Rod Steiger (Wikimedia Commons)
Rod Steiger, born on this day in 1925, was one of the greatest actors of his generation. Of his more than 100 films and TV performances, here are a few of our favorites.
Born in Westhampton, New York on April 14th, 1925, Rod Steiger had performing in his blood. His mother had been part of a travelling song-and-dance vaudeville team before dropping out of showbiz after leaving Steiger’s father – the second half of the duo and a figure Steiger would never meet. With his mother increasingly suffering from alcoholism, Steiger ran away at sixteen to join the Marines. After the war, he returned to the East Coast and began studying under the famous Stella Adler. Steiger starred in a handful of stage productions and then moved onto live TV dramas, where he landed his breakout role.
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 with A Streetcar Named Desire, but it was the release of On the Waterfront that provided a true watershed moment, establishing the naturalistic ‘Method’ 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 appeared 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 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 Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman, now working 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 Sidney Poitier, cinematography by Haskell Wexler, editing by future director Hal Ashby, directing by Norman Jewison – and perhaps it's no surprise 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 against British thespians Alec Guiness and Ralph Richardson in Dr. Zhivago. Playing racist Southern police chief Bill Gillespie, Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor, somewhat of a surprise given that Poitier had undeniably the bigger role in the picture.
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 the types of larger-than-life characters that often get the biopic treatment. During his career, Steiger played a number of historical figures, including but not limited to Benito Mussolini, W.C. Fields, Pontius Pilate and Sam Giancana. He famously passed on the titular role in Patton, saying he didn’t wish to glorify war; the part went instead to George C. Scott, who took home an Oscar (Steiger 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, starring Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte – but that didn’t keep it from being a box office flop. Though perhaps not one of Steiger’s greatest performances, it appears on this list as a tribute to all those larger-than-life roles Steiger took during his long career, before his death on July 9, 2002.