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SPOTLIGHT : TAMING THE ANIMAL : Rod Steiger Has Battled Mental Illness; Now He’s Fighting Its Stigma

<i> Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Sitting in the living room of his home, which is perched on a mountainside in Malibu, Rod Steiger has his back to a panoramic view of Paradise Cove far below. His hand rests on a white telephone. He picks it up on the first ring.

“Who? Yeah. Who? Yeah. OK. I’ll tell her to call you.”

About to hang up, he changes his mind.

“Wait a minute.”

Steiger shifts his stout body, comfortably ensconced in the cushions of a huge armchair, and bellows toward the other end of the house: “Paula?”

Silence.

“She might have gone in the pool with the baby,” he says, speaking into the phone again. “Call her back in 15 minutes.’

Moments later the door opens in a book-lined wall of the living room. Steiger’s fourth wife, Paula, enters wearing a bathing suit partly covered by a beach towel. Their 18-month-old son squirms out of her arms and makes a beeline for his father.

“That’s my boy,” the 69-year-old actor says, beaming at a sturdy, round-faced tyke who is his spitting image. “Michael Winston. Michael for Michelangelo, Winston for Churchill, and Steiger because I happened to be around.”

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“We just had a crash and burn in the pool,” Paula says. “He jumped in and smashed my lip.”

Steiger is all solicitude, happy for the assurance that neither of them has sustained major damage. His family life seems idyllic. Paula’s split lip notwithstanding, it is the very picture of domestic bliss.

But it wasn’t always so. For almost a decade after a heart-bypass operation in 1979, the aging Hollywood star lived on the edge of a mental abyss, driven by despair to more than one suicide attempt.

Despite fame, wealth, three Oscar nominations, one Oscar and a reputation as an actor’s actor, he dwindled into a sullen ghost of himself. And his career soured too. His classic performances in “On the Waterfront,” “The Pawnbroker” and “In the Heat of the Night” were nothing more than faint memories even to him.

“I suffer from clinical depression,” he says, when wife and son have gone. “It comes from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Nobody except Paula wants me to talk about it. My present manager and my agent both say, ‘If you talk about your depression, people will think you’re crazy.’ ”

Steiger pauses and rivets his visitor with an intense stare.

“I have experienced the pain. I have experienced the embarrassment, the peculiar looks, the whispered words that I can hear before they’re whispered.

“I’ve seen people institutionalized. I tried to put myself away, but (Paula) wouldn’t let me. I tried to kill myself a couple of times, but she saved me.

“So when I’m not working, I try to fight the stigma against mental disease. It’s much more important for me to talk about depression and what it can do to a person than talk about the movies I’ve made.”

Still, to raise funds for the Brain Imaging Center at UC Irvine, he will discuss his life and career Saturday at 8 p.m. in “An Evening With Rod Steiger” at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The show will feature excerpts from his roughly 80 movies, as well as an on-stage interview with Richard Brown, host of the American Movie Classics cable TV program “Reflections on the Silver Screen.”

Steiger, who has been able to control his illness with daily medication, recalls that in the depth of his depression he refused to speak, wash or eat and spent endless days unable to do anything but gaze out his window at the ocean.

“I was a zombie,” he says, looking tan and healthy in a black T-shirt and shorts. “But there’s a part of depression that nobody talks about. You get very hostile. You get thoughts like shooting your loved ones and yourself. That happened to me. And that is scary.

“One smart thing I did, I called a friend to take away a shotgun I had. Then I locked myself in a room downstairs. For three days I tore the walls. I tore myself up. I bit myself. People forget we are the highest form of animal. A-n-i- m-a-l. The animal can take over and destroy.”

Steiger never fails to acknowledge his wife’s role in coping with his illness. They met at a Beverly Hills banquet in 1980, when she was a 20-year-old club singer, and lived together for five years before marrying in 1986.

(He’s also the first to point out that his wife is a year younger than his daughter, the opera singer Anna Steiger, whose mother, the British-born actress Claire Bloom, was his second wife. Anna is pursuing a London-based opera career in Europe.)

Steiger’s candor is not new. Since his recovery during the late ‘80s, he’s been on a “personal campaign” to focus public attention on mental illness. As an out-of-the-closet celebrity speaking for the National Institute of Mental Health, he testified last year before a Senate panel and read a poem, “Hitting the Bottom,” that went on for six pages.

“By the time I finished,” says Steiger, who has written poetry all his life, “the whole panel was in tears. (Edward) Kennedy was crying, (Orrin) Hatch was wiping his eyes, and (Strom) Thurmond was blowing his nose.”

But the real payoff, he notes, was the roughly $24 million that went to mental-health research as a result of the hearings.

When Steiger puts his life and career under the spotlight at the Irvine theater, he undoubtedly will have a lot to say about a lot of subjects. Here’s some of what he said in answer to his visitor’s questions:

* On his relationship with Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”:

I didn’t get to know Brando. He was very withdrawn. He may not like me, but I’m not particularly fond of him either.

I think there was a little animosity between us because all of a sudden, to Kazan’s delight, here were the two young bulls who were being talked about.

Brando, of course, had been magnificent in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And here was this other kid, me, who was supposed to be pretty good. I think Kazan couldn’t wait to see us do a scene together and kill each other to be the better one.

I guess the proof of the pudding came out in the taxi scene. I don’t know who was better or worse--that’s just something for the sake of conversation--but we both worked together pretty well, I think.

Brando wasn’t there for my close-ups. He went home. But I don’t want to get into that. That’s all worn out.

I respected his talent. I couldn’t wait for us to act together again, to challenge each other. But we never did, which goes to show the intellectual stupidity of (Hollywood), or its so-called intelligence, anyway. If I were a producer in those days and saw these two kids in the back of that cab, I would have said, get them another script for another movie by tomorrow morning. They’ll kill each other to be good.

