The makings of a tough guy
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Rod Steiger's license plate sums up his goals for life. It reads simply: "COURAGE." The actor who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the redneck sheriff in "In the Heat of the Night" has overcome a series of obstacles, beginning with a devastating childhood. He was a ninth grade dropout, frantically studying acting at three different schools in New York, when Elia Kazan cast him in the role that changed his life: Marlon Brando's brother Charlie in "On the Waterfront."Skip to next paragraph
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It was from Kazan that he learned one kind of courage. "Once he picked a person for a part, he had faith enough to encourage him . . . try to perform at the highest level of [his] abilities. And he gave them a feeling of doing it by themselves, which wasn't quite true. But that respect he gave you . . . the courage to be wrong, and that's very important in life as well as acting."
Steiger has tackled some of the toughest roles on film, from Mussolini and Al Capone to Napoleon and W. C. Fields. One critic, David Thomson, describes his specialty as "playing compelling, personal heavies."
Steiger hears that word and begins to rumble like a volcano: "Well, I don't like that word 'heavies.' I've done strong characters and people. I've done few villains. I did [some] in the beginning. That was a passionate and strong figure [Komarovsky] in 'Dr. Zhivago,' but what did he do wrong? . . . Al Capone's another thing. He's an out-and-out villain. Stanley [in "The Big Knife"] is an out-and-out villain. But 'The Sergeant,' 'The Pawnbroker,' Pope John [he played the pontiff in "There Came a Man," an Italian production], Napoleon [in "Waterloo"], Andrei Vishinsky [in "You Are There"] -- they're strong, compelling people. I hope I did 'em strong and compelling, but there's no villainy. Napoleon, I suppose, the English would always classify as a villain."
Outside, in the balmy, 76-degree day that passes for winter in Beverly Hills, the sun is shining on palm trees and the exotic orange flowers called "birds of paradise." Inside, in the celebrated gloom of the Brown Derby restaurant, Rod Steiger is talking about how acting helped him overcome the dark side of his life.
"Whatever frustrations I've had, I've always maintained that I'm lucky I'm in a profession that lets me ventilate my emotions."
He believes that "otherwise, I'd be one of those nasty bums that gets drunk on the street corner. . . . So I got into this [acting], and then all my needs for whatever I wanted to let out just found their way out -- different parts, different ways."
He is sitting bolt upright, spine stiff as the sergeant he once played in the film of that title, in a crescent-shaped booth of maroon leather. Behind him is a potted palm. On the dim, vanilla walls of the restaurant are pictures of film stars, from Emil Jennings to Liza Minnelli. It is 2 p.m., and Rod Steiger has just had brunch, diet brunch, as he says with a sigh -- eggs and tomatoes.
He is a big, gray-haired, heavily muscled man, whose torso is long in proportion to his legs. He stands about six feet in his sneakers, brown denim pants, and open-necked navy cotton sports shirt with a pattern of small red squares.
As Rod Steiger talks there is the sense of a performance that he, too, is watching. He told a TV interviewer here in Los Angeles that he tends to dramatize himself, his experiences. His face with its looming, dark-brown eyes and rugged features that look as though they've seen a fight or two, is not that of a matinee idol. His expression is often a mix of wistfulness and flint.