actor Rod Steiger keeps busy to keep his demons at bay.
Steiger is among our least heralded national acting treasures. In his great
roles in the 1950s and 1960s, in such films as On the Waterfront, The Pawnbroker, Al Capone, The Loved One, The Sergeant, No Way To Treat a
and his Oscar-winning turn in In the Heat of the Night, he etched a vivid
gallery of outsized American originals that rank with the great screen icons
created by his more popular contemporaries--Brando, Dean, Clift. The stocky
Steiger, who in his prime somewhat resembled Richard Burton trapped in Charles
Laughton's body, may not have had his peers' sexy, rebellious youth appeal, but
like them he brought a new sensitivity and detail to screen
characterization--at least partly owing to the revolution in acting engendered
by the Method.
there was something else in Steiger's performances--a dark streak of solitude
and yearning that comes through even in lighter roles like his brilliant
Capone, his gum-smacking Gillespie in Heat of the Night, even his wary Jud in Oklahoma! This profound and
terrible loneliness had its fullest expression in his early television role in
Paddy Chayefsky's original Marty, in his performance as the embittered Holocaust
survivor of The Pawnbroker, in his fiercely funny portrait of a
role-playing psycho killer in No Way To Treat a Lady--and in fact took its
toll on Steiger's real life. Prone to withdrawal and brooding ever since his
childhood in Newark, NJ, when his alcoholic mother often left him to fend for
himself, he was diagnosed with clinical depression in the 1980s and didn't see
steady work for years.
medication, and a new dedication to his craft brought him back to the screen in
1994's The Specialist. He later appeared in Tim Burton's B-movie parody Mars
and in the charming dog film Shiloh. And he's been working regularly since: He recently
wrapped work in Crazy in Alabama with Melanie Griffith, directed by Antonio
Banderas, and will appear in such upcoming films as Body & Soul, a remake of the John
Garfield jazz noir flick; The Red Door with Stockard Channing; Legacy with
David Hasselhoff; Animals, a film with Tim Roth and John Turturro that
played at Sundance this year, and Revenant with Casper Van Dien.
Stage West/Drama-Logue sat down with the voluble acting legend at his home in
Malibu, where he's lived for decades. Now 73, he remains a strong, not to say
formidable presence, with a magisterial manner that suggests Brando and a
bemused, wizened voice that occasionally recalls W.C. Fields (whom he played in
the 1976 biopic W.C. Fields and Me).
Stage West/Drama-Logue: In an interview a few years back, you referred to your role
in The Specialist as a big commercial to Hollywood that you were still around. Did
that work for you?
What happened was, I went to see one of the 3,000 vice presidents at a studio;
I had been sick and hadn't been working for a while. And he said, "Can you
do a Southern accent?" And I didn't know what to say. If I was younger, I
would have left, but I'm not, and you gotta do certain compromises when you get
older. So I said, "Well, I got an Academy Award with a Southern accent for
In the Heat of the Night. Did you see the picture?" He said no. Now, he didn't
have to see it, but he should have been aware of it.
I came home and I said to my ex-wife, "I have to get a Hollywood picture.
I gotta get something that's like a commercial so they remember who the hell I
am." And out of left field I got to do The Specialist. That played in 122
countries--that ain't a bad commercial. That's what I needed, and that kind of
woke up people and scripts started coming a little faster.
I've been busy. I insisted on keeping myself busy to make sure I didn't have
too long a period to get depressed or worried again. Sometimes, you know, you
can't be as selective with material. Sometimes it's for monetary reasons. In
this case, it was for keeping myself in shape mentally. And now I seem to have
done it, to some degree.
BSW/D-L: You recently went to a
special 30th anniversary screening of a restored print of In the Heat of the
at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, with Sidney Poitier,
Norman Jewison, Walter Mirisch. How does that film hold up for you?
Steiger: The thing in In the
Heat of the Night I was proud of: The character wasn't that funny on the page. But
I improvised a great deal, I paraphrased a great deal. See, I believe the actor
should be free to change anything except the cue and the thought of the line.
You wanna say, "Come in, sit down, have a chair," and the next take
you wanna keep it free, so you say, "Why don't you sit down?" or
"Come on, sit down--that's a nice shirt, where'd you get that?"
Because I know if I can keep it a little spontaneous, it'll seem that way on
the print they finally do. But it isn't easy; I've watched people try to do it
and we wind up in left field because they don't do it within the framework of
the scene that the playwright has presented.
a good director like Sidney Lumet or Jack Smight or Elia Kazan (who I don't
have any respect for since he sold his friends in Washington)--they all were
actors, so they create what they're going to shoot out of what the rehearsals
are, whereas the bad directors come in with a whole idea. There's no doubt you
have to have certain things in your mind--I'd like to have a close-up here, I
want to go in closer there--but what you're gonna shoot should come out of the
BSW/D-L: You're associated with
Steiger: Well, there really
isn't any such thing as the Method; there are certain principles. No. 1 is
self-involvement--a true awareness of what you are, not what you think you are,
and then involvement of that particular whatever-you-are. And that's hard to
do. I remember when I was a young actor, I had a wonderful teacher from the
Moscow Art Theatre, Ricon Ben-Ari. He was about 70 years old, and he couldn't
communicate in English too well, but if you had half a brain you knew what he
was talking about. I had an ability to improvise--I used to get up and do blank
verse poems, improvise 'em as a scene, and I thought I was doing great. And he
had two words which always killed me: After the scene was over, I looked at
him, and if he said, (Russian accent) "Very teatrical," I knew I was
day I did a scene, and I thought, There's gotta be another way to pick up a
telephone. All of a sudden I think of Will Rogers and his lariat, so instead of
picking up the phone, I pick up the wire and I swing and I catch it. Everybody
thought I was a genius, and I come over to my teacher and he says, "Very
teatrical. But I like to see you." Now, the young actor doesn't have
enough experience to know what he's talking about, so he begins to argue:
"Well, that's me up there, isn't it? Isn't that me talking, isn't that me
moving?" And of course, if the guy's a good teacher, he'll say, "No,
that's either what you think you are or would like to be, but it ain't
you." And you don't quite understand, you know?
