Never Meet Your Hero. Unless it's Rod Steiger

Hollywood's 'No.1 bad man' and star of 'On the Waterfront' and 'Dr Zhivago' didn't disappoint journalist Chris Sullivan when they met before the actor's death in 2002.
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Hollywood's 'No.1 bad man' and star of 'On the Waterfront' and 'Dr Zhivago' didn't disappoint journalist Chris Sullivan when they met before the actor's death in 2002.

Rod Steiger: should have gone to Spec Savers

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For any self-respecting cinephile, Rod Steiger needs little introduction. He is regarded by many to be, as the famous Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons said 'The screens No. 1 Bad Man' and by others, such as Pauline Kael, legendary film critic for The New Yorker, 'a genius'. To some he is not only one of the few remaining original students of the infamous Actor’s Studio of New York, he is also one of the world’s most underrated and powerful actors. This is the man who gave us the Al Capone we all remember (the basis for De Niro’s characterisation in The Untouchables). This is the man to whom Brando mumbled those immortal words ‘I could have been a contender’. This is the star of Waterloo, No Way To Treat a Lady, The Illustrated Man, Run of The Arrow, The Pawnbroker and, In The Heat of The Night, to name a few. He has worked with every great actor and director since the fifties. He is Rod Steiger.

Born in Long Island on the 14th April 1925, Steiger’s parents, Fred and Gracie, were itinerant song and dance artistes who divorced shortly after Rod’s birth, leaving the actor with just a vague memory of his father. His mother was, by his own admission, an alcoholic who hit the bottle hard during the depression of the thirties leaving Steiger, for the most part, to fend for himself. After a more than difficult childhood, and filled with indignation after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, he decided to enlist in the Navy. After weeks searching the flophouses of New York’s Bowery, Steiger found his mother fully ensconced in one of the area’s salubrious hostelries. Too young to enlist, he had to frog march his mother to the Recruitment Office and literally twist her arm to get her to sign the all important form that stated he was old enough to go to war. He was just sixteen.“I loved the Navy. I was stupid enough to think I was being heroic”, said Steiger later. In spite of his age, Steiger garnered enough experience during the war to leave the Navy with the desire to do something that he really wanted to do.

The chance to talk at length with a ‘legend' (a term I do not use lightly) is extremely rare, and an opportunity I seized with both hands whilst looking out the window of my Soho studio one day. Not realising who it was, I said to a colleague: “That bloke in the street looks great. Look at him - bald head, Easy Rider sunglasses, polo neck and that great big medallion!” I continued to watch the elderly gentleman as he talked to another bearded gentleman. They seemed to be just shooting the breeze, enjoying a rare warm afternoon in London. Then it clicked  “My God that’s Stanley Kubrick…and the bald bloke’s Rod Steiger!” I hurtled down the stairs and into the street, rudely interrupted what had previously been a rather gentile conversation. “Mr. Steiger, could I interview you?” I stuttered nervously. Steiger looked at his companion and smiled before turning to me. “An interview, what for a magazine?” I nodded and he continued “Oh sure, you got a card?” I gave him my card and retreated to the comfort of my studio. It was then that I caught my reflection in the studio mirror. My T-shirt, a present from a rather acerbic Welshman, proudly displayed the words “No Change, Fuck Off” (his answer to the countless street beggars who, in his opinion, make his life hell). Add to this my gravity defying hair and the intriguing mix of acrylic paint that splashed my face and covered my mouth and the overall effect was something along the lines of, “Paint Eating Nutter.” I whispered the words 'c’est la vie' quietly to myself and got on with the job of creating a masterpiece. Later that day my assistant at the mag called me to say she had received a call from a Mr. Steiger and could I call him back. We met that evening in his room at the Ritz.

Do you think the war helped your acting?
Well yes, I have young actors who come to me for advice and I say ‘Do you want or need to be an actor?’ and I can tell by the pause whether they should or not. They answer ‘Yeah, I want to be’, but who the hell wouldn’t want to be Picasso. To need it means you HAVE to fulfill something in your soul that feels empty. Some people paint, others have financial success in business and you HAVE to act because it makes you feel complete, otherwise you should stay the hell out because it’s a rotten business. Then I ask them how old they are. They say 19 or 20 maybe, and my answer is that to help them as an actor they should spend a year in the Merchant Marines!