* On that classic taxicab scene, which Brando claims in his new autobiography (“Marlon Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”) was improvised:

That scene is almost exactly the way it was written. We shot it in a room that had to be 12 feet by 20 feet if it was an inch. We had half a cab with a steering wheel, the back seat, the two side windows and a back window. If you stuck your hand out to the left you touched a wall. If you stuck it out to the right and extended your finger you touched a wall.

The space was so small it forced the camera to come in closer and closer on us. If it didn’t, you could have seen the walls. They were going crazy not to see them. With all this madness going on, everybody was up . We were in a pickle, and that forced Kazan to depend on his actors.

When I came in, Kazan was screaming at Sam Spiegel, the producer, “Where’s my backdrop? I have to have a backdrop to show the cab is moving!” He was talking about a rear projection to show the cab is out on the street. So somebody says, “When I came to work in a cab, it had a Venetian blind in the back window.” Kazan says, “Get me a f------ Venetian blind.” So that’s why there’s that Venetian blind back there.

* On not winning the best-actor Oscar for “The Pawnbroker”:

I was sure I was going to win. I was sitting behind Lee Marvin figuring, “Should I jump up or walk slow? Should I kiss that beautiful woman over there or say hello to this big producer over here?” I was so cocky about it that I kind of buttoned my jacket and was halfway out of my seat when they said, “Lee Marvin for ‘Cat Ballou.’ ” I couldn’t believe my ears. This may sound egotistical, but today when I look back at that picture, I wonder, How could they have done it?

* On winning the best-actor Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night”:

They gave it to me out of guilt. But I think I earned it.

* On portraying the bigoted sheriff in that picture:

The biggest challenge was the chewing gum. It was in the script that this sheriff is always chewing gum. I said to Norman (Jewison, the director), “Come on. That’s the biggest cliche in the world.” I said, “I’ll do anything you want. But that chewing gum has got to go.” He says, “Please try it.” Now it became a challenge. Well, the only way to take a cliche and make it work is to make it your own , make it part of your behavior so it belongs to you.

When you’re an actor and you have to wear a jacket everybody else is wearing, what do you do? You clip the collar short, and all of a sudden it’s not a cliche.

Anyway, we were rehearsing, and I noticed that when I got excited I was chewing fast. I thought, “Wait a minute. I can let the audience know how I’m feeling with this chewing gum.” Bang! I’m out of the cliche. I think, “When this guy chews fast, you know he’s upset. When he slows down, you know he’s thinking. And when he stops chewing, you don’t know what the hell he’s going to do.”

* On the importance of winning an Oscar:

When they give you the Academy Award, you’re the most important actor in the world for about 10 seconds, the time it takes to get the award and go backstage. Then you’re looking for a job again. Your price goes up--that’s all--until you make your first mistake, which means doing a picture that doesn’t make money.

* On his biggest mistake:

Turning down “Patton” was my biggest business mistake. What happened was, I had won the Academy Award and I was on top of the world. When they sent me the script of “Patton,” I said, “Oh, no. Not me. I’m not going to glorify war.” I always thought I was a pacifist. Ten years later, when I needed to put some money in the bank, or when I was sick and tired of it all, I would have done “Patton” in a shot. But at that time, I was in good shape. I had no problems monetarily. So I could afford to luxuriate in my phony philosophy.

* On acting:

Good acting is like good lovemaking. Leave yourself alone and explore. Do it. Don’t watch yourself do it. Don’t think about yourself doing it. You just go from moment to moment. But don’t take anything for granted either, especially not in acting. That’s when you get your ass kicked.

* What: “An Evening With Rod Steiger.”

* When: Saturday, Sept. 17, at 8 p.m.

* Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The theater is on Campus near Bridge Road, across from the Marketplace mall.

* Wherewithal: $25 for show; $100 includes dinner. Proceeds benefit brain research.

* Where to call: (714) 740-2000, Ticketmaster.

Path of a Bright Career

Born in Westhampton, N.Y., on April 14, 1925, Rod Steiger grew up in Newark, N.J. He joined the Navy at 16 and served in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, he studied acting in New York. His first taste of national fame came in 1953 when he was cast as Marty, the lonely Bronx butcher, in the original Goodyear Playhouse telecast of Paddy Chayevsky’s “Marty.”

Though Steiger desperately wanted to reprise the role for the 1955 movie, he did not get it because he refused to sign a seven-year contract with the producers. (The role eventually went to Ernest Borgnine, who won an Oscar--as did the picture.)

But it was Steiger’s live-television performance in “Marty” that caught the attention of director Elia Kazan and got him a career-making role opposite Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” He played Charlie, one of the leaders of a crooked longshoreman’s union, who tries to keep his brother Terry, a has-been boxer played by Brando, from testifying before a waterfront commission about union corruption.

With that performance, Steiger earned his first Oscar nomination (for best supporting actor). In 1965, after nearly two dozen pictures (often playing heavies), he received his second Oscar nomination, this time for best actor, in “The Pawnbroker.”

Two years later, Steiger won the Oscar for best actor in “In the Heat of the Night” as a redneck Southern sheriff.

FROM THE STEIGER CATALOGUE * “On the Waterfront” (1954)

* “Oklahoma!” (1955)

* “The Harder They Fall” (1956)

* “Cry Terror” (1958)

* “Al Capone"(1959)

* “The Longest Day” (1962)

* “The Pawnbroker,” “The Loved One,” “Doctor Zhivago” (all 1965)

* “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

* “No Way to Treat a Lady” (1968)

* “Waterloo” (1971)

* “W.C. Fields and Me"(1976)

* “The Chosen” (1981)

* “The January Man"(1989)

* “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” (1991)


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