Roger Ebert Home

Now That Rod Steiger Has His Oscar

Hollywood - The day before he won his Academy Award, Rod Steiger sat on the bank of a lake hidden up in the hills and said. "Of course I want to win. I don't know anybody who wants to lose."

He was on location for the film of Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man," and like the title character he was covered from neck to toe with strange, otherworldly designs. It is probably his most unusual role. The tattoos, he said, "tell of the fate and destiny of man."

But then he thought that line over and shook his head. "Naw," he said, "I don't want to get all intellectual about this. What the hell, the tattoos tell the future. And when you look into them, you're carried into other times, other worlds."

He talked in a semiliterate, backwoods accent because that is the way the Illustrated Man talks, and when Steiger is on a set he always talks the way his character would.

He fingered three days of stubble on his chin. "There's only one hitch," he said. "Over my left shoulderblade, see, there's a clear space that isn't tattooed, When a person looks at that, he sees his own future. And the hitch is that the illustrated man naturally can't look at his own back. So he carries the future of all other men but remains ignorant of his own. How do you like them potatoes?"

This was the lunch break, and members of the crew were dabbling their feet in the water. It was a hot day but too early in the season for dragonflies to drone through the reeds growing next to the bank.

Steiger had pulled a windbreaker over his tattoos and was sitting in the shade with Robert Drivas, his young co-star, and Jack Smight, the director. The only other member of the cast is Steiger's wife, Claire Bloom, who was not needed for the shooting that day.

"How you gonna get back to the Awards?" Drivas asked. "I got it all figured out," Steiger said. "We're going first-class, First-class." He was still talking in character, playing his lines for laughs.

"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."

"You're doing it up right," Smight said. "I got to do it right: I may not get another chance," Steiger said. He was joking, but you could see he was serious too. "I thought it over," he said. "I think this way is best, less pretentious. The other plan was for that whirlybird to land right there in the parking lot at Santa Monica, on television, and then the Mercedes drives me and my wife 15 steps to the auditorium door."

He grinned, "I figured maybe that might be a little too much," he said. "A slight bit overdone," Smight said. "A mite too much" said Drivas. "I'm not so practiced at this business of pulling up in a limousine and everybody cheers," Steiger said. "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, Lassie! I tell you..."

He shook his head and smacked his palm with his fist. Then he turned to Drivas. "You gonna be there." he said.

"No," Drivas said. "I have a date in San Francisco. I have to go see this girl." "What girl?" said Steiger. "You know what girl," Drivas said. "That beautiful blond girl. You sat next to her at that party. You sat on the stairs for an hour with her, trying to snake her."

"Son," Steiger said, "I don't remember her. But I can promise you this. If I had made my move, she would have been obliviated. Ob-liviated."

Everybody laughed. Steiger has an infectious good humor that seems to dominate the sets he works on; there is a relaxed quality in camera crews glad to be rid, for once, of neo-Nazi directors and temperamental stars.

"Well," said Drivas, "I figure you're in. You got to win." "I'll just give you this advice," Steiger said. "On Thursday, I'll be here, win or lose. But if I lose, don't mess with me. And if I win," he said, pausing to get the timing right, "If I win, don't talk to me."

"Rod," Drivas said, "I meant to tell you, I saw you in that real good movie, 'The Girl and the General" with Virna Lisi, and I thought you were...interesting."

Steiger winced. "Don't mention that movie where I can hear you, boy," he said. "I don't like to think about that movie. Hey, boy, come to think of it, you're talking like that, and here this is your first picture. Shoot, boy, shoot, boy."

He walked away, shaking his head melodramatically. "And to think," he sighed to no one in particular, "that in order to sign this lad we had to break his contract at Disneyland." Smight walked down to the water's edge to rehearse with Steiger and Drivas. The lake was Smight's discovery; he had come across it two years ago while up in the hills shooting Paul Newman's chase scene in "Harper." The scene this afternoon would be quieter. It required the illustrated man to tell the boy about a woman he had met 30 years before, a woman who had placed the strange tattoos on his body and then disappeared.

After the rehearsal, while the crew was lighting the scene, Steiger talked seriously about his career and about the role of a Southern police chief in "In the Heat of the Night," which was to win him the Academy Award for best actor the next day.

"That was a useful picture, I think, because it had a little to say on the racial tension in this country, and yet it didn't preach," he said. "I enjoyed working on that. We were down in Sparta, Ill., a very friendly little town, looked just like Mississippi. I remember a couple of weekends I came up to Chicago, went to the Art Institute, and wandered through that district where all the young people go. What was it: Old Town, that's right. Lots of good beer places. Nobody recognized me, which was a relief."

That's the funny thing about Steiger. Although he has been in a great many successful movies, from "On the Waterfront" and "The Pawnbroker" to the just-released "No Way to Treat a Lady, the public still has trouble recognizing him. Is it because he sinks so completely into each role that he stops looking like Rod Steiger?

Steiger smiled. "Well, it would be nice to think so," he said. "But confidentially, I think it's fat. I'm always taking off weight and putting it on, and when I get a character who's supposed to be heavy. I'm in my glory.

For "The Illustrated Man," he has another problem. The incredibly detailed tattoos which cover his body take a team of makeup men 10 hours to apply, That takes all day Monday every week, and then on Tuesdays and Wednesdays he shoots, before the dyes wear off. The rest of the week he does scenes set in the future, when he isn't tattooed.

There is a widely told legend that before Steiger plays a part, he goes into a department store and pretends to be his character, to see what the character would buy. Is it true?

"Part true, part not," Steiger said. "I do it when I'm stuck. I try to think, what would this guy think about the stuff in this store? It's an imagination game. You know who does it brilliantly? Jonathan Winters. They throw him a prop, and he improvises. Did you see him once when they gave him a belt, trying to stump him, but right away he makes it a landing strip for jet flies..."

After "The Illustrated Man," Steiger will do "Napoleon," and then, he says, he doesn't know what will be next. "I have a couple of pictures just being released now. 'No Way to Treat a Lady,' which Jack Smight also directed, in which I'm a homicidal killer who uses various disguises and accents and pesters the police detective, George Segal, nearly to death. And a movie I made right after 'The Pawnbroker' is just now being released. That's 'Nothing But a Man,' a film about Pope John XXIII.

"In the future, who knows? I have a dream project, like all actors. I'd like to do a film of Tom Wolfe's 'The Web and the Rock.' I'd play George Webber -- Monk Webber, they called him. That could be a great film, but I have no script, only an idea. I'd like to play Hemingway sometime. If I had my way, I'd do nothing but biographies."

Steiger leaned forward in his canvas chair and clasped his tattooed hands together. "See," he said, "that's why it would be nice to win this 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."

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.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

We Grown Now
Blood for Dust
Dusk for a Hitman
Stress Positions
Hard Miles


comments powered by Disqus