Rod Steiger, an Oscar-winning actor whose chameleon-like ability to inhabit diverse characters placed him firmly among a generation of acclaimed postwar performers, died Tuesday at age 77.
Steiger, who gave particularly memorable performances in “The Pawnbroker” and “In the Heat of the Night,” died of pneumonia and kidney failure at a Los Angeles hospital.
Steiger was the consummate Method actor, who studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York and was known for bringing a raw intensity to his performances. He playeda middle-aged Italian butcher in the television drama “Marty” and a bigoted Southern sheriff of “In the Heat of the Night,” a role that earned him the Academy Award.
Not a typically handsome man, he used his beefy frame and doughy face to create memorable characters, first as a supporting actor and then in starring roles.
The actors of his generation, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman, rejected traditional acting styles for more intimate interpretations. Their characters often reflected the deep-rooted anxieties facing American society in the Cold War era. These actors drew on their own torments and neuroses to expose the soul of their characters.
“The lions are leaving the circus,” said director Norman Jewison, who worked with Steiger on three films, including “In the Heat of the Night.” “Boy, Rod was a lion if there ever was [one].”
Born in the Long Island town of Westhampton, N.Y., on April 14, 1925, Steiger knew at an early age that he wanted to become an actor. His parents, Lorraine and Frederick, were part of a song-and-dance team and divorced when Steiger was only 1 year old.
Steiger, whose full name was Rodney Stephen Steiger, began acting in grade school. He was known among his schoolmates as Rodney the Rock because of his stocky build and his strong personality. He once told The Times that his difficult childhood gave him a drive to succeed.
“People used to laugh at my family because of alcoholic problems,” he said in 1991. “I used to pull my mother out of saloons, and I heard the neighbors titter. I must have sworn to myself someday that I would do something good enough that they would respect the name of Steiger. I think that is what gave me a certain intensity. I made acting too much my life.”
After only one year of high school, he lied about his age and at 16 enlisted in the Navy. He served as a torpedoman in the South Pacific during World War II and took part in some of its greatest battles, including the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns.
When he returned home, Steiger took advantage of the GI Bill to study acting at the New School for Social Research in New York.
He studied at the Actors Studio from 1946-47, immersing himself in the teachings of Method guru Strasberg, whose other students included Brando and Marilyn Monroe. At the time, Strasberg’s method was considered nearly revolutionary, requiring actors to tap into their personal experiences to become the character they were playing.
Between 1948 and 1953 Steiger appeared in more than 250 live television productions, the best known being the 1953 Paddy Chayefsky drama “Marty.”
By 1951 the actor had made his debut on Broadway and appeared in his first film role, in director Fred Zinnemann’s “Teresa.” Three years later, Steiger received his first Oscar nomination for playing Brando’s thuggish brother Charlie in Elia Kazan’s seminal drama “On the Waterfront.”
Brando and Steiger were not chummy on the set. In fact there was, according to Steiger, “a little animosity between us.” But director Kazan milked that tension for all it was worth. Steiger recalled in a 1994 interview with The Times that “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—but we both worked together pretty well, I think.”
They worked so well together that Jewison called Steiger “the only guy I have ever seen who acted Brando off the screen, in that scene. As Brando got bigger, Rod got smaller,” he said of Steiger’s subtle performance.
With the success of that film—which won seven Oscars, including best picture—Steiger’s film career skyrocketed. He tried his hand at a variety of roles, including playing the surly ranch hand, Jud, in the 1955 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” directed by Zinnemann.
In 1965 Steiger starred in David Lean’s epic romance “Dr. Zhivago.” But it was his performance the same year in Sidney Lumet’s provocative drama “The Pawnbroker” that many critics consider his best.
Steiger was lavished with praised for his portrayal of a bitter Holocaust survivor operating a Harlem pawnshop and was confident of an Academy Award. “Should I jump up or walk slow? Should I kiss that beautiful woman over there or say hello to this producer over here?” he recalled of his fantasizing before the announcement. “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.”
But two years later, he won for his “In the Heat of the Night” performance as the bombastic, gum-chewing Sheriff Gillespie.
Steiger was an actor who was keenly focused on the details of a character—details that he understood would bring out their humanity.
The trick for the Gillespie role was in how he chewed his gum. Initially, Steiger argued with Jewison that having the sheriff constantly chewing gum was a cliche. But soon, the actor figured out how to use the gum to his advantage.
“We were rehearsing, and I noticed that when I got excited, I was chewing fast,” recalled Steiger in an interview. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I can let the audience know how I am feeling with this chewing gum?’ Bang! I’m out of the cliche. When this guy chews fast, you know he is upset. When he slows down, you know he is thinking. And when he stops chewing, you don’t know what the hell he is going to do.”
Although Jewison had confidence in Steiger, he also knew he had to be firm with him.
“Everyone would always say he was always overacting,” the director recalled. “But I said, ‘I’d rather have someone overact and give me some choices than not be there at all.’ We would shout at each other. He would say, ‘What’s the matter? You got it!’ and I would say, ‘Let’s do one more take, maybe a little easier.’ We had great respect and trust and especially after he won the Academy Award, I was God.”
Steiger’s biggest mistake, the actor said, was turning down the title role of “Patton.” At the time he was flying high from his Oscar win and decided that he didn’t need the part of the controversial World War II general. George C. Scott went on to win the Academy Award for that role.
Though Steiger consistently gave interesting performances after “In the Heat of the Night,” the roles never lived up to his earlier work.
“What was most admirable about Steiger was that to the end he lived up to the old credo that there are no small parts, just small actors,” said Los Angeles Times film reviewer Kevin Thomas. “He gave his best to the largely supporting roles in a number of mainly otherwise forgettable movies that made up the later years of his film career.”
It was during a career slump in the early 1970s, that Steiger’s demons manifested themselves with a vengeance. Married five times, including once to actress Claire Bloom, he fought his biggest personal battle with clinical depression.
He tried to kill himself twice and, according to good friend Arthur Hiller, who directed him in the 1976 movie “W.C. Fields and Me,” became an alcoholic.
During his bout with depression, Steiger called a friend to retrieve a shotgun he owned because he feared he would kill himself. Still, he tried to commit suicide once by taking an overdose of pills and again by attempting to drown himself in the Pacific Ocean, near his Malibu home.
The actor said in a 1994 interview with The Times that he had to lock himself in a room in his home and “for three days I tore the walls. I tore myself up. I bit myself. People forget we are the highest form of animal. That animal can take over and destroy.”
Open About Depression
Though his agent and manager advised him not to talk about his depression, Steiger went public in the late 1980s about the illness. In 1993, he testified before Congress, reading a six-page poem called “Hitting Rock Bottom.” His testimony helped in part to secure nearly $24 million in federal funding for mental health research.
Dr. Frederick Goodwin, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who worked with Steiger on a decade-long public awareness campaign, said the actor was rare in his commitment and his knowledge about the illness.
Through therapy and medication, Steiger emerged from his depression and resuscitated his career. In recent years, he appeared in such films as “The Hurricane” and the Antonio Banderas-directed Southern gothic “Crazy in Alabama.”
Lee Grant, a fellow “In the Heat of the Night” actor, recalled when she and Steiger met with a group of students to talk about their craft.
One student asked what it was like to be a star. Steiger responded, “You go 16 rounds. You are hurt. You are bloody. And they finally lift your hand up and you’ve won. And then the bell rings for the next round.”
“Rod was up there fighting with everything he had. He was a winner,” Grant said.
Steiger is survived by his fifth wife, Joan Benedict Steiger; a daughter, Anna; and a son, Michael. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, 23388 Mulholland Drive, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.