HOLLYWOOD — Rod Steiger, the burly multifaceted thesp who won an Oscar as best actor for 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” died Tuesday at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica of pneumonia and kidney failure. He had undergone gall bladder surgery last week.
The bulky Method actor rose to prominence in the 1950s along with fellow Actors Studio disciples like Marlon Brando, with whom he co-starred in the Elia Kazan classic “On the Waterfront.” After winning his Oscar, he rarely found roles or material that matched his best pre-Oscar work — such as “Al Capone,” “Dr. Zhivago,” “The Pawnbroker” and as TV’s “Marty” — but he worked frequently doing character roles in films and television.
Born Rodney Stephen Steiger on April 14, 1925, in Westhampton, Long Island, he was the only son of performing parents who divorced before his first birthday. Nicknamed Rodney the Rock because of his strength, he grew up in New Jersey. At age 16, after a year of high school in Newark, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Over the next four years, he was a torpedo man on the USS Tausig in the South Pacific.
He was discharged for medical reasons at the end of the war, returning to Newark and going to work for the Veterans Administration.
He became active in Civil Service Theater and, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, studied at the New School for Social Research for two years and then at the American Theater Wing, the Dramatic Workshop and the Actors Studio.
Beginning in 1947, he worked steadily in television, performing live plays. That same year he made his stage debut in “The Trial of Mary Dugan.”
Steiger didn’t make his Broadway debut until 1951 in a revival of Clifford Odets’ “Night Music” in which he played a detective twice his age. Good notices landed him roles in the comedy “Seagulls Over Sorrento” and Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”
But he was most active in television, appearing in more than 250 productions, most notably Paddy Chayefsky’s original drama “Marty,” which brought him a Sylvania Award. Because he was not considered a big enough name, he lost the role in the film version to Ernest Borgnine, who won an Oscar for the part.
Nonetheless, he made it into films — eventually making about 100 of them — with his debut in a small role in MGM’s “Teresa” in 1951. He became a bigscreen name three years later as Brando’s brother in “On the Waterfront,” for which he copped a supporting actor Oscar nom.
“That’s when I had to get my first agent — to defend myself,” he once remarked.
“Waterfront” led to meatier roles: “The Big Knife,” based on an Odets play, and “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell” with Gary Cooper — both in 1955. That same year, he did his own dancing and singing as Jud Fry in the Fred Zinnemann-directed screen version of “Oklahoma!”
His first leading role was in 1956’s “The Harder They Fall,” Humphrey Bogart’s last film, based on a Budd Schulberg novel.
After some missteps (“Back from Eternity,” “Jubal”), through the rest of the decade the roles were largely hit and miss, but almost always indelible — a rebel in the Western “Run of the Arrow,” a wronged husband in “The Unholy Wife,” and, more successfully, the laconic villain in “Cry Terror.” Best was the 1959 version of “Al Capone.”
In 1958, Steiger picked up an Emmy for “The Lonely Wizard” as a scientific genius, and he did well by Rod Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust.”
During the run of “Rashomon” on Broadway in 1959, he met his second wife, actress Claire Bloom.
Three years later, he starred as Captain Ahab in Orson Welles’ adaptation of “Moby Dick,” which closed quickly but garnered Steiger fine reviews.
Over the next decade, Steiger did his best and most mature film work, standing out in realistic dramas such as 1962’s “The Mark,” Francesco Rosi’s Italian drama “Le Mani Sulla Cita” and as the tortured concentration camp survivor in Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” considered one of his finest film outings. He won the best actor award at Berlin in 1964 for the role and his second Oscar nom, this time in the best actor category.
He starred as the beloved Pope John XXIII in “And Then Came a Man,” directed by Ermanno Olmi. He was the ghoulishly delightful Mr. Joyboy in Tony Richardson’s 1965 “The Loved One” from Evelyn Waugh’s Hollywood satire. He had a large, meaty role in David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago” and made the most of it. He also did well by his cameo-among-many in “The Longest Day.”
He continued to work abroad in such films as “A Time of Indifference” and “The Girl and the General.”
‘Heat’ warms to Oscar
And at home he was triumphant in 1967’s best picture “In the Heat of the Night” as the bigoted Southern sheriff Bill Gillespie opposite Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs — copping an Oscar on his third try.
Steiger then had a run of good roles. He was a colorful killer of many guises in 1968’s “No Way to Treat a Lady,” a repressed homosexual in “The Sergeant” and Napoleon in Sergei Bondarchuck’s international 1970 production “Waterloo.” He starred for Rosi again in “Lucky Luciano,” Sergio Leone in “Duck, You Sucker” and for Claude Chabrol in “Les Innocents aux Main Sales.”
During the rest of the 1970s such disasters as “Happy Birthday Wanda June,” “W.C. Fields and Me” and “The Amityville Horror” brought him to the verge of caricature.
“I just needed the job — I want to act,” he explained to American Film magazine. Steiger did bring dignity to the film version of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” was a convincing Duce in “The Last Four Days of Mussolini” and played a credible Pilate in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth.”
A man of large appetites, Steiger repeatedly became overweight and was subject to periods of depression; during the 1980s, he did little work for eight years because of it. “I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” he said. He recovered, and his career became busier than ever, including films “The Summer of the White Rose,” “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” “Mars Attacks!” “Crazy in Alabama” and “The Hurricane” starring Denzel Washington; in TV he had roles as diverse as “Hollywood Wives,” “Sinatra,” “Tales of the City” and appearances in “Columbo” and on “Hollywood Squares.”
Steiger was married and divorced four times: to Sally Gracie, actress Bloom, Sherry Nelson and Paula Ellis. He and Bloom had a daughter, Anna, now an opera singer. A son, Michael Winston (named for the actor’s heroes Michelangelo and Winston Churchill) was born to him and Ellis in 1993. In 2000, he married Joan Benedict.
Memorial services were pending.