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STEIGER : After Some Difficult Times, Actor Has 3 New Films, Is ‘Back in Form Again’

Times Staff Writer

Rod Steiger, having gone through some difficult times in recent years, went back to work in a big way in 1988: He completed the 56th, 57th and 58th films of his career--one of which, “The January Man,” opens Friday--and a television mini-series.

“This has been a very good year for me,” the 63-year-old actor said Sunday in Irvine, where he had come to accept a Torch of Liberty award from the Orange County Anti-Defamation League. “I wasn’t working for a while on and off because I was ill with a very bad depression, but I don’t want to go into that. I’m out of it now, and obviously this year I guess, I hope, I’m back in form again.

“Anyway, people tell me I am. I hope it’s true.”

During his depression, Steiger continued to work sporadically, sometimes accepting roles against his better judgment. “People said, ‘If you don’t work, people are going to forget you,’ so I did some things that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise,” said Steiger, declining to name specific films. “But this year . . . I’ve done things that I want to do and things that I’m proud of.”

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“The January Man” reunites Steiger with Norman Jewison, who directed him in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night.” Steiger won the best actor Oscar for his role as a bigoted Southern sheriff who has to accept help solving a murder from a black detective, played by Sidney Poitier.

“It was like old times,” Steiger said of his reunion with Jewison, who produced this time around. “It was very good to be together again.”

In “The January Man,” Steiger plays a big-city mayor whose daughter, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, joins forces with a cop played by Kevin Kline to solve a string of bizarre murders. The cast also includes Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel and Danny Aiello. The film was written by John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for writing Jewison’s 1987 hit, “Moonstruck.”

Steiger’s other new films, to be released, are “Tennessee Waltz” and “The White Rose.” The mini-series “Passion and Paradise,” set in the Caribbean, will air on ABC in February.

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Steiger was honored by the local ADL for his roles in such socially conscious films as “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Pawnbroker” (1964), in which he played a reclusive Holocaust survivor, and “The Chosen” (1982), in which he played a Hasidic rabbi.

“I think that an artist has got to have some social conscience,” Steiger said. The arts, he added, can make a difference by raising public awareness of an issue. “You awaken a few people.”

He listed “The Pawnbroker” and “The Chosen” as his two favorite roles. But others remain special, he noted, for different reasons: “No Way to Treat a Lady,” for the chance it gave him to play comedy; “Dr. Zhivago,” because he feels he proved that an American actor could play “style” roles normally reserved for the English; “Oklahoma!” for the chance to dance and sing.

“I was scared to death,” Steiger said of his role in “Oklahoma!” He has always been a frustrated singer, he said. “I was cursed with a good voice and a lousy ear. I think I’ve always wanted to be Frank Sinatra. I wanted to be a saloon singer.”

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Steiger’s most enduring movie moment well may be the famous taxicab scene from 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” in which he tries to talk his brother, played by Marlon Brando, out of testifying against the corrupt local longshoreman’s union.

“It was difficult at the time,” Steiger said. To make things harder, Brando left before they finished shooting the scene, forcing Steiger to shoot his close-ups by himself. “I never forgave Marlon for that,” Steiger said.

Steiger has always had little patience for the business side of movie making, and he believes that things have gotten much worse in the 30-plus years he has been in the business.

“There seemed to be more joy years ago, more fun, more happiness. Now it’s so calculated, so computerized. It’s brutal,” Steiger said.

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The new Hollywood power-brokers, he continued, appear to have no interest in the quality of their product, only in the bottom line. “It’s a computerized, conglomerate enterprise that’s gradually taking over and suffocating the artistic possibilities.”

Furthermore, he added, “as you get older, things slow down.” In an industry that aims its product at an audience 14 to 28 years old, he said, there are not many quality roles for 63-year-old actors.

Still, looking back over his films, Steiger is comfortable. Sure, he’s done some clinkers, but he said he considers himself “60% virgin and 40% whore. I’m comfortable with that. I want to keep that margin,” he said. “I don’t want it to drop to 50-50, because then it’s a matter of opinion.”


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