A renowned character actor who never liked that label, Rod Steiger left his mark on 1950s and '60s Hollywood with forceful performances in such critical favorites as On the Waterfront (1954) and The Pawnbroker (1964), culminating in an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967). Despite myriad health problems and less sterling job offers from the 1970s onward, Steiger never stopped acting before he passed away in 2002. Born on Long Island, Steiger was raised in New Jersey by his mother after his parents divorced. Dropping out of high school at 16, Steiger enlisted in the Navy in 1941, serving on a destroyer in the World War II South Pacific. Returning to New Jersey after his 1945 discharge, Steiger worked at the Veterans Administration and joined a civil service theater group where one of the female members urged him to make acting his career. Along with using his G.I. Bill to study at several New York schools, including the Actors Studio, Steiger began landing roles in live TV plays in 1947. Over the next five years, Steiger honed his formidable Method skills in 250-plus live TV productions, as well as on Broadway. Though he appeared in the movie Teresa (1951), Steiger didn't fully make the transition to film until his award-winning performance as the lonely title character in the 1953 TV production of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, which helped him nab a part in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. As Charley Malloy, Steiger most memorably shared the backseat of a cab with screen brother Marlon Brando as Brando's ex-boxer Terry laid the blame for his one-way trip to Palookaville on his corrupt older sibling. Though Kazan had guided Steiger to his first Oscar nomination, Steiger later condemned the Academy's controversial decision to award Kazan an honorary Oscar in 1999. After On the Waterfront, Steiger made his presence felt as a movie tycoon in his erstwhile TV director Robert Aldrich's Hollywood tale The Big Knife (1955), a scheming attorney in Otto Preminger's The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), and the villain in Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of Oklahoma! (1955). Further underlining his effusive talent and his intense (if occasionally overwrought) screen style, Steiger co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in Bogart's final film, The Harder They Fall (1956); survived Samuel Fuller-style Western sadism as an Irish-accented ex-soldier in Run of the Arrow (1957); played a psychopath in Cry Terror! (1958); and raged as Al Capone (1959) (Steiger's Capone was later credited as the inadvertent model for Robert De Niro's performance in The Untouchables). Steiger still occasionally acted on-stage, including Orson Welles' unusual adaptation of Moby Dick in 1962. Nevertheless, Steiger concentrated mostly on movies, with his career taking on an international flavor after he married his second wife and Broadway co-star, Claire Bloom, in 1959. After appearing in the low-key British drama The Mark (1961), Steiger joined the impressive Hollywood all-star cast re-staging of D-Day in the war epic The Longest Day (1962). He returned to films after his 1962 theater hiatus as a dishonest politico in the Italian film Le Mani Sulla Città (1963). Steiger's forays into Italian movies preceded two of the best years of his career. In Sidney Lumet's groundbreaking independent drama The Pawnbroker, Steiger's powerful performance as a Holocaust survivor running a Harlem pawnshop earned the Berlin Film Festival's Best Actor prize in 1964 and garnered raves upon the film's 1965 U.S. release. That same year, Steiger also gleefully played the asexual embalmer Mr. Joyboy in Tony Richardson's outrageous comedy The Loved One (1965) and had a small part in David Lean's blockbuster romance Doctor Zhivago (1965). After his banner year resulted in a much-desired Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Pawnbroker, Steiger lost to Lee Marvin. The outcome was different for his next American film, the acclaimed racially charged police drama In the Heat of the Night. Starring opposite Sidney Poitier, Steiger imbued his bigoted Southern sheriff with enough complexity to make him more than just a cliché redneck, reaching a prickly, believable détente with Poitier's sophisticated Northern detective. Nominated alongside youngsters Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman's iconic "Cool Hand" Luke, and venerable lion Spencer Tracy, Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar and closed his acceptance speech by asserting, "We shall overcome." Though he co-starred with Bloom in two films post-In the Heat of the Night, The Illustrated Man (1969) and Three Into Two Won't Go (1969), they divorced in 1969. Steiger won critics' hearts again with his bravura performance as a schizoid serial killer in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968). His antiwar sentiments, however, provoked Steiger to turn down the eponymous World War II general in Patton (1970); Steiger instead played French emperor Napoleon in the European production depicting his defeat at Waterloo (1970). In search of good roles, Steiger mostly worked abroad in the early '70s. Though they clashed over Steiger's Method techniques during production, Steiger was excellent as a peasant caught up in the Mexican Revolution in Sergio Leone's Western Duck, You Sucker! (1972). He also worked with veteran Leone star Gian Maria Volonté in Francesco Rosi's Lucky Luciano (1974), and played Benito Mussolini in the The Last Days of Mussolini (1974). His performance in Claude Chabrol's Dirty Hands (1975), however, fell prey to his tendency to over-emote. Though he was a superb W.C. Fields in American biopic W.C. Fields and Me (1976), Steiger's Hollywood career had undeniably fallen from his 1950s and '60s heights. He shared the screen with new star Sylvester Stallone in one of Stallone's early flops, F.I.S.T. (1978), and chewed the haunted house scenery in schlock horror flick The Amityville Horror (1979). Steiger joined the distinguished cast of the British drama Lion of the Desert (1981) for his second turn as Il Duce, but the film sat on the shelf for two years before its release; appealing Western Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) was buried by its distributor. Steiger was back in peak form as a Hasidic rabbi in the film version of The Chosen (1981), but that did little to stop Steiger's slide into TV movies and such B-horror pictures as The Kindred (1987) and American Gothic (1987) in the 1980s. Steiger's career problems were exacerbated by health difficulties, as he was forced to undergo open-heart surgery in 1976 and 1980. With producers wary of hiring him, and his third marriage ending in 1979, Steiger suffered debilitating bouts of depression in the late '70s and mid-'80s. Nevertheless, Steiger continued to work into the 1990s. Crediting his fourth wife, Paula Ellis, with keeping him sane, Steiger weathered his disappointment with The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991), and took pleasure in appearing as "himself" in Robert Altman's acclaimed Hollywood evisceration The Player (1992) as well as playing Sam Giancana in the TV biopic Sinatra (1992). While he mostly worked in TV, Steiger turned up in small yet memorable feature roles as a Mafia capo in The Specialist (1994), a loony Army commander in Mars Attacks! (1996), a judge in The Hurricane (1999), and a bombastic priest in End of Days (1999). His final film, the indie drama Poolhall Junkies (2002) with Christopher Walken, was slated for release the same year he was one of the indie-friendly actors dining on Jon Favreau's IFC talk show Dinner for Five. Steiger passed away from pneumonia and kidney failure on July 9, 2002. He was survived by his fifth wife, his daughter with Bloom, and his son with Ellis.
Biography by Lucia Bozzola
- Dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Navy; served on the destroyer USS Taussig in the South Pacific during WWII.
- Enrolled in a civil service theater group, mostly to meet women, after being discharged from the Navy in 1945.
- Studied acting in New York at the American Theatre Wing, the Drama Workshop and the Actors Studio.
- Appeared in more than 250 live television productions between 1948 and 1953.
- Won rave reviews for playing the title role in Paddy Chayefsky's TV production of Marty, but turned down the film role (which won Ernest Borgnine an Oscar).
- Turned down the role of Gen. George S. Patton in Patton because he was a pacifist and feared the movie would glorify war.
- Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997.