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Interview with Rod Steiger

This is a memory of the summer of 1969 from the location of "Waterloo," now at the Roosevelt.

It was a year after Prague, and the Russians had apparently decided that if they were going to quarter 5,000 troops anywhere for a movie, it might as well be near the Czech border. So the company of "Waterloo" was living in Uzhgorod, in the Ukraine, and fighting the battle in the nearby countryside. That raised an interesting question. All the Russian soldiers were costumed as troops for Napoleon or Wellington. If the Czechs did decide to rise up one day, would the Russians take time to change? Or hurry across the border in costume, Napoleon's Old Guard against the students?

In any event, it was a miserable location, everyone agreed. The Ukraine itself was magnificent, but the Czech situation being what it was, the British, American and Italian members of the cast and crew were strongly encouraged to stay in the vicinity of the hotel, and not go trooping around the countryside.

Rod Steiger had bribed one of the Italian drivers to bring a case of Johnnie Walker Red Label along on an equipment run from Rome, and he holed himself up in his room evenings, drinking Scotch and telling long dirty jokes to Christopher Plummer and Dan O'Herlihy, who drank Steiger's Scotch and told him long dirty stories of their own.

Steiger, the film's Napoleon, was depressed over his divorce from Claire Bloom--not simply over the divorce, which was the result of who knows what private and personal grief, but because she had remarried so soon the Broadway producer Hillard Elkins. Steiger had taken to calling him "Ellery Hilkins," and seemed to find some small pleasure in this practice.

The company had been waiting around for a week, at least, to film a spectacular shot that Sergei Bondarchuk insisted had to be in the picture. Bondarchuk, who had directed "War and Peace" at a cost of $100,000,000 and was now bringing in "Waterloo" at a mere $25,000,000, wanted to begin with a close-up of Steiger's face and then pull the lens back until the screen was filled with thousands of troops.

He was planning to use a giant telephoto lens the Italians had developed, and that was the trouble. Dino De Laurentiis had flown the lens to Moscow, and the Russians, it was darkly rumored, were holding it up until they could copy it. Meanwhile, Steiger, Plummer, O'Herlihy and the 5,000 Russian troops were cooling their heels in the Ukraine and Mosfilm was getting queries by the Russian Army asking if they had any idea how much it cost to keep 5,000 troops waiting a week for a lens to arrive.

And so that was how it went, that summer, on the first co-production between Russia's Mosfilm and foreign filmmakers. Everybody had a hand in. Officially, the Russians were co-producing with Dino De Laurentiis the Italian mogul, but Dino had raised his money from Paramount and Columbia, which were going to distribute "Waterloo" on two continents apiece. Paramount got North America.

After waiting a week for the lens, Bondarchuk decided to try the shot with a helicopter and see how spectacular that would look. Steiger sat unhappily in his director's chair in the middle of a vast field, while the Russians used aerial bombs and an enormous outdoor loudspeaker to give orders to the troops.

Bondarchuk spoke little English. His three non-Russian expressions, Steiger observed, were "How are you?" and "I come back soon" and "Bonjour." His assistant director spoke Italian and English but no Russian. The army liaison spoke Russian and French but no Italian or English. Occasionally an order would be mistranslated, and a thousand soldiers would charge up a hill, firing their rifles until they realized everybody else was standing still and gawking at them. Then there'd be a 15-minute delay to get everyone lined up again.

The idea was to have Steiger on a horse. A cavalry officer laboriously boosted Steiger into the saddle of a horse that was practically certified to be gentle, and the horse immediately bolted when an aerial bomb exploded, too close. "This is not my idea of a good time," Steiger observed. Later, for the close-up, they put him in the saddle on top of a sawhorse, and Steiger said, "This is my idea of a horse."

That night Steiger sat in the hotel dining room with his forearms braced on the table and drank the local wine. "My family was destroyed by alcoholism," he cried dramatically. "I can't let up!"

Plummer and O'Herlihy laughed.

"Joking, of course," Steiger said. "Trying to bring my small measure of poetry into the world."

It was a small, plain, drab dining room, and everyone in it was bored. They'd been here for months, often shooting scenes that were so large a single actor hardly mattered. The extras had charged up and down the hill all day, and now here they were with still another bowl of borscht staring them in the face.

"Borscht again!" Steiger said, stirring the thick red soup so the potatoes surfaced occasionally through the sour cream. "It's the goddamn staff of life on this location. Borscht for lunch. Borscht for dinner. I'm afraid to come down for breakfast."

So here was Steiger, staring into a bowl of borscht. "The role of Napoleon has always fascinated me," he said. "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 pushed the bowl away and emptied his glass of wine.

"It is the role, my dear sir, you were born for," said Christopher Plummer.

"Don't you read E. E. Cummings?" Steiger said. 'A world of made is not a world of born'.

"Then it is the role you were made for, sir."

"You can say that again," said Steiger.

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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