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."
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.
Flashes of menace have characterized Steiger's 30-year acting career. Like Hitchcock and Truffaut, he was locked up briefly as a child in a jail cell. Both filmmakers have pointed to the effects of that early fright in making their thrillers. Does Rod Steiger feel that or any other menacing experience has had an effect on his outlook as an actor?
"Just the menace of a disappearing family, that's enough," says Steiger. "That was a shock."
He was born Rodney Stephen Steiger in Westhampton, Long Island, N.Y., to parents who split up before he was a year old. Both his mother and father had sung and danced in a grandparents' roadhouse. He never saw or heard from his father. He remembers with affection a stepfather who was a sewing machine salesman. But when Steiger was 12, his stepfather wrote a note saying he was just going down to the corner -- and never came back. When his home was broken up by his mother's bouts with alcoholism, he found himself on his own at 12. He was living with a friend's family at 16, when he decided to join the Navy and coerced his mother into signing papers giving him permission.
When Steiger came back at 21 from World War II as a Navy torpedoman, he found his mother had had the courage to face her problem. She had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and straightened herself out so that "she never took a drop again." In talking about her, Steiger says, "My main point is that I grew to love and respect her. . . . When I came back [from the Navy] she did everything. Finally I had to stop her one day in the kitchen and say, 'You had a problem, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate and respect the courage it took for you to overcome it. Stop apologizing.'
"She used to apologize in many ways -- by three eggs on the plate instead of two -- you know, that's show you apologize -- 'Is everything all right? Is the coffee okay? Is the milk all right?' And one morning . . . I said, 'Momma, you don't have to apologize now.'
"I was too young to understand before that you're a person first and a parent second, just as you're a person first and a child second."
He remembers, too, his "greatest crime," in a childhood in which the family was on relief. "I was hungry, and I was in this corner delicatessen. I was about 10 or 11 years old. And I stole a package of Drake's oatmeal cookies. I'll never forget this till the day I die. I put them under my sweatshirt, and I was halfway out the door, and I felt this hand stop me. I felt like this is the end -- I'm going to the chair.
"And what happened is: the cellophane on the cookies made noise . . . and the store owner said, 'Well, I don't know if we should send you to jail or not. We may call the police and put you up for life.' You know he scared . . . me.
Then the store owner said he'd let the boy go this time. Steiger stops for a moment, thinks back. "That may be why I went to jail. That may be why my [ stepfather] took me. . . ." And then he tells of spending 20 minutes locked in a padded jail cell in Bloomfield, N.J., to see what it was like.
Smiling at the memory of the delicatessen he says, "I never got over that hand going BOOM [on his shoulder]. I figured, 'There goes the world . . . John Dillinger is caught with a Drake's cookie.'"
Listening to Rod Steiger is a little like listening to "The Illustrated Man," the anti-hero of 1968 the Ray Bradbury tale in which Steiger starred. He shocks and charms and chills and makes you laugh; he is a good, though sometimes disconcerting, storyteller. While "The Illustrated Man" was tattooed from shoulder to toe with "skin illustrations," scenes which are acted out before the camera eye, Steiger's life as an actor seems invisibly etched with scenes, like those from his childhood.
He stumbled into acting after the war, when he took a civil service job, at which several of the workers belonged to a theater group after hours. Steiger had never seen a live play when he joined and was cast as the king of Troy in what he remembers as "a terrible play -- called "Helena's Husband."
The director of the play, watching, him act for the first time, said, "You should take it seriously." Steiger recalls saying, "Well I don't know. How do you take this seriously?" She said, "You go to school." Steiger remembers, "I said, 'Well, I don't have the money,' and she said, 'What about the GI Bill of Rights?'"
So he quit his $85 a week civil-service job and enrolled, with his usual intensity, in three acting schools. At one time he was studying simultaneously at the dramatic workshop of the New School for Social Research, at Elia Kazan's Actors Studio, and the American Theater Wing. He also appeared on stage at least once a week at each.
From the start he loved acting. "In the whole thing of going to school and rehearsing and working like that, I felt more completely 'alive.' My days were occupied with this exciting adventure, so I never had a feeling of boredom or wasting my time.' He refused to take a job all the time he was studying his craft, so that he'd have the right foundation when the first break came.
"I finally did get a chance when I originated 'Marty' on television, which ironically I got because of a blacklisting during the McCarthy period of a fine actor named Marty Ritt [now a director, who made "Hud" and "Sounder"] who was supposed to play Marty.
"And through his misfortune i got to do Marty, and then Mr. Kazan said, 'Why don't you read with Budd Schulberg [author of "On the Waterfront"], read the taxi scene, and then maybe if he likes you, you can do "Waterfront."' And then one thing followed the other after that. . . ."
