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Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger

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Also Known As: Rodney Stephen Steiger Died: July 9, 2002
Born: April 14, 1925 Cause of Death: died from pneumonia and kidney failure
Birth Place: Westhampton, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... actor
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BIOGRAPHY

Alongside Marlon Brando and James Dean, Rod Steiger helped redefine film acting in America after World War II. The brooding actor found success as the lovelorn butcher "Marty" (1953) on live television, but lost the film role to Ernest Borgnine. In the ensuing years, Steiger racked up a résumé of incendiary film appearances, as Brando's gangster brother in "On the Waterfront" (1954), as a prairie psychopath in "Oklahoma!" (1955), and as an embittered Civil War veteran who goes native in "Run of the Arrow" (1957). Lured to Europe for roles of greater depth than those Hollywood offered, Steiger returned stateside to play Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" (1964) and won an Academy Award as a bigoted Southern lawman who comes to respect black colleague Sidney Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night" (1967). His star wattage dimming with the failure of "The Sergeant" (1968), in which Steiger played a decorated soldier who has buried his homosexuality, and of Sergei Bondarchuk's epic "Waterloo" (1970), in which he appeared as Napoleon Bonaparte, Steiger embraced character roles. Plagued by depression, Steiger maintained a punishing workload, playing priests, judges, army generals, presidents, doctors and mobsters on cinema and television screens, at home and abroad. At the time of his death in 2002, Steiger was honored as a flawed but fascinating personality, an uncompromising artist whose love of craft inspired generations of cinematic angry young men.

Rodney Steven Steiger was born on April 14, 1925, in Westhampton, NY. The only child of vaudeville performers, Steiger never knew his father, Frederick, who deserted the family shortly after his birth. Raised in Newark, NJ by his single mother, the former Lorraine Driver, whose Lutheran faith was a poor bulwark against depression and alcoholism, Steiger dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to join the U.S. navy during World War II. After seeing action in the Pacific Theater, he returned stateside, where he landed a job oiling check-cashing machine parts through the Civil Service. Interested in meeting girls, Steiger joined a local social club that needed men to perform in its amateur plays. Encouraged by his peers, Steiger headed to New York City, using the GI Bill of Rights to enroll in classes at The New School's Dramatic Workshop, where he studied with Actor's Studio cofounder Stella Adler.

Steiger made his Broadway debut in December 1950, in the small role of a townsman in the Actor's Studio revival of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," which ran for 36 performances at the Broadhurst Theater. He was given more to do in his next outing on the Great White Way, in a revival of Clifford Odets' "Night Music" at the ANTA Theater, although the production closed after only a week. In Hugh Hastings' wartime drama "Seagulls Over Sorrento," Steiger played a telegraph operator, but the American premiere of the British West End hit closed after only a dozen performances. Steiger's luck was better in the burgeoning medium of live television, where he had the starring role in "Marty" (1953), a drama by Paddy Chayefsky broadcast on "The Goodyear Television Playhouse" (NBC, 1948-1955). Steiger's raw, deeply-felt performance as a lonely Bronx butcher who finds love in middle-age made his career.

Steiger turned down the role he had originated on TV in Delbert Mann's feature film adaptation of "Marty" (1955) due to his refusal to sign a limiting long-term contract. While replacement Ernest Borgnine snagged the 1956 Academy Award for Best Actor in "Marty," Steiger pushed ahead through a string of memorable film appearances. He was Marlon Brando's mobster brother in Elia Kazan's incendiary "On the Waterfront" (1954) and a venal Hollywood studio chief in Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife" (1955), adapted from the play by Clifford Odets. He was a singing sociopath in Fred Zinnemann's CinemaScope musical "Oklahoma!" (1955), but engendered sympathy as a Confederate soldier who chooses to live among the Plains Indians after the Civil War in Sam Fuller's "Run of the Arrow" (1957). One of only a handful of Hollywood films to treat with sympathy the plight of the Native American, "Run of the Arrow" reflected Steiger's liberal, humanist politics, which often put him through his long career at odds with cutthroat studio presidents and autocratic film directors.

