It was a bright, airy afternoon at the Bel Air Hotel restaurant. But Rod Steiger was in a dead serious mood.
"I may have made a possible mistake in my life by making my profession too important," Steiger was saying with a wave of his fork. "Now that I am a little older, I have begun to realize that. Acting is not everything. "
Steiger gave a dour glance up from his large salad. "I was on my own from the time I was 10. People used to laugh at my family because of alcoholic problems. I used to pull my mother out of saloons and I heard the neighbors titter. I must have sworn to myself someday that I would do something good enough that they would respect the name of Steiger. I think that is what gave me a certain intensity. I made acting too much my life."
Not that he would have changed one aspect of his career. "But I have garnered a little more intelligence," Steiger, 66, said. "I have something more important called my wife (Paula Ellis). Something more important called my daughter (opera singer Anna Steiger). And something more important called my health. Who knows where we get our insight? Maybe after having a bypass operation ... "
Steiger, who made his film debut 40 years ago in Fred Zinnemann's drama "Teresa," is considered one of America's finest actors. His performance as a lonely bachelor in the original 1953 live television version of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" is still heartbreaking.
And who could ever forget his scene in the taxicab with Marlon Brando in 1954's "On the Waterfront"? Steiger received a best supporting actor nomination as Brando's mobster brother Charlie in the Oscar-winning movie.
Eleven years later, he was nominated for best actor for his harrowing performance as a Jewish concentration camp survivor in "The Pawnbroker." Steiger finally won the Academy Award for best actor for his memorable turn as a racist Southern sheriff in 1967's "In the Heat of the Night."
Tonight, he's starring with Michael Gross ("Family Ties") in NBC's "In the Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas," an action-drama based on the true story of the FBI's search for Gordon Kahl, a right-wing tax evader who murdered two federal agents and inspired a fanatical following. Steiger plays Kahl.
"It's a very interesting character," Steiger said. "It's an interesting piece. I think the first responsibility of an actor or a show is entertainment. This has excitement with gunfire and stuff like that."
But the main appeal of "In the Line of Duty" for Steiger was the opportunity to play a real person.
Steiger said if he had his way, "I would do my whole life as an actor playing real people. The only contract I would sign with a studio would be to do famous people. I would love to sign with a network and, say, do two or three shows a year. They have to be two hours long because you have no time to develop a character in a half-hour and have five days of rehearsals."
During his long career, Steiger has played such famous and infamous personages as W.C. Fields, Pope John, Rasputin, Mussolini and Napoleon.
"I have to tell you, you never quite do (them right)," Steiger said. "But if for one 30th of a second you were Napoleon or Beethoven, why not? That's my narcotic. That's a high. It really isn't for the audience. You go home with a feeling of 'Oh, my God.' "
He also relishes historical biographies because of his lack of formal education. Steiger only completed his freshman year of high school. "I always learned a lot by reading biographies and autobiographies," Steiger said. "When I did Napoleon, I had to to learn about Napoleon. I had to learn about Paris and France and the people around him. The best way to educate a person is to stimulate your curiosity. I was always hungry with curiosity so I had a strange-rounded education."
Even though Steiger has worked with such heavyweight directors as Fred Zinnemann ("Teresa," "Oklahoma!"); Elia Kazan ("On the Waterfront"); Sergio Leone ("Duck You Sucker"); Sidney Lumet ("The Pawnbroker"), and David Lean ("Doctor Zhivago"), it's the script and not the director that is the deciding factor for Steiger to do a film.
"It's like going to a cocktail party," Steiger said. "You are all by yourself and you walk in and there is somebody, some gentleman, or some lady you want to get to know better. You don't have any choice. A part for me is like looking for a new lover. That's it."
One part Steiger still regrets not getting was the film version of "Marty." Ernest Borgnine eventually starred in the 1955 movie and won a best actor Oscar.
"I got a call from Hecht-Lancaster (the producers) about doing the film version," Steiger said. "They said to me, 'We want to sign you to a seven-year contract.' I said, 'I don't think I want to sign for seven years with anybody, but the thing that will decide it is that who chooses my parts?' They said, 'We will.' I said, 'No. I have a right to sleep with whom I please. You must not take my choices away from me. I have the right to make my own mistakes.' I believe that in life as well as acting."
"In the Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas" airs tonight at 9 on NBC.