On James Dean: "Here was a nice kid absorbed by his own ego, so much so that it was destroying him. I think he killed himself in that car crash. The man had a death wish!"

I didn’t want to be an actor initially, by the time I was 19 I had been around the world three times experiencing different cultures, people and languages. My ship had 283 different men. My Southern accent that I used for the part of Gillespie the red neck lawman in In The Heat Of The Night [for which Steiger received the Academy award for Best Actor] comes from a guy called King…and by osmosis I realised I’d had one of the best education’s for an actor, because I’d seen so many different people doing different things, talking with different accents, with different mannerisms.

Did the war help your characterisation of murderers such as in No Way To Treat a Lady?
When I was at Guadalcanal, we took some Marines off - those men were glassy eyed. I realised that they had killed their first human beings. Everything in their life, religion, society, parents had conditioned them not to kill. They were shocked that they had killed. To see this at first hand was shocking, but it was eventually useful for me as an actor even though it was a very difficult experience. That look in the eye was unforgettable.

***

After the war Steiger found himself living in a $5 room on West 81st Street, New York, where the GI Bill of Rights entitled him to four years of schooling plus an income of one hundred dollars a month. The news that a certain drama group, as organised by the Office of Dependants and Beneficiaries, entertained and educated many attractive women attracted the young Steiger to the class and he was soon starring in the productions. He continued to study his craft at the New School for Social Research, run by German émigré Erwin Piscator, for some two years. Walter Matthau, another student at the time dubbed the institution The Neurotic School for Sexual Research. As for Steiger, amazed and amused by his reception as an actor, he merely went from strength to strength.

It was around this time that Daniel Mann, one of Rod’s teachers, was asked to help a foundling theatrical institution founded by Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis – The Actor’s Studio. Now a household name, The Studio spawned the talents of Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, James Dean, and more recently Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, where actors were taught, in the words of America’s first adherent to the form, director Harold Clurman, to ‘put the whole gamut of his physical and emotional being into the service of the dramatists meaning’. Set up in October 1947, the Studio caused a sensation in December of that year with its first Broadway production ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, starring Marlon Brando and directed by Kazan.

Soon the Actor’s Studio, aided and abetted by it’s new rising star, became the place to study. Robert Lewis left and was eventually replaced by Austrian born Lee Strasberg (Hymen Roth in Godfather 2), and ‘the Method’ entered the dictionary both as a means of preparation for, and style of, acting. Many of the actors and teachers at the Studio preferred the term ‘Affective Memory’ which, as Strasberg explained, ‘...makes it possible for us to join in the great tradition of acting. When Kean in Hamlet picked up the skull of Yorick, he cried, because he said he always thought of his uncle.’

On Marlon Brando: "I walked over, we shook hands, embraced and rubbed our bald heads together. It was very emotional."

Whatever the rhetoric Strasberg used, many of the Studio’s most able protagonists actually deride his style of tuition. It’s most famous son, Marlon Brando, cites another tutor, Stella Adler, as changing the style of American acting in the fifties and sixties. Strasberg, the man whose name personifies the form, is seen by many as being something of a bully whose students, in the words of Elia Kazan, see ‘little joy in Lee’s work’. Just as Adler‘s input has been sadly overlooked by recent commentators, so has the artistry of many of the Actors Studio’s more notable talents. Steiger, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach were all destined to be character actors by virtue of their physical appearance, but to the true movie-lover they are the core of every film they appear in. It is they, and not the stars that make the picture worth watching.

In terms of stardom, rather than artistic accomplishment, Steiger never reached the heights of his contemporaries, Montgomery Clift, Brando and James Dean. Many consider him a far more accomplished actor than the ‘stars’, but his size, shape and looks were not the stuff of pin-up. More importantly, Steiger was always his own man - a massive handicap in the Hollywood studio system of the '50s.

‘The Method’ school of acting technique per se, is a much maligned form. You have said you don’t use it anymore. What is your opinion of it?
I don’t like the term Method, but for the sake of argument Method Acting is a means to an end. It is something that helps you get involved in the part personally so that you can communicate with the audience. No matter what, the American actor of the fifties changed acting the world over. Montgomery Clift was perhaps the actor who started it, Brando caused the sensation and Dean made it a cult.

