I have been offered a gig with a satellite arts programme on a series on the Hollywood Legends. We film critics get a bit sniffy about such work – it’s banal, trite, audience-driven but the reality is that few of us are that well paid or off to refuse the lucre, and most of all there is nothing a film critic enjoys more than letting the world know how clever he is. In this case it has the further attraction that I would have a say in the selection of the legends. I was prepared to trot our the same old cliched stuff that Elizabeth Taylor had the longest ever Hollywood career as she appeared aged 12 in National Velvet and at 19 Giant if I could extol the virtues of Rod Steiger.
Rod Steiger was not just one of the most compelling film actors of all time but was as interesting a personality as the characters he played. Born of an unhappy marriage between two vaudeville players, his father ran off and his mother descended into alcoholism. Steiger joined the Navy and used his demob money to fund the fees of enrolling at the method studio school of acting run by Lee Strasberg at the same time as Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. He appeared with them in his break through film On The Waterfront.
Most people ‘s memories of On the Waterfront are of the scene in the back of the taxi with Marlon Brando who plays Terry Molloy and his line “I could have been something, I could have been a contender” but had to throw the bout.
Legend has is that the two were great buddies and adlibbed their lines. Like many a Hollywood legend this is totally false. Steiger hated Brando, a difficult actor with whom to work, as he refused to do second takes so some of the time he is not even talking to Brando but to director Eli Kazan. He loathed the film too as Elia Kazan grassed up his cinema mates to the Macarthy Commission. Steiger was a pacifist who took a high moral stance.
Oddly enough this did not prevent him from accepting roles as deeply flawed – though successful achievers – like Al Capone, Benito Mussolini (twice) and Napoleon. He also appeared as Pontius Pilate in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. He also turned down Patton and the role of Michael in The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for the first and directed the latter.
Memorably he was brilliant as the white supremacist cop in In the Heat of the Night and although the film is highly regarded for the dignity of Sidney Poitier as Vergil Tibbs (they call me “Mr Tibbs”) it is Steiger in his role that changes attitude. He also appeared in Dr Zhivago. It’s an impressive filmography for someone whose corpulence and piggy face prevented him from being more a lead. He was married 5 times, bedevilled by poor mental health as he suffered from depression and had open heart surgery twice. Nonetheless he acted on till he passed away in 2002.
Rod Steiger was not a good actor, he was a great one. At his best as in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnboker, a daring film for its time as he played a holocaust survivor he totally dominated the screen and he was very, very rarely at his worst.