Rod Steiger, who starred in `On the Waterfront' and `In the Heat of the Night,' dies at 77

Wednesday, July 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Rod Steiger brought out the best in his co-stars, so much so that frequent collaborator Norman Jewison tried to fit the stocky actor into all his movies.

``I always tried to put him in every film I did because to me, he was like an anchor for the rest of the cast. He was so deeply committed,'' Jewison said.

Steiger died Tuesday at a Los Angeles hospital from pneumonia and kidney failure, which developed after he had a gall bladder removed, said his publicist, Lori DeWaal. He was 77.

He won the best-actor Oscar in 1967 for ``In the Heat of the Night,'' in which he played a bigoted lawman who grudgingly becomes the ally of a visiting black detective portrayed by Sidney Poitier. The film remains a riveting portrait of racial tension during the civil rights era.

Steiger also earned acclaim for his portrayal of Marlon Brando's hoodlum brother in ``On the Waterfront.'' The 1954 hit about racketeering on the New York and New Jersey docks in the 1950s features one of the greatest exchanges ever put on film. As the two brothers ride in the back of a taxi, Brando castigates Steiger for making him throw a boxing match: ``I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender.''

The film won seven Academy Awards, including honors for Brando and director Elia Kazan. Steiger had to make do with an Oscar nomination.

Steiger was a devotee of Method acting _ a style in which the actor strives for close personal identification with the role being played. He had more than 100 movie and television credits, portraying such figures as Mussolini, Napoleon, Rasputin, Pope John XXIII, Rudolf Hess, W.C. Fields and Al Capone.

``Rod was a lion of a man,'' said Jewison, director of ``In the Heat of the Night.'' Steiger also costarred in Jewison's ``F.I.S.T.'' and ``The Hurricane.''

Longtime friend Ray Bradbury, whose fantasy novel ``The Illustrated Man'' was adapted into a movie that featured Steiger, said he had worried the actor might lose out on the Oscar for ``In the Heat of the Night.'' Steiger faced a formidable field of competitors: Warren Beatty, ``Bonnie and Clyde''; Dustin Hoffman, ``The Graduate''; Paul Newman, ``Cool Hand Luke''; Spencer Tracy, ``Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.''

``So I prepared a special champagne bottle with gold decorations and addressed it as my own Oscar,'' Bradbury said. ``I thanked God when he got on the stage and picked up his Oscar that he would have my bottle of champagne waiting at home as a double dividend.''

Steiger also received an Oscar nomination for the 1965 film ``The Pawnbroker.'' He played a Jew living a secluded life in Harlem, haunted by memories of his life in a Nazi camp. It was the film of which he was most proud.

``Rod was one of the greatest actors of our time,'' said Sylvester Stallone, who worked with Steiger in ``F.I.S.T.'' and ``The Specialist.''

''`The legend' is now legend, and I'll miss him,'' said Pierce Brosnan, who costarred with Steiger in ``Mars Attacks!''

Rodney Stephen Steiger was born April 14, 1925, in Westhampton, N.Y., the only child of a struggling song-and-dance team that parted soon after his birth. His mother married again, and the boy grew up in a quarrelsome household in Newark, N.J.

``I left home at 15 because my family had been destroyed by alcoholism,'' he said in 1998. Lying about his age, he enlisted in the Navy at 16 and served in the South Pacific.

Back in New Jersey after the war, Steiger was soon studying drama at the New School for Social Research. He was accepted into the Actors Studio, joining a class that included Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Kim Stanley.

``I learned what it means to talk to other persons in the story instead of reading lines in a phony voice,'' he said in a 1956 interview. He also credited psychoanalysis as an aid to his acting.

Like other actors of his generation, Steiger was seasoned in live television; between 1947 and 1953, he appeared in more than 250 dramas.

He created the title role of the loveless butcher in the TV production of ``Marty.'' But when it was turned into a movie, producer Burt Lancaster wanted Marty to be a more gentle character. Ernest Borgnine got the part and won the Oscar in 1955.

Kazan _ Steiger's mentor at the Actors Studio _ chose him to play Brando's betraying older brother in ``On the Waterfront.''

Steiger later was one of the performers who spoke out against giving Kazan a special career Oscar in 1999. Kazan was reviled by some in Hollywood for cooperating with the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era.

``Age and ability in the arts or anything else, in my opinion, does not excuse a crime,'' Steiger said.

A man of large appetites, Steiger repeatedly became overweight. He was subject to periods of depression, and during the 1980s did little work for eight years because of it.

Steiger was married and divorced four times: to Sally Gracie, actress Claire Bloom, Sherry Nelson and Paula Ellis. He and Bloom had a daughter, Anna, now an opera singer. He and Ellis had a son, Michael Winston, in 1993. In 2000, he married Joan Benedict.

An interviewer once asked Steiger how he would like to die. He replied: ``I don't want to, but if it's in front of a camera I wouldn't mind.'' His choice of an epitaph: ``See you later.''