Did you meet James Dean?
Jimmy was never a great friend of mine, but I knew him pretty well. I liked him and he respected me. I remember when he was making 'Giant' with the director George Stevens; he called and asked if we could meet at the commissary at Warner Brothers. He ordered a steak and started to tell me how he thought Stevens didn’t know what he was doing. ‘Whatever you do, don’t argue with the man in front of people. They depend on him for their livelihood, I told him. ‘You don’t do that to big egos - don’t do that to anyone.’ Then I suggested that he should do say to Stevens, ’You gave me this idea’, and then ask him, ‘How was that? What do you think? Nine times out of ten it will work and he will be happy to accept the credit. He’ll be happy and you get to do it your way. But don’t forget, too much discussion can be the death of art.’

Meanwhile, Jimmy had eaten about three-quarters of his steak, but he suddenly tells the poor waitress that he doesn’t like it. She pointed out that he had almost eaten it all and he shouts ‘Look, this is Hollywood baby! Take it back!’ Here was a nice kid absorbed by his own ego, so much so that it was destroying him. I think he killed himself in that car crash. Shortly before his death he gave me his most prized possession, Ernest Hemingway’s book Death In The afternoon, and every mention of death was underlined. The man had a death wish!

Jimmy was surrounded by all these people whom I refer to as not Gay, but Grey people. An actor is always open to all kinds of feelings and these people indulged in all kinds of weird sexual practices and he was sucked into that world. He died far too young, but became a legend and maybe that is what he wanted. At least he avoided the awful flagellatory death of Montgomery Clift. That was terrible.

Did you ever meet Marilyn Monroe?
I remember her as this shy, quiet, vulnerable girl who was already famous when she sat in at the back of the Actor’s studio. Very beautiful and very sad. She wanted to know everything, but sometimes knowledge is a very dangerous thing.

The Actors studio and Kazan led you into the film On The Waterfront for which you received an Oscar nomination. The film received eight Oscars, Brando- best actor, Eva Marie Saint - best actress, best film and best director for Kazan. Were you not disappointed that you did not receive an award?
I wasn’t that upset because many more people in the film were nominated. This was my first big part. I’d worked with Brando, been nominated for an Oscar and it was a great picture. What more did I want. That was only my second film and it saved a hell of a lot of time walking around looking for a job.

I did get an Oscar for ‘In The Heat of The Night’ though - I was incapacitated for about eight years with clinical depression and I walk in to see this new Vice President at one of the studios. He says –‘Hello, so nice to see you – can you do a Southern accent?’ And I say – ‘I won an Academy Award with a Southern accent!’ It doesn’t bother me that he hadn’t seen the picture, but he should have been aware of that, at least. Ironically, my career was saved by my old films being shown on TV. Otherwise Hollywood would have ignored me.

You are remembered by many, as is Brando, for the scene in the back of the taxicab in On The Waterfront.
Well yeah, that was my big scene. We shot it in a studio, which was about the width of a rich ladies closet. We got there and they had half a taxicab and a guy sat driving it. You never saw the front .You saw the driver, the wheel, Mr. Brando and myself. I was a nervous wreck because I was playing Brando’s brother and he was one of the Gods of the American Theatre and the acting world. Then Sam Spiegel, the producer walks in and Elia Kazan starts shouting at him: ‘You son of a gun .You promised me a backdrop so when we shoot we see the two actors in the cab through the window and in the back we see the streets of New York. I can’t shoot this damned thing unless there’s a backdrop.’ So Spiegel says ‘Gadge, [Kazan’s nickname] you shouldn’t get so excited. I can’t shoot the scene.’ Then one of the crew said ’You know Mr. Kazan, when I came to work this morning there was a Venetian blind in the back of the window of the cab’ - so they got the blind, but the studio was so small you could reach out from the inside of the cab and touch the wall so they couldn’t shoot from outside the cab over our shoulders. As a result, Kazan was forced to go in on the actor’s faces in close-up. This made it even more difficult for us, but it added a special tension that Kazan was very keen to see - as he said ‘two young bulls locking horns’ - Mr. Brando and myself.

When it came to Brando’s close-ups, I stood off screen so that he would have somebody to react against. Acting is all about action and reaction, so to have the actor your working with off stage really does help. Only when it came to my close-ups, Marlon went home. I couldn’t believe that a great director like Kazan would let him go home, and I couldn’t believe that Brando would want to go home. It was my big scene and I had to deliver my lines to Kazan, who stepped in to make me feel a little better. Later, Kazan said Brando had to go see his psychiatrist, but at the time he said he was tired.

