GOOD MORNING: I’d answer the phone and this unmistakably gruff voice would launch into, “So this doctor said–” and a joke would follow. It would be Rod Steiger — totally out of character, reporting on some film he’d recently completed or one he was readying to start. And now, at 77, he leaves as he was about to start two more films, one in Wisconsin, the other in Scotland. And he’d completed four films in one year. I visited him on the set of one — it was “The Hollywood Sign,” filming at the Hollywood Forever cemetery where he, Burt Reynolds and Tom Berenger were burying their agent. It was a comedy. And, of course, Steiger was as much at home playing comedy as anything else — as evident by reactions I got when discussing him Tuesday with some of his friends … I reached Sidney Poitier, his “In the Heat of the Night’ co-star, in the Bahamas where Sidney was discussing his next assignment as the country’s ambassador to Japan. “I will remember Rod Steiger as long as I live,” said Poitier recalling their 1967 work experience. “He was such a quintessential actor. His range was truly astounding. And as opposed to this role, he was such a gentle soul. He was truly gifted. He made work easier for every actor he ever worked with. He will be remembered as one of America’s great actors” … When I informed “Heat” director Norman Jewison of Steiger’s death, he gasped, “I had just wound writing a letter to Evans (Frankenheimer). John and I had been friends since 1958, working together in N.Y. in live television. And now, Rod Steiger. We are losing all the lions in the arena!” Jewison said, “I tried to put Rod in every picture I made after ‘In the Heat of the Night.’ ” Two of them were “Fist,” with Sylvester Stallone, and “The Hurricane,” in which Jewison says, “I warned Denzel (Washington), he’s gonna steal every scene he’s in.” Despite the dramatics in their work, Jewison noted, “What I’ll miss most is his laughter. He tormented Sidney with his jokes!” … Walter Mirisch, Oscar-winning producer of “In the Heat of the Night,” says working with Rod was “one of the best experiences I ever made.” He recalled, “He (Steiger) added so much weight so he would look more bullish for the bullying role.” He also laughingly recalled, “Sidney (Poitier) and I were having lunch recently when Rod and his wife, Joan, came into the restaurant and sat nearby. A while later, the waiter came over and said, ‘Mr. Steiger wanted you to have this.’ It was a bottle of water.”

STEIGER WAS TO HAVE STARTED “There’s No Tomorrow” as his next film. And he met with director-screenwriter Christian Otjen, the producers and casting director Bruce H. Newberg, who says the meeting was amazing. “Rod had made notations throughout the entire script. He said he wanted the others’ roles to be better. He was so astute. He put the picture above his own needs and was willing to trust the young filmmaker.” Steiger was to play a mortician, but his illness forced him to decline the role. The other film he was to start is the comedy “Fly Me to Dunoon,” in which he would have played the patriarch of a Polish family that ends up in Scotland instead of America … Darryl Marshak, Steiger’s agent-manager for 15 years, says Steiger also was called to star in “Fighting Tommy Riley,” and writer J.P. Davis reports, Rod “had literally written words and notes in every possible blank space between my words — he had done this throughout the screenplay. I couldn’t believe it — this was a man who loved his craft, his work. I was awed by the amount of work and thought he had put into it. I’ll never forget it.” … Marshak recalls that when Steiger made a film that wasn’t very good, he’d just say, “This was my Hollywood commercial.” … Suzanne DeLaurentiis, producer of Steiger’s last film, “A Month of Sundays,” says “He was brilliant — in a role which fit him to a T.” It won Steiger the best actor award as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award at the N.Y. Independent Film & Video Fest. He was similarly honored at the Method Fest in Pasadena … I spoke to Steiger’s grief-stricken wife, Joan Benedict. They first met 40 years ago in N.Y. — went on to marry others, were divorced, got together again five years ago, were married two years ago. “He was the dearest person,” she tells me. “He brought me roses every day.” I also spoke to Steiger’s opera-singer daughter (by Claire Bloom), Anna, who winged in from Evian to be at his side when he died. Another great showbiz loss.

AND NOW FOR A HAPPY VOICE on the phone Tuesday. It was Bill Cosby from the White House East Room, where he’d just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, who’d flown from his speech at the N.Y. Stock Exchange to make the presentations. Other recipients were Placido Domingo, Peter Drucker, Katharine Graham, Irving Kristol, Nelson Mandela, Gordon Moore, Nancy Reagan, Fred Rogers, A.M. Rosenthal and Hank Aaron. “I stood next to Hank Aaron!” Cosby enthused to me. “I’m very flattered that people see more in me than I see in myself.” He added, “This is a helluva month for me — in three days I get to ride in buses free and get free cheese (at McDonald’s).” And he gets his first Social Security check. Cosby will be 65. Helping him celebrate at the White House was Norman Brokaw, his agent of 40 years at the William Morris Agency, where Brokaw is celebrating his 60th anniversary. Also in D.C., his son David Brokaw, exec producing Cosby’s “Little Bill” series and upcoming “Fatherhood” pilot, also for Nickelodeon animation and also based on a Cosby book.

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