Which of all the roles he's played, from the Hemingway figure in "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" to the "Heat of the Night" sheriff, is most like his own personality?
"I don't know. But the one that took me longest to get over was W. C. Fields [in "W. C. fields and Me"]. Someone very close to me at the time said, 'I think there's a lot about you and Fields that's the same.' I was kind of reclusive, by myself a lot."
Steiger talks about the question Fields was once asked in a film: "How do you like children?" And he said, "Fried or boiled," quotes Steiger in a perfect imitation of Fields's gravelly wheeze.
Does Steiger loathe children and dogs, as Fields reportedly did?
"What would I have done with my daughter?" he asks. "I would have boiled or fried her a long time ago. . . ."
Steiger's 20-year-old daughter, Anna Justine, by his first marriage to English beauty Claire Bloom, is studying piano and voice at the Guild Hall in London. "And she's going on to opera," he says, "which is a big surprise to me."
He and Claire Bloom appeared together on Broadway in "Rashomon" and in two films, "Three into Two Won't Go" and "The Illustrated Man." He says, "I think marriage is difficult for two people in the same profession. If one starts to get a little lucky or something -- I used to think it . . . didn't make a bit of difference -- but it . . . does. One day she's introduced as so and so's wife, and the next day you're introduced as so and so's husband. It's like two horses coming down the stretch," says Steiger. "One gets his head ahead a little bit, then the other pulls ahead. There is a competitive thing in human beings, I'm afraid."
It was in 1976, following the breakup of his second marriage (to Sherry Nelson), his loss of a hoped-for film role, and an operation viewed as serious that Steiger says he battled deep depression.
He remembers, "I was doing 'F.I.S.T.' at the time, and suddenly I thought I couldn't act any more. I never told [director] Norman Jewison till the picture was over. He said 'I never knew it.' I said, 'Well, let me tell you, Im knew it.'"
It was when he pulled himself up out of that depression that a friend borrowed his car one day and returned it with the "COURAGE" license plate as a surprise.
"Every time I see that license plate it still gives me a lift," says Steiger. Because he believes that therapy was instrumental in helping him through that difficult period, he is now trying to help others with similar problems. He is studying therapy as an intern in a mental health clinic in Los Angeles and devoting several hours a week to encouraging people who are struggling to overcome their problems.
"The thing is to be fairly articulate and to have some kind of compassion," he says. "If you have some kind of compassion for people you're all right . . . . It does no good . . . to point out the weaknesses in a person and give them a label and then walk away."
In his volunteer work he tries to give what he's found most helpful in terms of encouragement: "I need some stroking, boy. I need the pat on the back and the hug. I need to know that the person likes me, cares about me getting better."
Steiger himself snapped back with determination from his bout with depression and the fear of loss of talent: He's recently done five films in a row: "Break Through," "The Amityville Horror," "Cattle Annie and Little Britches," "Love and Bullets, Charlie," and "Omar Mukhtar."
In his next, "The Lucky Star," he plays a Nazi officer in Holland during World War II who is kidnapped by a Jewish boy. The boy is so steeped in westerns that he pretends his occupation star of David is a sheriff's badge. The film, which also stars Louise Fletcher, is inexplicably being shot in Canada.
The actor is hoping, too, that he'll be playing one of his heroes, Ludwig van Beethoven, with Rudolph Nureyev and Dominique Sanda in a film to be shot next fall in Germany. Beethoven's Ninth is one of the favorite symphonies of this man who also has a fondness for Dostoyevsky, Thomas Wolfe, the French bean and sausage dish called cassoulet, e.e. cummings, swimming, W. H. Auden, jazz, and tennis.
Like half of the Hollywood community, Steiger has written a few unproduced scripts. He would also like to direct his own films and talks candidly about that:
"Yeah, I want to direct. But I have a lot of trouble there, because there are too many games you have to play in this town to become a director. What games? Well, I mean lunches with people who don't like you, and you don't like them, and the type of material they're doing these days. I'd rather do a serious story about a relationship between two people, instead of these big special-effects movies. . . ."
If Steiger could have a freeze frame of his favorite moment from one of his films it would be "the silent scream in 'The Pawnbroker,' which wasn't in the script. I was supposed to let out a yell there [at the death of the boy in the film], and all of a sudden, right in the middle of [shooting the scene] something told me, 'Don't -- open your mouth, but don't make a sound.' And it became a stronger scream than if I'd screamed. I've had people say, 'What do you mean, you didn't scream? I heardm you scream.' I say, 'You want to bet?'
"And that was in front of the camera -- that was not in rerehearsal. That's when acting gets exciting. It gets exciting for everybody . . . when the actor discovers something beautiful, whether tragic or comic, in front of the audience , at the same time the audience does."