I didn’t speak to Marlon for forty years until I was accepting an award in Montreal in 1997 and Brando was in town. He was invited, but didn’t go. After the ceremony we went to a Chinese restaurant and there was Marlon, this great three hundred-pound man. He waved and tried to get up, but with his weight...man. So I walked over, we shook hands, embraced and rubbed our bald heads together. It was very emotional. Marlon has had so many problems with his son and his daughter...a terrible time. As we parted I said  ‘This is terrible’ and he said ‘What is?’ ‘That we’ll never be able to say nasty things about each other after a reconciliation like this!’ I said. The man has had a tough time.

***

In the late forties and early fifties, Governor McCarthy and the House of Un-American activities all but paralyzed Hollywood. To make matters worse, the Senate ruled in 1948 that studios could no longer own cinemas. This brought an end to the dominance of the system that the studios had always enjoyed. Actors, producers, and directors found themselves out of work for either, or both of the aforementioned reasons. Many were blacklisted and never worked again. The way out for many was Television. Each week the new medium aired at least ten new plays showcasing the directing talents of Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, to name just three. Actors included Paul Newman, George C Scott, Jack Palance, Jack Lemmon, John Cassavettes, Lee Marvin, Rip Torn and Sidney Poitier. Steiger, in the period between 1948 and 1953 acted in more than two hundred and fifty live TV plays, honing his art to virtual perfection and winning the Sylvaner Award for the five best performances of that year. All was not wine and roses, however, as Steiger saw a lot of friends unjustly consumed by the Communist witch hunts, a devastating period in Hollywood where an actor only had to receive a letter from a relative in Russia, to literally never work again.

On Marilyn Monroe: "I remember her as this shy, quiet, vulnerable girl. She wanted to know everything, but sometimes knowledge is a very dangerous thing."

How many of your friends suffered as a result of McCarthyism?
Well, I did. I was black listed, but not for long. I was saved because I could do characters, but friends of mine really suffered. That’s why I always tangle with Charlton Heston. He wrote to the papers saying he was upset that Elia Kazan didn’t get an award from the American institute - this was before he received one last year. He said that he was appalled. Well, I wrote a letter to the LA times to say that I too was appalled that friends of mine, great talents who were innocent, died of heart attacks because of stress. I’m appalled because of Senator McCarthy. I’m appalled that these friends of mine only wanted to put food on the table. I’m appalled because Senator Joseph McCarthy went for the Presidentship on the wings of terror, and I’m appalled that Elia Kazan, who used to put Hollywood down, sold his friends out in Washington just to do movies - and at the same time was a millionaire from the theatre. I don’t think Charlton Heston likes me. Did you know that Heston said that the second amendment, the right to bear arms was more important than the first – the freedom of speech? He said that in public. I call him America’s favourite fascist.

What about Lee J. Cobb?
A great actor and a great talent, but he went to the wall and ratted on many of his colleagues.

***

Between 1950 and 1990, Steiger made an abundance of pictures - some 52 in total. Capone, The Harder They Fall (Humphrey Bogart’s last film), The Longest Day, The Pawnbroker, for which he received yet another Academy Award nomination, Dr. Zhivago, as directed by David Lean, Waterloo, No Way To Treat a Lady and The Illustrated Man are just a few. He has become ‘household name’ because of his abilities as an actor. A situation that many aspire to, but few achieve.

You’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest directors - Zanuck, Preminger, Lumet, David Lean and, of course, many of the world’s greatest actors. Is there anybody you wished you had worked with?
I like to work with people who allow you to make mistakes. I seem to have a gift for improvisation. I believe an actor should be able to change everything in a line, except the thought and the cue for the other actors. I don’t like to do more than three takes.

What about Daryl Zanuck (creator of both Lassie and Gone with the Wind)?
That was a surprise. I did ‘Longest Day’, a small cameo like everybody, I went because it was my first visit to Paris. I would have been the Bride of Frankenstein just to go. Zanuck had a reputation for being tough, but if they respect you they’re quite the opposite. Zanuck was so professional and quick with us, people couldn’t believe he was done. I scratched my forehead, so he says ‘What was that? Do it again for a close up!’ Isaid ‘You want a close up of that! I had an itchy forehead’ These people! Though if someone did not perform or was difficult – God help them!

