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His hero's death sets a man's life adrift

COLUMN ONE

David Steiner became a symbol after he grabbed a mike when RFK was killed. Forty years later, the L.A. native has found his voice.

June 05, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

He had recently started practicing tai chi. She showed him a very difficult move -- Snake Creeps Down -- in high-heeled boots. He was transfixed.

She was a musician with a 10-year-old son. Within six months, she left her boyfriend and moved in with Steiner.

Valadez's own artist's spirit was checked by her single-mom's practicality. Steiner slowly realized he needed to be more pragmatic if he wanted to be serious with her. He started to work stints for law firms, ghostwriting briefs.

They got married in 1989. When Valadez got pregnant, he agreed to take the bar exam.

As he was taking a bath, Valadez delivered the good news that he passed the exam. "I hate lawyers," he said. "I'm going to keep writing my screenplays."

After briefly trying to start an entertainment law firm, they moved to Barcelona for a year in 1996. To pay for their boys' tuition at an international school, they started teaching English.

Steiner had never thought about it before. But he loved teaching.

In room 204 of Hamilton High School last week, 13 students were watching Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront." The teacher flips on the lights. He is thin and athletic, with a wide-set jaw, narrow chin and white beard. He wears cargo pants and a Nehru-collar shirt.

"I think what made Brando amazing was not just his brute force but the sensitivity. . . . There was a gentleness. A gentleness."

His voice quakes. His hands drive home his words.

Steiner has been teaching history and film for 11 years -- first in Compton, now at Hamilton in the South Robertson section of Los Angeles. The school is predominantly black and Latino, with a mix of white, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander. Last year, in an informal poll, the students voted him their favorite teacher.

In a sense, this job was his big break.

He is still an artist. In summer and on weekends, he furiously types away in Venice, writing a book about his life.

But he sees his teaching as the refocusing of all that youthful energy that was scattered that night 40 years ago.

Valadez constantly worries he will get fired because he holds nothing back. His opinions on the Iraq war, on the Bush administration, corporate Hollywood -- they all come pouring out in stream-of-consciousness fervor.

He continues his lecture, gesturing feverishly.

"What makes Hollywood so crazy is that mixture of the vulnerability it takes to make art and the hard edge it takes to make money," Steiner says.

"The trick is to make your break in a dirty business and remain innocent and vulnerable enough to deliver when you make your break."

At 65, he still has enough of the 25-year-old in him to deliver.

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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