A career that demands respect
Rod Steiger talks about war, live TV, and the craft of acting
LOS ANGELES — "Beneficent aggression" may seem a contradictory term, but the phrase describes veteran stage and film actor Rod Steiger quite well, particularly now as he reflects on a tumultuous lifetime in Hollywood.
"Anger and terror are two great sources of creativity," says the actor, best known for roles that suggest a fearsome force lurks beneath his barely civilized surface.
The man who has worked with many of Hollywood's biggest names for more than 50 years, and who is an icon in his own right, says that he learned to confront his fears early in life.
"My anger goes way back to a demand for respect," says the New York native. Now the father of a six-year-old boy, Steiger says he resolved at a tender age that the family name would never be treated with disrespect. This lit a fire that has burned in Steiger's roles through one classic film after another. He received Oscar nominations for his work in "On the Waterfront" (1954) and "The Pawnbroker" (1965), and won the statuette for "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), playing a Southern sheriff alongside a young Sidney Poitier.
World War II proved to be another crucible for him. "On board a cruiser in the Pacific Ocean heading into war," he says, "you sure learn how to locate your heart."
Although at the time he hadn't settled on an acting career, Steiger says his years of military service turned out to be invaluable as a deep reserve of observations about human behavior. When he was tapped to play the Southern sheriff in "In the Heat of the Night," he drew on a Deep South accent he'd heard during his service.
By the time he tackled live TV in its early days, the ability, indeed the desire, to experience life as a series of crucibles had become a personal trademark. The dangerous days of live TV were a perfect opportunity to work on the acting craft. "It was make or break," he says, since there were no second takes.
After taping took over, he says, the medium lost its potency for the performer. "Now, the actor doesn't have to keep the fear of failure alive, which dilutes the compression necessary to produce the best results."
As his latest film, "Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season," opens, Steiger remains as passionate as ever about issues of craft and creativity.
"You only have about 20 or so people in a generation with a new vision or voice. What happens to them has to do with the leadership of an entire generation," he says.
In his youth, it was actors such as Montgomery Clift whose work had a "purity that's hard to explain.... [His performances] became a gateway to deeper emotions for all of us."
For a man whose persona has thrived on contained violence, Steiger is remarkably soulful outside his roles. He has never thought of acting as just interpreting writers' words. "The writer gives us the springboard, but we create together," he says.
The performer's biggest concerns today focus on changes brought about by technology. "There is no time for reflection, for thought," he says. "It's all 'time is money, money is time,' but that's not the way great art works."
Only once in his life did he make what he calls a strategic career move. When he took on "The Specialist," a high-tech action picture with Sylvester Stallone, he'd been sidelined for nearly eight years, battling what was diagnosed as clinical depression.
"It was a commercial to get my name out there," he says. "I was never in it for the money."
Steiger is philosophical about whether new technologies may someday allow "digital actors" to entirely replace live ones. He says the accidents that enrich a live performance, and which no machine could ever reproduce, are what ensure a future for human actors as storytellers.
He recalls that during the filming of "All Quiet on the Western Front," a butterfly decided to land on the end of a rifle.
"It's a classic scene that nobody could've written, and it made that moment pure poetry. That," he says, "is why computers will never take over for human beings."