After playing Chicago crime kingpin "Al Capone" (1959) for Allied Artists Pictures and helping Edward G. Robinson rob a Monte Carlo casino in "Seven Thieves" (1960), Steiger enjoyed a run of good guy roles that provided the actor with a low-key alternative to his trademark escalating bombast. In "The Mark" (1961), Steiger was effective as a psychologist who attempts to reform pedophile Stuart Whitman. In "13 West Street" (1962), his even-keeled police detective counseled star Alan Ladd from turning to vigilantism in the aftermath of a violent attack. He was on his worst behavior again as the sadistic prison guard Tiptoes in Millard Kaufman's "Convicts 4" (1962) and traveled to Italy to play a corrupt real estate developer in Francesco Rosi's "Hands over the City" (1963) and a lothario romancing aristocrat Paulette Goddard and daughter Claudia Cardinale in Francesco Masselli's "Time of Indifference" (1964).

Having toggled between leading man and supporting roles through the first decade of his acting career, Steiger returned to the United States as a bone fide movie star. He received an Academy Award nomination for playing "The Pawnbroker" (1964) for Sidney Lumet, an elderly Holocaust survivor who reflects on the tragedies of the past as he navigates an uncertain and unpromising future. Steiger followed this intense performance with a giddy cameo as Mr. Joyboy, a Hollywood funeral parlor embalmer in "The Loved One" (1965), Tony Richardson's all-star adaptation of the satiric novel by Evelyn Waugh. In David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), Steiger filled out the bottom third of a doomed Revolution-era love triangle alongside Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), as a small town Southern sheriff who must team with Sidney Poitier's visiting African-American detective to solve a murder case.

Steiger followed his Oscar-winning performance, a study in down-home irascibility, by playing a serial killer with serious mother issues in Paramount's Broadway-set black comedy "No Way to Treat a Lady" (1968), directed by Jack Smight. One of Steiger's more undervalued film appearances, the role allowed Steiger to appear in a variety of disguises throughout and to poke fun at his own theatrical volatility. The actor lobbied hard to win the title role of John Flynn's "The Sergeant" (1968), a career soldier and decorated World War II veteran who falls in love with handsome new recruit John Phillip Law while overseeing operations at an army fuel depot in rural France. Steiger worked again with Smight in "The Illustrated Man" (1968), as a heavily-tattooed vagrant whose skin art prompts a triptych of chilling tales. Adapted from the novel by Ray Bradbury, the production allowed Steiger to appear alongside second wife Claire Bloom, although the couple divorced the following year.

Refusing the title role in "Patton" (1970), Steiger chose instead to appear as Napoleon Bonaparte in Sergei Bondarchuk's "Waterloo" (1970), a noble box office failure that nonetheless netted the actor a million dollar paycheck. Though he lobbied exhaustively, in his mid-forties, to play the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972), Paramount executives turned down his request for a screen test. Branded as a difficult actor often not worth the trouble, Steiger returned to Europe to play a Mexican revolutionary in Sergio Leone's "Duck, You Sucker!" (1971), Benito Mussolini in Carlo Lizzani's "The Last 4 Days" (1974), and an Irish family man who becomes a terrorist after his family is slain by British troops in Don Sharp's "Hennessy" (1975). Back in the States, the actor was an inspired choice to play W. C. Fields in Arthur Hiller's "W.C. Fields and Me" (1976) but a bout with depression following open heart surgery reduced him to supporting roles in Norman Jewison's "F.I.S.T." (1978) and Stuart Rosenberg's "The Amityville Horror" (1979). Steiger was Old West lawman Bill Tilghman in Lamont Johnson's Western "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981). Working in support of lead actresses Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane, Steiger dialed down his trademark bombast to sell the weariness of a career lawman who has grown old chasing Burt Lancaster's wily outlaw Bill Doolin.

He brought a similar quiet intensity to his role as a Hassidic Jew in Jeremy Kagan's "The Chosen" (1981), an adaptation of the novel by Chaim Potok. Having based his performance on childhood memories of growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, Steiger was honored with a Best Actor award at the 1981 Montreal World Film Festival. He spent the balance of the decade jobbing from film to film, lending his considerable gravitas to such unworthy exploitation films as "The Kindred" (1987), "American Gothic" (1988) and "Guilty as Charged" (1991), invariably as unyielding authority figures. In 1997, Steiger received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the last decade of his life, Steiger bounced between playing mobsters - in such films as "The Specialist" (1994) with Sylvester Stallone and the made-for-TV "Sinatra" (1992) - or military men, as in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" (1996) and a 1998 episode of the animated sitcom "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ), in which he provided the voice of submarine commander Captain Tenille. Steiger's last feature film role was in Mars Callahan's "Poolhall Junkies" (2002), which went into limited release only a month before his death on July 9, 2002, from pneumonia kidney failure after undergoing cancer surgery.

By Richard Harland Smith

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