one day I was doing this scene and I had this (stentorian diction), "Now
look, Charles, we've gotta get this guy (breaks into conversational tone) and
you tell the son of a bitch " And I heard it. I heard my voice. There
might be better ones or worse ones; this was mine. Then I understood what he
meant when he said, "I would like to see you." That discovery gives
you a chance to be personally involved, more than if you try to unconsciously
present an image of what you'd like people to see. That was the basis of,
whatever you want to call it, the Method--that you are personally involved with
the fictitious situations the playwright presents.
BSW/D-L: What's striking about a
lot of your best roles is the way you convey solitude and loneliness.
Steiger: It's related to my
past. My family was destroyed by alcohol, and I'd be, like, three days in the
house alone when I was about nine, and it was the old cornflakes-without-milk
stuff. It's like osmosis: I experienced it, it's part of me, I carry it around.
Even to this day, there are certain moments where I seem to enjoy loneliness.
But I also have the joy of knowing that, upon desiring to enter the world
again, I can do it; before I couldn't. I was just a kid.
BSW/D-L: There's one moment in No
Way To Treat a Lady in which your character screams, "You will not dishonor my
mother! You will not!" That emotional moment just pops out from that film.
Steiger: Well, that probably had
a lot to do with my past and my relationship with my mother, sure. The moment I
had in No Way To Treat a Lady that I never wanna have again is, I come to the
phone after I kill a woman and I say, "Guess who this is. This is me. I
did it again, I've been a bad boy. I've done it, I've destroyed her, that
filthyÉ" And I went on, and whatever anger I must have had, or resentment
I had--that must have been where the mother thing came in--it's in the picture.
When I finished the scene, there was this very heavy instinctive silence that
comes when the other animals are extremely aware of the pain of another animal;
it was like space suddenly had a voice. Everybody ceased to be professional for
about 10 seconds. I remember the director said, "Are you all right?"
And other people said, "You want a drink of water? You want to sit
down?" I never wanna have that happen again. It was frightening.
to me is exploring life in front of an audience--and that takes a lot of guts.
Sometimes the safari gets lost, and you look like an idiot. But oh, when you
hit something! The moments people remember are the moments the actor remembers
probably better--when something happens in the scene because he allows himself
to try to participate as fully as possible, and something happens to him and
his life for a split second that he never dreamed of. It's like an unexpected
orgasm--bang! all of a sudden, and you say, Jesus! That don't happen every day.
That's what I call the narcotics of acting: Once you get hit with that, you're
hooked. You want that again. You may not get it for five years, you may get it
the next day, you may never get it again.
BSW/D-L: I've read that you made
a choice to train for two years in the early '50s rather than seek work right
away, and that the G.I. Bill was what gave you the wherewithal.
Steiger: I never would have been
an actor without the G.I. Bill. This woman in civil service suggested, after I
did two little plays in a theatre group they organized in the government office
where I was working, that I should study. At that time I wouldn't have even
thought of being an actor, but I'd been in the Navy four and a half years, and
she said, "So you've got four years." I was a young guy, I thought,
Well, four years, I can fool around, the government's going to pay--I'll say
I'm an actor! Why not? I can bum around, I get $85 a week. So I went to the New
School for Social Research and I auditioned, and I got in.
BSW/D-L: What would you tell a
young actor starting out today?
Steiger: I have people come up
to me and say, "How do I become a TV star?" I say, "Grow two
legs and a tail, call yourself Lassie." Seriously, when a young actor
comes up to me and says, "I want to be an actor," I say, "Do you
wanna be, or do you need to be?" And I can tell by the length of the pause
how much this guy wants or needs. If he says, "Need to be," he's
absolutely right--he needs this feeling of creating in this particular form,
'cause it makes him feel more complete and his life more interesting. If he
says, "Want to be," I say to him, "Yeah, who wouldn't want to be
Beethoven or Picasso? I would like to be that, too."
a young guy comes to me and he's about 18 or 19 and he wants to be an actor, I
tell him, "Join the Merchant Marines for a year." And he looks at me
like, What the hell is wrong with you? But my experience in the Navy, with 283
different men on the ship--different countries, different views--was one of the
best educations you can have. Just to get into something like that, and for a
year or so develop and see what other people look like, smell like, see what
the hell's going on. For women, I suggest they try to help in emergency wards
or something. Then you're about 20, and then you can start.
every profession it takes a great length of time to organically have knowledge
of what was intellectually presented; that takes time, and anybody who tries to
take a shortcut may dazzle you for a couple of years. That's why I say another
of my great aphorisms: Longevity is the depth of the talent. I believe that to the
core of my soul. I made a good choice, because I said when I started, "I'm
not going to take a job for two years. If a mechanic has to learn a motor, hey
" And what happened was, after about a year and a half, people were
talking, "Did you see this kid?" And one day Fred Coe, of the Philco
Goodyear Playhouse, called and offered me a four-line part.
the trick. It seems that the words slow and gentle apply to anything--your
ambitions, particularly. Take it easy. Be gentle. If you got something, it'll
come out, and if you don't, that'll come out, too. Of course, the trouble is,
to avoid defeat we as human beings will lie to ourselves as long possible, in
any profession, in any walk of life: "I'm not sick. Don't tell me I'm
sick," and all of a sudden they're burying the bastard.