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ROD STEIGER: 1925 - 2002

Method Actor Infused His Roles With Raw Intensity

July 10, 2002|LORENZA MUNOZ and SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rod Steiger, an Oscar-winning actor whose chameleon-like ability to inhabit diverse characters placed him firmly among a generation of acclaimed postwar performers, died Tuesday at age 77.

Steiger, who gave particularly memorable performances in "The Pawnbroker" and "In the Heat of the Night," died of pneumonia and kidney failure at a Los Angeles hospital.

Steiger was the consummate Method actor, who studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York and was known for bringing a raw intensity to his performances. He playeda middle-aged Italian butcher in the television drama "Marty" and a bigoted Southern sheriff of "In the Heat of the Night," a role that earned him the Academy Award.

Not a typically handsome man, he used his beefy frame and doughy face to create memorable characters, first as a supporting actor and then in starring roles.

The actors of his generation, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman, rejected traditional acting styles for more intimate interpretations. Their characters often reflected the deep-rooted anxieties facing American society in the Cold War era. These actors drew on their own torments and neuroses to expose the soul of their characters.

"The lions are leaving the circus," said director Norman Jewison, who worked with Steiger on three films, including "In the Heat of the Night." "Boy, Rod was a lion if there ever was [one]."

Born in the Long Island town of Westhampton, N.Y., on April 14, 1925, Steiger knew at an early age that he wanted to become an actor. His parents, Lorraine and Frederick, were part of a song-and-dance team and divorced when Steiger was only 1 year old.

Steiger, whose full name was Rodney Stephen Steiger, began acting in grade school. He was known among his schoolmates as Rodney the Rock because of his stocky build and his strong personality. He once told The Times that his difficult childhood gave him a drive to succeed.

"People used to laugh at my family because of alcoholic problems," he said in 1991. "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."

After only one year of high school, he lied about his age and at 16 enlisted in the Navy. He served as a torpedoman in the South Pacific during World War II and took part in some of its greatest battles, including the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns.

When he returned home, Steiger took advantage of the GI Bill to study acting at the New School for Social Research in New York.

He studied at the Actors Studio from 1946-47, immersing himself in the teachings of Method guru Strasberg, whose other students included Brando and Marilyn Monroe. At the time, Strasberg's method was considered nearly revolutionary, requiring actors to tap into their personal experiences to become the character they were playing.

Between 1948 and 1953 Steiger appeared in more than 250 live television productions, the best known being the 1953 Paddy Chayefsky drama "Marty."

By 1951 the actor had made his debut on Broadway and appeared in his first film role, in director Fred Zinnemann's "Teresa." Three years later, Steiger received his first Oscar nomination for playing Brando's thuggish brother Charlie in Elia Kazan's seminal drama "On the Waterfront."

Brando and Steiger were not chummy on the set. In fact there was, according to Steiger, "a little animosity between us." But director Kazan milked that tension for all it was worth. Steiger recalled in a 1994 interview with The Times that "Kazan couldn't wait to see us do a scene together and kill each other to be the better one. I guess the proof of the pudding came out in the taxi scene. I don't know who was better or worse--but we both worked together pretty well, I think."

They worked so well together that Jewison called Steiger "the only guy I have ever seen who acted Brando off the screen, in that scene. As Brando got bigger, Rod got smaller," he said of Steiger's subtle performance.

With the success of that film--which won seven Oscars, including best picture--Steiger's film career skyrocketed. He tried his hand at a variety of roles, including playing the surly ranch hand, Jud, in the 1955 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" directed by Zinnemann.

In 1965 Steiger starred in David Lean's epic romance "Dr. Zhivago." But it was his performance the same year in Sidney Lumet's provocative drama "The Pawnbroker" that many critics consider his best.

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