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A screen contender to the bittersweet end

Rod Steiger, who lived with a laugh that filled a room and a depression that consumed a decade, died Tuesday. The actor, who played more than 100 roles over 55 years and won an Oscar and two nominations, was 77. The cause of death, pneumonia and kidney failure, would have disappointed him: "I want to die in front of the camera," he liked to say.

A runaway who lied about his age to get into the Navy and saw action in the Pacific, Steiger drifted into acting after World War II, he said, "to meet girls." He was instrumental in the early days of the Method, which transformed modern screen acting; after studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio, he made his first significant film in 1954. It was Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront," where he played opposite Marlon Brando in scenes that have become part of movie folklore; it was to Steiger that Brando delivered his immortal "I coulda been a contender." Steiger was nominated for best supporting actor.

Legend has it that Steiger faithfully stood next to the camera to provide a sight-line for Brando's performance, but that Brando refused to stand in for Steiger's responses, which were delivered to an assistant director. The story has been much asserted and denied, but Steiger remained somehow in Brando's shadow. The two men had similar builds and bluster, but it was Brando who played "The Godfather," which Steiger said he turned down. He did definitely turn down the title role in "Patton," which won George C. Scott an Oscar, and later recalled: "I didn't want to make a film glorifying war. That was the biggest mistake in my career."

Steiger went from success to success in the 1950s, notably as Jud Fry, the ill-favored ranch hand who sang "Poor Jud is Dead" in "Oklahoma!" (1955). The same year, he played a self-loathing Hollywood mogol in "The Big Knife," and in 1959 starred in "Al Capone," the first of several biographical roles.

Steiger starred in "Doctor Zhivago" in 1965, and then was nominated for the title role in "The Pawnbroker" (1965). Considered the front-runner at the Oscars, he recalled that he was halfway out of his seat when Lee Marvin's name was called, for "Cat Ballou." But in 1967 Steiger won the Oscar, playing a Southern police chief who learns to respect black northern police chief Sidney Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night." I spent the day before he won that Oscar with Steiger, on the set of a movie he was making named "The Illustrated Man." Joking with fellow actor Robert Drivas, he talked about his timetable to make it to the ceremony:

"I got it all figured out. We're going first-class, first-class. We shoot here right up until 3:15 see, then a helicopter picks me up at 3:30, and we go right up into the sky like a great yellow bird and land at the studio at 3:45. That saves me an hour over driving. Then I shave at the studio, put on my tux, and Claire's there waiting. We get into that big, beautiful Mercedes-Benz custom limousine, and we arrive at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and, boy, that's what I mean when I say style."

He told Drivas he'd toyed with the idea of having the chopper drop him off in front of the Oscars, but "I'm not so practiced at this business of pulling up in a limousine and everybody cheers. I only went to one Hollywood premiere. I figured everybody ought to go to one. That was my first and last premiere. We pulled up and stepped out. Unfortunately, the car in front of us contained Lassie, so we were upstaged. Upstaged, you hear me, boy? I learned a lot about the business in five seconds. Lassie, Lassie, they were all screaming."

That was the Steiger people enjoyed in the 1960s: A raconteur, speaking in the dialect of his current character, filled with stories. A few years later, I found myself on the location of his movie "Napoleon," in the Ukraine. He was depressed because his wife, the actress Claire Bloom, had left him and was currently living with the producer Hillard Elkins (or "Ellery Hilkins," as Steiger had it). And he was sick of the soup which was served monotonously every day.

"Borscht again!" Steiger said. "It's the goddamn staff of life on this location. Borscht for lunch. Borscht for dinner. I'm afraid to come down for breakfast. The role of Napoleon has always fascinated me. It is my hope that, when this picture is completed, the role of Napoleon will still fascinate me. But if Napoleon had to eat goddamn borscht every goddamn day, I wonder if Napoleon himself would have given a good goddamn."

He had other hits in the 1970s, following Napoleon with performances as Mussolini and the gangster Lucky Luciano. But in the 1980s, he said, a cloud of clinical depression settled over him, and although he continued to work he was in misery.

There is a memory from that time, from a revival of "Oklahoma!" at a film festival in Dallas in 1983. The musical had been brilliantly restored, and the screening was a triumph. Later, well-wishers crowded up to congratulate Steiger, who smiled back but quietly observed, "They hate Jud Fry. Just hate him."

I encountered him again in 1991, on board a cruise ship as part of the Dusty Cohl's Floating Film Festival. He was happily remarried, to Paula Ellis, and in 1993 they would have his son, Michael; a daughter, Anna, had been born to Claire Bloom, and both children survive. There was a tribute to Steiger on the ship, and as he recalled his days of depression, he wept briefly--then broke the tension by saying that Paula had helped him through the worst times, and that they had asked the captain of the Holland-American ship to remarry them at sea.

A wedding ceremony was arranged, complete with cake, and Steiger was happy that day, although you felt life had grown fragile around him; he and Paula were later divorced, and at the time of his death he was married to Joan Benedict.

On that day before he won the Oscar in 1968, he said why it would be nice to win the Academy Award:

"If I won, I'd get a crack at scripts I might otherwise not see. And that's what I want and need. I make enough money. But if you can get yourself into a certain position in this business, get your salary up to a certain level, win the awards, then you can get a wider choice of scripts, and you don't have to do the crap simply because there's nothing else available. I want to get myself into that position--I'm about there now, I think--and then work like hell."

Steiger continued to work almost until the end of his life, in good movies and bad, good roles and mediocre ones. I ran into him from time to time and there was still the big laugh and the crooked grin, the feeling that the campaign continued. He did some of the best film acting of his time, and when the good roles were not there he soldiered on, a professional, perhaps finding in work deliverance from the demons that had haunted him.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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