Tell me how did you get the flies to stay on your face for so long in the Illustrated Man?

Jees, that’s another story. That was the greatest acting I have ever done. They mixed sugar and beer and sprayed my face with it, and literally let thousands of flies loose and they just came and came. I had one crawling over my eyelid and I didn’t move. I should’ve known they’d be alcoholics. They just came and came. There’s a drunken fly sir. That movie and No Way To Treat A Lady are now really big cult movies on American TV. A lot of young actors ask me, how do I become a TV star? I say ‘Grow another two legs and a tail and call yourself Lassie.’

[The telephone rings.]

It’s my fans. I only have two.

What did you think of Orson Welles?
The man was misunderstood by the commercial world because of his imagination and independence. Hollywood does not understand the word independence or imagination - they use the word difficult as a substitute .In my first Hollywood picture I had come out of this horrendous storm and this bloke came up to me and sprayed my face with this little atomizer. I asked him what it was and he answers 'You’re coming out of a storm, you’re getting wet.'

So I go to a water bucket full of water and pour it over my head and walk on. 'You see', he says to his boss to protect himself. 'He’s difficult’. Anybody in Hollywood who they say is difficult has been fighting their ass off to preserve logic. My whole attitude is that when you come out of the rain, you’re wet. It’s not my opinion, yours, his - you’re wet. It’s a fact .We could talk for hours about interpretation, so let’s stop the bullshit here. Anywhere in the film world there’s bullshit. Wet is wet, but in Hollywood, wet is difficult.

Many of your films were independently produced. Are you glad they are coming back in force?
Well they never went away. ’The Pawnbroker’, directed by Sidney Lumet, was an independent, so was ‘The Sergeant’. They’re just coming back stronger because the greed finally ran into a wall, and what proved it was all these small independent films getting nominations and winning awards where all these multi-million dollar films did nothing, and that really shook them up. I would always say the bigger the budget, the less imagination. In the old days, they had designers who, if they had to create a battleship, would get a bit of net and a bit of board and make one. Now there is no imagination. If they want a destroyer now, they ring up the government and get a real one. There aren’t any challenges any more; they’re home decorators.

Necessity is the mother of invention.
It is also the basis of progress.

[The photographer arrives.]

You played W.C. Fields and seem to have a certain affinity with him. Is this the character you most identify with?
No, but my wife said it’s the one closest to me - bitter son of a bitch, thanks a lot! What a lot of people don’t know is that as well as carrying a suitcase full of gin around on his travels, he also carried the finest literature, from classical to modern.

***

Steiger has worked almost constantly since 1980, appearing in a variety of movies and in parts that are well below his station. Actors rely on good scripts and as Steiger says, there just aren’t enough of them around.

Tony Mc.Gee (photographer): Mr. Steiger, we’re ready when you are.

[We all move to the other side of the room. As Tony begins, we continue.]

That’s a great medallion. I saw it from four floors up.
[A big solid circular chunk of gold with a figurine of a little boy.]
I know, you’ve told me four times already. My wife gave me this. It features my three greatest achievements: my daughter, my son and my Oscar - and at the bottom is the Petit Prince, one of the few people I trust. It’s a character from a book by Antoine Saint Exupery.

Your biography recently came out…
I did the book with an old friend called Tom Hutchinson. He was going to call it ‘Steiger –Superstar Survivor’. That’s what I am - three bypasses, two artificial hips. He calls it memoirs of a friendship because I’ve known him for forty years.

Tony McGee: Mr. Steiger, could we get something serious?
You want me to unzip my flies?

You seem very busy at the moment?
Yeah, I’ve got five films coming out. I want to die in front of the camera. I have very little fear of death, but the word ‘linger’ scares the shit out of me. I don’t want to be one of those people with pipes up their nose and all that …Jesus!

[We continue to talk - about Courtroom TV, life and the pursuit of happiness, trade a few jokes, take the piss and laugh.]

We finished?
Yes.
Well get outta here!
One last thing Mr. Steiger…
Hey, come on…
Could I have your autograph?

He signs the bit of paper with the words: ‘To Chris, Up the Welsh, Up the Ribs, Rod Steiger‘ - an amazingly intuitive couplet to give a Catholic Welsh man with an Irish name, but then again Rod Steiger is a very special man. He could well be unique. So many of the people one looks up to in life are actually a disappointment in the flesh. Mr. Steiger is anything but.