Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Los Angeles Rod Steiger, who played Marlon Brando's mob-connected brother in "On the Waterfront" and won the 1967 Oscar for best actor for his role as the redneck Southern police chief in "In the Heat of the Night," died Tuesday. He was 77.
Steiger died at a Los Angeles-area hospital of pneumonia and kidney failure, said his publicist, Lori DeWaal.
A devoted practitioner of method acting, Steiger prided himself in undertaking challenging roles, especially real-life persons. "My generation of actors was taught to be able to create different people; that's what an actor is supposed to do," he said.
In movies and television, he convincingly portrayed such figures as Mussolini, Rasputin, Pope John XXIII, Rudolf Hess, Pontius Pilate, Napoleon, W.C. Fields and Al Capone. He played scores of characters, many of them forgettable.
"I'm 60 percent virgin and 40 percent whore," Steiger said in a 2000 TV interview. "I've not sold out that much, and I've made my own mistakes."
He admitted that he made a big mistake in declining the lead in "Patton," believing the film would glorify war and killing. George C. Scott played the role, and it brought him an Academy Award, which he refused.
Steiger had another brush with the Oscar in his early movie career. He had been the leading contender for "Marty" in the role he had created on television. But the producer, Burt Lancaster, wanted the loveless butcher to be a gentle character, and Steiger didn't qualify. Ernest Borgnine won the Oscar in the role.
Steiger played his most famous scene with Brando in 1954's "On the Waterfront." As the two brothers ride in the rear of a taxi, Brando castigates Steiger for making him throw a boxing match: "I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender."
Rodney Stephen Steiger was born April 14, 1925, in Westhampton, N.Y., the only child of a struggling song-and-dance team that parted soon after his birth. His mother married again, and the boy grew up in a quarrelsome household in Newark, N.J.
"I left home at 15 because my family had been destroyed by alcoholism," he remarked in 1998. Lying about his age, he enlisted in the Navy at 16 and served in the South Pacific.
Back in New Jersey after the war, Steiger worked at a menial job and joined a drama group of office workers. Soon he was studying drama at the New School for Social Research on the G.I. Bill. As a lark, he also studied opera singing.
Steiger moved on to the American Theater Wing and then was accepted into the Actors Studio, joining a class that included Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Kim Stanley.
"Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, the school directors, taught me to act from the inside out," Steiger said in a 1956 interview. "I learned what it means to talk to other persons in the story instead of reading lines in a phony voice." He credited psychoanalysis as an additional aid to his acting education.
Like others of his generation of actors, Steiger earned his seasoning in live television; between 1947 and 1953, he appeared in more than 250 dramas. His film debut came with a minor role in Fred Zinnemann's "Teresa" in 1951.
Three years later, Kazan, Steiger's mentor at the Actors Studio, chose him to play Brando's betraying brother in "On the Waterfront." The result: an Academy Award nomination as supporting actor and the beginning of a long film career.
Steiger established himself as a character actor who could bring power to his often villainous roles. His career crested in 1965 with "The Pawnbroker" as a Jew living a secluded life in Harlem, haunted by memories of his life in a Nazi prison camp. His performance brought him a second Academy Award nomination, and it would remain the film of which he was most proud.
Two years later, he was nominated as the police chief in "In the Heat of the Night." He beat Warren Beatty for "Bonnie and Clyde"; Dustin Hoffman, "The Graduate"; Paul Newman, "Cool Hand Luke"; and Spencer Tracy, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
In accepting his award, he concluded his thanks with a bow to co-star Sidney Poitier "for the pleasure of his friendship which gave me the knowledge and understanding of prejudice to enhance my performance."
A prolific actor, Steiger often made three or four films a year. Among the notable ones: "Al Capone," "Doctor Zhivago," "No Way to Treat a Lady," "The Illustrated Man," "Waterloo," "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," "W.C. Fields and Me," "The Amityville Horror," "The January Man," "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," "Mars Attacks!" and "Shiloh."