August 06, 1998


Lightning Rod

Veteran actor Rod Steiger keeps busy to keep his demons at bay.


by Rob Kendt


Rod 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 Lady, 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.


But 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.


Therapy, 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 Attacks! 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.


Back 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).


Back 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?


Rod Steiger: 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.

So 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.

So 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 Night 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.

And 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 rehearsal.


BSW/D-L: You're associated with Method acting


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 in trouble.

One 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?

Then 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.

Acting 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."

If 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.

In 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.

That's 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.