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Rod Steiger’s Best Roles

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A look back at Rod Steiger, one of the greatest actors of his generation.

Rod Steiger (1925 - 2002) was one of the greatest actors of his generation.

Born in Westhampton, New York, Steiger had performing in his blood. His mother and father were vaudevillians, travelling song-and-dance duo, until his mother left Steiger's father — and showbiz — behind. With his mother increasingly suffering from alcoholism, and his father (whom he never met) out of the picture completely, Steiger ran away at 16 and joined the Marines. After serving in World War II, he returned to New York and began studying under the famous Stella Adler. Steiger starred in a handful of stage productions and then moved onto live TV dramas and movies. Of his more than 100 films and TV performances, here are a few of our favorites.

Marty (1953)
Written by Paddy Chayevsky, The Goodyear Television Playhouse’s production of "Marty" is often cited as the artistic pinnacle of TV’s Golden Age. The story is about a lonely butcher in the Bronx trying to find love. Chayevsky described the story thusly: “I set out in 'Marty' to write a love story, the most ordinary love story in the world. I didn’t want my hero to be handsome, and I didn’t want the girl to be pretty… The actor who played Marty, Rod Steiger, is one of the most gifted young actors in the theater and I owe him a genuine debt of gratitude for all he contributed to this show.” Despite the glowing reviews, Steiger turned down an offer to reprise his role for the film version, fearing he would be typecast. Ernest Borgnine took the role instead and won an Academy Award for his efforts, but Steiger says he never regretted his decision.

On the Waterfront (1954)
Director Elia Kazan and actor Marlon Brando had teamed up before to make "A Streetcar Named Desire." But it was the release of "On the Waterfront" that provided a true watershed moment, establishing the naturalistic "Method" style as the new standard of acting in American film (even if it took the rest of Hollywood awhile to catch up to the gritty New Yorkers). Steiger's role in the film is relatively small, but as Terry Malloy's mob-connected brother Charley, he appears in the pivotal scene, one that still ranks among the most memorable of any committed to celluloid.

The Pawnbroker (1965)
Steiger's career in the decade following "Waterfront" was an uneven one. He made his singing debut with "Oklahoma!" and landed memorable roles such as in "The Harder They Come" opposite Humphrey Bogart. But he also appeared in a number of lesser film noirs and a few outright clunkers. It's a period perhaps best summed up by the title of a film he appeared in 1964 — "A Time of Indifference." Looking for a way to re-establish himself as a big-time leading actor, he became involved in developing a film property based on "The Pawnbroker," a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant about a Holocaust survivor who works as a pawnbroker in a New York City ghetto. Steiger took far below his usual salary in order to get the picture made, but still had difficulty finding a greenlight. Director Stanley Kubrick was approached, but wasn’t excited about working with Steiger and passed. Sidney Lumet, who eventually took on the film, had misgivings about Steiger, too. When the shoot finally wrapped, Steiger had turned in perhaps his greatest performance and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best leading actor.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Its hard to beat "In the Heat of the Night" for sheer pedigree — acting by Steiger and Sidney Poitier, cinematography by Haskell Wexler, editing by future director Hal Ashby, directing by Norman Jewison — so it should be no surprise that such a stellar mix of talents turned in one of the 1960s' most memorable films. Steiger was at the peak of his powers, coming off a critically acclaimed role in the comedy "The Loved Ones" and holding his own with British thespians Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson in "Dr. Zhivago." Though Poitier had the bigger role in "In the Heat of the Night," Steiger won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of racist Southern police chief Bill Gillespie.

Waterloo (1970)
As with his contemporary Brando, there was a grandiose aspect to Steiger's persona and he wasn't above the occasional scenery chewing, making him a good fit for larger-than-life characters from history. During his career, Steiger played a number of historical figures, including but not limited to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, comedian W.C. Fields, Roman emperor Pontius Pilate, and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Steiger famously passed on the titular role in "Patton," saying he didn't wish to glorify war, and the part went instead to George C. Scott, who took home an Oscar (Steiger later called it "one of the dumbest moves in my career"). Of course, there was plenty of war in 1970's "Waterloo," the Sergei Bondarchuk-directed $38 million epic produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and starring Steiger as French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.