After revisiting Rod Steiger's knockout performance in The Pawnbroker the other day, I decided to take a look back at the career of this occasionally polarizing screen actor. Highly regarded for his early work in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) and the lesser-known Robert Aldrich film The Big Knife (1955), Steiger also made himself known to audiences in the film version of Oklahoma! (1955) as well as the David Lean epic Doctor Zhivago (1965).
He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967), an honor that seemed more befitting his dramatic turn as a German Jew Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker (1964). Interestingly enough, Steiger was not Jewish in real life. He was raised a Lutheran by his alcoholic mother, a former vaudevillian. Steiger ran away at 16 and joined the Navy where he saw action in the Pacific on board a destroyer during WWII.
His career in show business began like many screen actors of his generation on stage and television. One of his earliest successes was the title role in the teleplay Marty, written by future Network (1976) scribe Paddy Chayefsky. It was adapted into a feature film a couple years later starring Ernest Borgnine (Steiger turned down the film) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture as well as the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
He would go on to lend support in many films, as well as play Al Capone, Napoleon Bonaparte, W. C. Fields and Pontius Pilate. Memorable roles in The Illustrated Man (1969) and The Amityville Horror (1979) also came knocking. He famously turned down the lead role in Patton (1970) which went on to win George C. Scott an Oscar for Best Actor (Scott infamously refused the nomination). Two of my all-time favorite Steiger roles were as diverse as an actor can get.
The first was for Sergio Leone in Duck, You Sucker! (1970) where Steiger played a Mexican outlaw. The second was a return to his fictional Jewish roots in The Chosen (1981) playing a strict Hasidic Rebbe. Another must-see for Steiger fans is the Francesco Rosi classic Le mani sulla città aka Hands over the City (1963). Steiger may have been post-dubbed in Italian by another actor, but his portrayal of a corrupt businessman is timeless.
Tim Burton gave him a small role in Mars Attacks! (1996) playing a reactionary general and 1999 saw a brief return to form as a noble judge in Jewison's The Hurricane. Steiger passed away in 2002. He wasn't always revered by everyone as a first rate actor though. Stanley Kubrick refused to work with him when offered the chance to direct The Pawnbroker. Kubrick felt that Steiger wasn't very exciting. I'd give a dollar to know what Kubrick thought of Duck, You Sucker!.
Below are just two Steiger films that I feel deserve special mention and illustrate just how gifted an artist he truly was.
The Loved One (1965)
Based on a short story by Englishman Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), directed by another Englishman Tony Richardson (The Entertainer; Tom Jones) and adapted for the screen by American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove; Easy Rider) and British Author Christopher Isherwood (the Broadway musical Cabaret), this black comedy about the American funeral business set in California has really yet to find its true audience. Featuring a knockout cast including: Jonathan Winters (in dual roles; at this time becoming a Terry Southern staple), John Gielgud (in a terrific supporting part as a flamboyantly gay artist that could only be based on Isherwood himself), Liberace (as a creepy funeral home employee), Roddy McDowell (as a crass movie studio head), Paul Williams (as a rocket obsessed child phenom), Robert Morse (who is currently enjoying a return to the spotlight in his old age on the TV show Mad Men as recurring character Bertram Cooper) and of course Steiger as the looniest nut of them all, Mr Joyboy -- a man slightly preoccupied with cooking for his obese mother. There's at least a dozen other cameos as well. I wish I could say what it was all about, but it takes a definite jab at the British community in Hollywood as well as the movie business. Steiger's brief song and dance about cooking lobster for "Momma" is priceless.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
As I've already stated, Steiger's Oscar win for this film seems a little retroactive to me. He doesn't do much in the film to the untrained eye, but when one considers the amount of screen time he steals simply by saying nothing, or chewing his gum (rather annoyingly at times) it becomes clear that Steiger was simply biding his time and using all the tricks in his actors toolbox to walk away with a picture that essentially belonged to Sidney Poitier. To be fair, Steiger had the harder part. He plays with the Southern caricature he was given with such a deft hand it's hard not to sit back and marvel at the simplicity of his performance. We have to imagine what he's thinking half the time, and from what we know about the South and White Southerners in general at that time, it isn't hard to envision those thoughts. It's when he takes us by surprise, by essentially being a human being (or a shrewd thinker depending on how you look at it), that the character truly becomes indelible. It's hard for me to imagine another actor in this role, though Carroll O'Connor did recreate it to critical acclaim on the long-running television series. While I could see Paul Winfield or Yaphet Kotto playing Tibbs (the Poitier part) it's his foil, Police Chief Gillespie (who eventually finds his conscience) played by Steiger that we ultimately remember most.