where he could ham it up something chronic. His cameo role of the tortured priest in “The Amityville Horror” (1979) was stunningly memorable for all the wrong reasons. A close second must be the part of the manic mayor of New York in “The January Man” (1989). Steiger’s wartime experiences left him with lifelong pacifist sympathies and his principles caused him to turn down the role of Patton in the film which won George C Scott an Oscar, believing it to be pro-war, some say maybe falsely although he later admitted it was certainly a bad decision.
1956 saw him cast alongside Humphrey Bogart in his last film “The Harder They Fall” playing the part of a crooked boxing promoter. Other memorable performances (for all the right reasons) during that decade were as a sadistic cowboy in “Jubai” (1956) and a disillusioned southern soldier after the Civil War who joins up with the Sioux in “Run Of The Arrow”. The latter met with lukewarm response at the time of its release in 1957 but, as the years progressed, it would acquire increasing cult status. The same year would see him team up with British actress and one-time sex goddess, the late Diana Dors in her Hollywood debut in the self explanatory “The Unholy Wife”. The following year he came to Britain for the Graham Greene adaptation “Across The Bridge”.
1959 would see him hit pay dirt for his portrayal of Al Capone in the movie of the same name. He chose not to follow up this success; instead he returned to the Broadway stage embarking on an ambitious and certainly demanding venture, playing the part of a bandit in “Rashomon”, a theatrical adaptation of a Japanese film which ran for 159 performances, co-starring the British actress Claire Bloom who would soon become Steiger’s second wife. During their 11 year relationship they played together twice more, in the science fiction film “The Illustrated Man” (1969) and, the same year, “Three Into Two Won’t Go”.
A spokesperson for Cinema Queen Anne contacted 'Tales From The Woods' before going to press and stated that, in their view, one of Steiger’s greatest performances was that of a Jewish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in “The Pawnbroker” (1964) for which he won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It has been suggested that he too looked upon the film as a personal triumph. Brilliance for posterity must also be his portrayal of brooding sexual repression in “The Sergeant” (1969). A personal favourite of mine is “The Chosen” where he played the disturbed, truculent orthodox Rabbi (not sure of the year of this one so help me out film buffs). I saw this in the early 1980s in a now long-gone fringe cinema in Oxford Street. I sat totally mesmerised at this masterpiece.
“In The Heat Of The Night” (1967) speaks for itself, taking the part of a police chief in a small, racially charged southern town, playing opposite Sidney Poitier. For his efforts he won the Academy Award for best actor. David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) was, of course, his most commercially successful film. Like many great American artists in any field he found sympathy for his work in Europe especially with Italian director Francesco Rosi “Le Mani Sulla Citto” (1963) a study of corruption in Naples, “Lucky Luciano” (1973) a biography of the American criminal who was deported to his native Italy, a semi documentary profile of Pope John XXIII in “E Venne Un Uomo” (1965), in Franco Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) where he played Pilate and for French director Claude Chabrol he did the cultish thriller “Les Innocents Aux Mains Sales” (1975).
His later career was marred by mental illness and a combination of marital failure coupled with surgery for heart disease would lead to an eight year bout of depression, much of which was spent in bed staring at the ceiling, scarcely speaking all day and not bothering to wash. His symptoms were so severe it’s alleged he contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. Married four times, the marriage to Claire Bloom produced a daughter (the opera singer Anna Steiger) and the last being to Paula Ellis in 1986 by whom, late in life, he had a son.
Footnote: Cinema Queen Anne came to the rescue advising that “The Chosen” was made in 1981 co-starring Maximilian Schell and directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan.