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Rod Steiger

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Rod Steiger in The Unholy Wife (1957)

Rodney Stephen "Rod" Steiger (April 14, 1925 – July 9, 2002) was an American actor, noted for his intense portrayal of offbeat, often volatile and crazed characters. Cited as "one of Hollywood's most charismatic and dynamic stars", he is closely associated with the art of method acting, embodying the characters he played and at times leading to clashes with directors and co-stars. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as a police chief opposite Sidney Poitier in the film In the Heat of the Night (1967), and was nominated twice for the Academy Awards, once for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Marlon Brando's mobster brother in On the Waterfront (1954) and once as Best Actor as the German pawnbroker, Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker (1964).

Steiger was born in Westhampton, New York, the son of a vaudevillian. After serving in the South Pacific Theater of World War II, he began acting in television in 1947 and went on to play the main character in the teleplay "Marty" (1953) to critical acclaim. In 1951 he appeared in Clifford Odets's production of "Night Music" on Broadway, and screen debuted in Fred Zinnemann's Teresa in 1953. He subsequently appeared in films such as The Big Knife (1955), Oklahoma! (1955), The Harder They Fall (1956), Across the Bridge (1957) and Al Capone (1959), in which his portrayal of Al Capone is considered to have been one of the finest to date as well as an influence on Robert De Niro. After an Academy Award-nominated performance in The Pawnbroker in 1964, in which he played a bitter Jewish holocaust survivor working as a pawnbroker in New York City, Steiger featured in David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965), which has since become acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

In the Heat of the Night (1967) won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger, and his performance as a police chief on the hunt for a killer, who learns to respect a black man (Poitier), was lauded by critics. The following year, he won the Sant Jordi Award for Best Performance in a Foreign Film for his role as a serial killer of many guises in No Way to Treat a Lady and the David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actor for The Sergeant. In the 1970s, Steiger portrayed Napoleon Bonaparte in Waterloo (1970), a Mexican bandit in Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker! (1971), and a priest in The Amityville Horror (1979). In 1981 he won the Montréal World Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his role in The Chosen, but was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for his performance as a Cuban crime boss in 1994's The Specialist. One of his final roles was as a judge in the prison drama The Hurricane (1999), which reunited him with director Norman Jewison, who had directed him in In the Heat of the Night. Steiger was married five times, and had a daughter by actress Claire Bloom, opera singer Anna Steiger, and a son, Michael Steiger. He died of pneumonia and complications from surgery for a gall bladder tumor on July 9, 2002 in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, actress Joan Benedict Steiger, and step daughter Claudia Myhers.

Early life and acting background[edit]

Steiger attended West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, where he showed an early interest in acting

Steiger was born in Westhampton, New York, the son of Lorraine (née Driver) and Frederick Steiger,[1] of French, Scottish, and German descent.[2] Rod was raised as a Lutheran. He never knew his father, a vaudevillian who had been part of a traveling song-and-dance team with Steiger's mother,[2] but was told that he was a handsome Latino-looking man, who was a great musician and dancer. Biographer Tom Hutchinson describes him as a "shadowy, fugitive figure", one which "haunted Rod through his life and was an "invisible presence and unseen influence".[3] Steiger's mother, described as "plump, energetic and small, with long auburn hair",[4] had a good singing voice, and nearly became an actress in Hollywood films. However, after surgery on her leg permanently affected her walking, she turned to alcohol and gave up the prospect of acting.[5][6] As a result, she quit show business and moved away from Westhampton to bring up her son. They moved through several towns, including Irvington and Bloomfield, before settling in Newark, New Jersey.[7] Her alcohol problem caused Steiger much embarrassment and the family was frequently mocked by other children and their parents within his community.[8] At the age of five he was sexually abused by a paedophile who invited him in to view his butterfly collection.[9] Steiger said of his unsettled family background: "If you had the choice of having the childhood you experienced, with your alcoholic mother and being the famous actor you are today, or having a loving, secure childhood and not being famous, which would you take? A loving, secure childhood in a New York minute".[10] During the last 11 years of his mother's life, she regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and stayed sober. Steiger recalled: "I was so proud of her. She turned herself around. She came alive again".[11]

During his childhood, and owing to his considerable strength and bulk, Steiger became known as "The Rock".[1] Despite being laughed at over his mother's alcoholism, Steiger was generally a popular figure at school and an able softball player.[7] He displayed an interest in writing poetry and acting during his adolescent years, and appeared in several school plays while at West Side High School in Newark. Tired of fighting with his mother,[12] at age sixteen, he ran away from home to join the United States Navy during World War II. He enlisted on May 11, 1942, and received his training at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island. He subsequently joined the newly-commissioned USS Taussig (DD-746) on May 20, 1944.[13] While serving as a torpedoman on destroyers, he saw action in the South Pacific Theater, including the Battle of Iwo Jima.[14] Steiger later commented: "I loved the Navy. I was stupid enough to think I was being heroic".[15] However, many of the scenes he encountered during the war haunted him for the rest of his life, particularly the loss of Americans in the Battle of Iwo Jima and the sinking of vessels by the Taussig, known to have women and children aboard.[13] On December 17, 1944, Steiger and the Taussig encountered a severe typhoon, which created winds reaching one hundred knots (115 mph) and 80 feet (24 m) waves off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines. As a result three U.S. destroyers were lost, but the Taussig survived, with Steiger tying a rope to himself on deck and flattening himself as waves approached and engulfed the ship.[13]

"I realised that they had killed their first human beings. Everything in their life, religion, society, parents had conditioned them not to kill. They were shocked that they had killed. To see this at first hand was shocking, but it was eventually useful for me as an actor even though it was a very difficult experience. That look in the eye was unforgettable".[15]

—Steiger recalling his encounters with Marines in the Guadacanal.[15]

After the war, the GI Bill of Rights paid for his board at a $5 room on West 81st Street in New York City; an income of just over $100 a month, and four years of schooling.[15] He initially found a job oiling machines and washing floors.[8] He decided to attend a drama class, primarily because of its membership of pretty young girls.[8] Known as the Civil Service Little Theater group, it was conducted by the Office of Dependants and Beneficiaries, where he was employed at the time.[13] This led him to start a two-year course at the New School for Social Research, run by German émigré Erwin Piscator.[15] During an audition Steiger uttered barely a few words before the caster exclaimed "Fresh, wonderful quality", and awarded him the part.[8] Another prodigious pupil at the time was Walter Matthau, who dubbed the institution "The Neurotic School for Sexual Research".[15] Steiger was surprised to discover his own talent as an actor, and he was encouraged to pursue further studies at the Dramatic Workshop. One of his main reasons for wanting to be an actor was to regain public respect for the name Steiger, which had so humiliated him during his childhood.[8] His other main reason was that he didn't "have the temperament for a regular job", and believes that he would have ended up a miserable, violent alcoholic.[16] His only role model as an actor was Paul Muni, whom he thought was "the greatest", [8] though he also had great respect for French actor Harry Baur and admired Charlie Chaplin "to the point of adoration" according to biographer Hutchinson.[17]

In 1946, Steiger made his stage debut in a production of Curse you, Jack Dalton! at the Civic Repertory Theatre of Newark.[18] He received an invitation from one of his teachers, Daniel Mann, to attend the Actors Studio, established by Elia Kazan in October 1947. It was here, along with Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, that he learned the tricks of the trade in method acting which became deeply engrained in him for life. Lacking matinée idol looks, much like Malden and Wallach, he began pursuing a career as a character actor rather than as a leading man.[15]

Steiger's stage work continued in 1950 with a minor role as a townperson in a stage production of An Enemy of the People at the Music Box Theatre.[19] His first major role on Broadway came in 1951, in Clifford Odets's production of "Night Music" at the ANTA Playhouse.[2] The following year, he played a telegraphist in the play Seagulls Over Sorrento, put on at the John Golden Theatre from September 11, 1952.[19][20]

Career[edit]

Early career[edit]

Steiger's co-star Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954)

Steiger's early roles, although minor, were prolific, especially in television series in the early 1950s, when he appeared in over 250 live television productions over a five-year period.[21] He was spotted by NBC manager of program development Fred Coe, who increasingly gave him bigger parts. Steiger considered television to be what repertory theatre had been for the earlier generation, and saw it as place where he could test his talent with a plethora of different roles. It wasn't long before he was receiving positive reviews from critics such as John Crosby, who noted that he was "watching Steiger give none of his usual effortness persuasive performances".[22] Among his credits were Danger (1950–53), Lux Video Theatre (1951), Out There (1951), Tales of Tomorrow (1952–53), The Gulf Playhouse (1953), Medallion Theatre (1953), Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953), and a role as Shakespeare's Romeo in "The First Command Performance of Romeo and Juliet (1597)" episode of You Are There in 1954, under director Sidney Lumet.[23] He continued to make appearances in various playhouse television productions for several years as he sought to make a foothold in film, appearing in five episodes of Kraft Theatre (1952-4), which earned him critical acclaim,[24] six episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse (1951–55), and two episodes of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1957–58), including the pilot episode in which he played a reclusive "brilliant electronics engineer".[25] Steiger made his screen debut in 1953, with a small role in Fred Zinnemann's Teresa, shot in 1951.[2] On May 24, 1953, he played the title role of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" episode of the Goodyear Television Playhouse.[26] The role had originally been intended for Martin Ritt, who later became a director.[27] "Marty" is the story of a lonely homely butcher from the Bronx in search of love. The play was a monumental success and won him the acclaim of critics and the attention of the public;[8] Tom Stempel noted that he brought "striking intensity to his performance as Marty, particularly in giving us Marty's pain".[28] As Steiger refused to sign a seven-year studio contract, he was replaced with Ernest Borgnine in the film Marty (1955), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.[29] 1953 proved to be his breakthrough year; not only was Marty an extraordinary success, but he garnered Sylvaner Awards for Marty and four other best performances of the year—as Vishinsky and Rudolph Hess in two episodes of You Are There, as gangster Dutch Schultz in a thriller, and as a radar operator in My Brother's Keeper.[30]

In 1954, Steiger was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Marlon Brando's character's brother, Charley “the Gent”, in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront.[31][32] Film writer Leo Braudy wrote that the "incessantly repeated images of its taxicab confrontation between Brando and Rod Steiger have made the film iconic".[33] Steiger disliked Brando and "complained bitterly about Brando's predilection for leaving the set" immediately after shooting his scenes.[34] He later remarked: "We didn't get to know each other at all. He always flew solo and I haven't seen him since the film. I do resent him saying he's just a hooker, and that actors are whores".[15] Steiger also responded unfavorably when he learned that director Kazan had been awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy in 1999.[21]

In 1955, Steiger played Jud Fry in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, in which he did his own singing. It was one of the biggest location film productions of the 1950s, shot near Nogales, Arizona with a crew of 325 people and some 70 trucks.[35] Steiger portrayed a disturbed, emotionally isolated Jud, which Turner Classic Movies (TCM) considers to have brought a "complexity to the character that went far beyond the stock musical villain". According to TCM, James Dean "made a sensational [screen] test with Rod Steiger in the 'Poor Jud Is Dead' number", but as his voice wasn't strong enough, Gordon MacRae was cast in the main role.[35] Steiger observed that Dean was a "nice kid absorbed by his own ego, so much so that it was destroying him", which he thinks led to his death. Dean reportedly gave him his prized copy of Ernest Hemingway’s book Death in the Afternoon, and had underlined every word that said "death".[15] Later that year, Steiger made appearances opposite Jack Palance and Ida Lupino as a film tycoon in Robert Aldrich's film noir The Big Knife,[21] and as a prosecuting major in Otto Preminger's The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell alongside Gary Cooper and Charles Bickford. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: "As an item of entertainment, it is most fascinating when the trial is re-enacted (with some license) and Mr. Cooper is called upon to spar with Rod Steiger as the prosecuting lawyer who rather brutally breaks him down. Since both men are expert actors and the court material is good, the tension is electrifying and the emotions crack in this scene."[36]

"Bogey and I got on very well. Unlike some other stars, when they had closeups, you might have been relegated to a two-shot, or cut out altogether. Bogey didn't play those games. He was a professional and had tremendous authority. He'd come in exactly at 9 a.m. and leave at precisely 6 p.m. I remember once walking to lunch in between takes and seeing Bogey on the lot. I shouldn't have because his work was finished for the day. I asked him why he was still on the lot, and he said, 'They want to shoot some retakes of my closeups because my eyes are too watery'. A little while later, after the film, somebody came up to me with word of Bogey's death. Then it struck me. His eyes were watery because he was in pain with the cancer. I thought: 'How dumb can you be Rodney'!"

—Steiger fondly recalling his encounters with Humphrey Bogart on set of The Harder They Fall.[37]

In 1956, Steiger portrayed the character "Pinky" in Columbia Pictures's western film of that year, Jubal, which co-starred Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine. Steiger's character is a rancher, who becomes jealous with Ford's character's courting of his former mistress. Based on the 1939 novel by Paul Wellman, it was filmed in Technicolor and CinemaScope on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.[38] Ford noted Steiger's deep commitment to method acting during production, considering him to be a "fine actor but a real strange fellow".[39] In Mark Robson's The Harder They Fall, Steiger played a crooked boxing promoter who hires a sports journalist (Humphrey Bogart in his last role).[40] Later that year, Steiger played a South American headhunter opposite Robert Ryan and Anita Ekberg in a John Farrow RKO production, Back from Eternity, about a planeload of people stranded in the jungle. Though it received mediocre reviews upon release,[41] author Marion Meade considers the film to have set "the standard for plane crash survival movies".[42]

A struggling actor[edit]

In 1957, Steiger appeared in another Farrow picture, the film noir The Unholy Wife, in which he played a wealthy Napa Valley vintner who marries a femme fatale named Phyllis (Diana Dors). Crowther panned the film when it was released, writing: "Indeed, this might be an excellent time for the actress to take inventory or choose a comedy (her real forte). For the new R. K. O. production and Universal-International release, teaming her with Rod Steiger, is a dull, unholy mess, and an absolute waste of anyone's time".[43] During the production of Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow, in which he played a confederate veteran who refuses to accept defeat following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox at the end of the American Civil War, Steiger badly sprained his ankle just before one of the battle scene was to be shot and was unable to walk, let alone run. Instead Fuller got one of the Indian extras to run in Steiger's place, which is why the scene is only shot with feet instead of close-ups or medium shots.[44] Later that year, Steiger had a lead role in the British thriller Across the Bridge, in which he played a German conman with British citizenship who flees to Mexico after stealing company funds, and switches identities. The film established Rod Steiger as a serious lead actor following his earlier supporting role acclaim in On The Waterfront. The director Ken Annakin considered it to have been his finest film, while Steiger himself believed it was his second best performance of his career after The Pawnbroker.[45]

In 1958, Steiger portrayed a mastermind criminal seeking to obtain a $500,000 ransom, opposite James Mason and Inger Stevens in Andrew L. Stone's Cry Terror! for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Film critic Dennis Schwartz dismisses the film as "an ill-conceived attempt at making a realistic thriller about a mad bomber extorting money in a terrorist plot via the 1950s", with "too many coincidences and contrived plot points to sustain interest".[46] The following year, he appeared with Claire Bloom for six months from January to June in a Fay and Michael Kanin stage production of Rashomon.[47] A major success, it was nominated for three Tony awards. Steiger married Bloom the same year. In film, he portrayed iconic mobster Al Capone in the film of the same name. Steiger reportedly refused the producers' first offer to star in this film because he thought the initial screenplay inappropriately romanticized Capone and criminality, which led to him turning down the picture on three occasions. According to TCM, he conceded to play the role only after the producers agreed to rewrites.[48] The finished film, noted for its deglamorized portrayal of the subject,[49] earned Steiger a Laurel Award for Best Male Dramatic Performance nomination. Dennis Schwartz wrote: "Rod Steiger gives his Method acting technique a workout as he captures the fiery persona of Al Capone and makes the gangster a lively larger-than-life subject".[50] The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies considers it to have been one of the best screen portrayals of Capone in film history.[51]

In 1960, Steiger portrayed sophisticated thief Paul Mason, who masterminds a caper to steal $4 million in French francs from the underground vault of the casino of Monte Carlo, in Henry Hathaway's heist film, Seven Thieves. The Saturday Evening Post noted the actor's "prodigious acting talents" at the time.[52] The following year, he took the part of a prison psychiatrist who tries to cure the psychological demons of Stuart Whitman's character in The Mark. Steiger, who had previously visited a psychiatrist in the 1950s, observing how he conducted himself, attentively avoided over-intellectualizing him or exaggerating his mannerisms. To abandon the typical stereotype, Steiger played the analyst as an Irishman, and insisted on a scene where his character tells his wife to not call him at the office to add a human element to the psychiatrist. So convincing was Steiger's performance, that after the film was released, he received a call from one of the psychiatric institutions asking him to attend one of their board meetings.[53] The Mark was a followed by a role in the European film production of World in My Pocket alongside Nadja Tiller.[54]

In 1962, Steiger appeared on stage in Moby Dick—Rehearsed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre,[55] and played a detective on the hunt for a scientist's (Alan Ladd's) mugger in Philip Leacock's 13 West Street for Columbia Pictures. On the film set, Steiger found Ladd "professional but distant", and later remarked that "Alan Ladd was a very sweet and a very kind and a rather sad man. He was an exhausted man... one had a feeling he was waiting for it to end".[56] After uniting with Whitman in the prison drama Convicts 4, Steiger had a role as a destroyer commander in the large ensemble cast of The Longest Day, which included John Wayne, Richard Todd, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and Henry Fonda. Steiger based his portrayal on his own father.[57] According to co-star Richard Burton, Steiger had admitted to him that he was almost broke at the time and had had a face lift, which in the words of Burton made him look like "one half of a naked ass-hole".[58] The following year, Steiger played ruthless Neapolitan land developer and city councilman Edoardo Nottola, who uses his political power to make personal profit in a large scale suburban real estate deal, in Francesco Rosi's Italian production, Hands over the City.[59] According to biographer Francesco Bolzoni, Rosi had cast Steiger in the Italian language film because he had wanted "a rich interpreter of great capacity" in the part of the land developer.[60] Steiger agreed to appear in another Italian film shortly afterwards, Time of Indifference, in which he starred opposite Claudia Cardinale and Shelley Winters.[61]

Mainstream film acclaim[edit]

"Well they never went away. ’The Pawnbroker’, directed by Sidney Lumet, was an independent, so was ‘The Sergeant’. They’re just coming back stronger because the greed finally ran into a wall, and what proved it was all these small independent films getting nominations and winning awards where all these multi-million dollar films did nothing, and that really shook them up. I would always say the bigger the budget, the less imagination. In the old days, they had designers who, if they had to create a battleship, would get a bit of net and a bit of board and make one. Now there is no imagination. If they want a destroyer now, they ring up the government and get a real one. There aren’t any challenges any more; they’re home decorators."

—Steiger on appearing in independent films.[15]

In 1964, Steiger played an embittered, emotionally withdrawn Holocaust survivor living in New York City in Sidney Lumet's gritty drama The Pawnbroker. TCM notes that Steiger's career was struggling at the time, and that he had to "scramble for paying gigs for a decade",.[56] He agreed to a lower fee of $50,000. Steiger read the novel and the script many times to develop an intimate understanding of the character, and insisted on reducing his lines to make his character more realistic and alienated from society.[8] Lumet noted that Steiger had a tendency to be overly dramatic in his acting during the production, stating "Sure, Rod has weaknesses of rhetoric, but you can talk them through with him. I explained that this solitary Jew could not rise to heights of emotion; he had been hammered by life and by people. The faith he had to find was in other people, because God had betrayed him."[62] Steiger remarked of the film: "I think my best work is in The Pawnbroker. The last scene, where I find the boy dead on the street. I think that's the highest moment, whatever it may be, with my talent."[63] He drew upon inspiration for this climactic scene, in which he appears to show his frustration through a silent scream, from Picasso's "Guernica", which depicts war-ravaged villagers. Although the film attracted controversy and was accused of anti-Semitism, Steiger was universally acclaimed for his performance, garnering him the prize for Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival and his second Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.[21] Steiger was so certain that he had produced an Oscar-winning performance that he was shocked to lose to Lee Marvin.[62]

In 1965, Steiger played a "namby-pamby" embalmer in the Tony Richardson's comedy The Loved One, about the funeral business in Los Angeles, based on the 1948 short satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh.[64] According to Steiger, the embalmer, despite his effeminate mannerisms, is not actually a homosexual, and he was eager not to offend people in his portrayal of the character.[8] Steiger won the Sant Jordi Award for Best Performance in a Foreign Film for his performance. He next played one of his favorite roles as Komarovsky, a Russian politician and "villainous opportunist" who rapes Julie Christie's character in David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965).[65] Steiger, one of only two Americans in the cast, was initially apprehensive about working with such great British actors as Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness, afraid that his performance would not blend with theirs.[66] One of his greatest satisfactions was that when the film was released, he did not stand out as an American.[8] The film was such a success that it was the biggest international box office hit of the 1960s,[67] grossing $200 million worldwide.[68] It has since become acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made, and was selected as the 39th best American film in the original AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list in 1998 by the American Film Institute.[69] Crowther noted "the brilliant visual realization" of Lean, and mentioned the "very good performances" of Steiger and Tom Courtenay.[70]

Steiger's In the Heat of the Night co-star Sidney Poitier, who considered Steiger and Spencer Tracy to be the greatest actors he had ever worked with

In 1967, Steiger finally won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Chief of Police Bill Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night, opposite Sidney Poitier. He played a Southern police chief on the hunt for a murderer. Prejudiced against blacks, he jumps to the conclusion that the culprit is Tibbs (Poitier), an African-American man passing through town after visiting his mother, who later turns out to be an experienced homicide detective from Philadelphia. The film deals with the way the two men interact and join forces in solving the crime, as Steiger's Gillespie learns to greatly respect the black man he initially took to be a criminal. The film was shot in the small towns of Dyersburg, Tennessee, Freeburg, Belleville, and Sparta, Illinois, generating what TCM refers to as the "perfect atmosphere of a stifling rural town in the South, the type of place where every newcomer is eyed with suspicion".[71] Steiger drew upon his experience in the Navy with a Southern gentleman named "King", remembering his accent.[15] Poitier was highly praising of his co-star, considering Steiger and Spencer Tracy to have been the greatest actors he had ever worked with at the time, remarking, "He's so good he made me dig into bags I never knew I had."[72] A. D. Murphy of Variety described Steiger's performance as "outstanding", writing: "Steiger’s transformation from a diehard Dixie bigot to a man who learns to respect Poitier stands out in smooth comparison to the wandering solution of the murder."[73] Steiger not only scooped the Oscar, but won a plethora of other awards, including a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, a Laurel Award, and awards for Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle.

In 1968, Steiger won his second Sant Jordi Award for Best Performance in a Foreign Film award for his portrayal of a schizoid serial killer opposite George Segal in Jack Smight's dark comedic thriller No Way to Treat a Lady.[21] During the course of the film, he adopts various disguises, including those of a priest, a policeman, a plumber, and a hairdresser, to put his victims at ease and to avoid being identified, before strangling them and painting a pair of lips on their foreheads with garish red lipstick. The film and Steiger's performance were critically acclaimed, with Vincent Canby of The New York Times highlighting Steiger's "beautifully uninhibited performance as a hammy",[74] and TimeOut describing him as "brilliant as a sort of Boston strangler, son of a great actress who has left her boy with a mother fixation".[75] Later in 1968, Steiger played a repressed gay non-commissioned officer opposite John Phillip Law in John Flynn's The Sergeant for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which earned him the David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actor.[76]

In 1969, Steiger was cast as a short-tempered tattooed man with soon-to-be ex-wife Claire Bloom in the science fiction picture The Illustrated Man; Steiger had known the director Jack Smight from his earlier career. It is described by writer Irv Slifkin as "an anthology centered around carnival roustabout-turned-living-canvas Rod Steiger".[77] Steiger referred to the scene in which his face is smothered with flies as "the greatest acting I have ever done" saying: "They mixed sugar and beer and sprayed my face with it, and literally let thousands of flies loose and they just came and came. I had one crawling over my eyelid and I didn’t move".[15] However, the film was a critical and commercial disaster, with Time magazine writing that the director had "committed every possible error of style and taste, including the inexcusable fault of letting Steiger chew up every piece of scenery in sight".[78] Writer Ray Bradbury himself said: "Rod was very good in it, but it wasn't a good film...the script was terrible".[79] Steiger had better luck alongside Bloom later that year in Peter Hall's British drama film Three into Two Won't Go, which was entered into the 19th Berlin International Film Festival and became the 19th most popular film at the UK box office in 1969.[80]

Historical roles and declining fortunes[edit]

Daniel S. Burt described Steiger's portrayal of Napoleon (pictured) as an "unusual interpretation"

In 1969, Steiger was offered the title role in Patton, but turned it down because he did not want to glorify war.[81] The role was then given to George C. Scott, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Steiger called this refusal his "dumbest career move",[82] remarking, "I got on my high horse. I thought I was a pacifist."[83] Instead, he chose to portray Napoleon Bonaparte opposite Christopher Plummer in Sergei Bondarchuk's Waterloo (1970), a co-production between the Soviet Union and Italy. One commentator wrote: "I watched with extraordinary respect, no, that is not the right word, with enthusiasm, the acting of Rod Steiger in the role of Napoleon in Waterloo,"[84] while Daniel S. Burt describes Steiger's Napoleon as an "unusual interpretation", finding him less convincing than Plummer's Wellington.[85]

In 1971, Steiger played a "chauvinist" big game hunter, explorer and war hero opposite Susannah York in Mark Robson's Happy Birthday, Wanda June,[86] before agreeing to star alongside James Coburn as Mexican bandit Juan Miranda in Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker! (A Fistful of Dynamite). The role of Juan Miranda was written especially for Eli Wallach, based on his performance of Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), but Wallach had already committed to another project with Jean-Paul Belmondo, and thanks to his international appeal, Steiger was signed on instead. Leone was initially dissatisfied with his performance in that he played his character as a serious, Zapata-like figure.[87] As a result, tensions frequently arose between Steiger and Leone, including one incident that ended with Steiger walking off during the filming of the scene when John destroys Juan’s stagecoach. However, after the film’s completion, Leone and Steiger were content with the final result, Steiger praising Leone for his skills as a director.[88]

In 1973, Steiger played a rural Tennessee patriarch and brother of Jeff Bridges, at odds with Robert Ryan's character, in Lolly-Madonna XXX. It received a mixed reaction from the critics; Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a "disaster" and a "rotten movie",[89] while Variety considered it to have been "handsomely and sensitively filmed", with "excellent performances abound by older and younger players in a mountain-country clan feud story which mixes extraordinary human compassion with raw but discreet violence".[90] Later that year he was cast as the turban-wearing German officer Guenther von Lutz in Duccio Tessari's Italian war comedy, The Heroes, opposite Rod Taylor, [91] and appeared as "foul-mouthed Sicilian mobster" Eugenio Giannini opposite Gian Maria Volonté's Lucky Luciano in Francesco Rosi's film of the same name.[92][93]

In 1975, Steiger portrayed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Carlo Lizzani's Last Days of Mussolini, which earned him critical acclaim.[94] He appeared in Claude Chabrol's French picture Innocents with Dirty Hands, playing the wealthy alcoholic husband of Romy Schneider.[95] It was poorly received by critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times dismissed it as "little more than a soap opera", writing: "The performances are of a piece—uniformly atrocious. Mr. Steiger surpasses his own earlier records for lumbering busyness. Within his first few minutes on screen he (1) gets drunk, (2) whines, (3) pleads for understanding, (4) weeps and (5) goes to bed alone. Going to bed alone is no big deal in most films, but when Mr. Steiger goes to bed alone, it's Napoleon the night after Waterloo."[96] Later that year, Steiger starred as an Irish Republican Army terrorist who plans to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Don Sharp's British thriller, Hennessy.[97] New York Magazine wrote: "This fellow Hennessy, as played by Rod Steiger, is about as interesting and likable as a Guy Fawkes dummy."[98]

Steiger's portrayal of W. C. Fields was poorly received by critics

The following year, Steiger portrayed legendary comic actor W. C. Fields in Arthur Hiller's biopic, W.C. Fields and Me, for Universal Pictures. The screenplay by Bob Merrill is based on a memoir by Carlotta Monti, Fields's mistress for the last 14 years of his life. When asked about playing historical characters like Fields, Steiger said "Unfortunately everybody in the world thinks they can do W. C. Fields." He read extensively about Fields in preparation for the role, and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of his career and personal life. Steiger watched as many of his films as possible, but concluded that The Bank Dick (1940) was quintessential Fields, basing his character on him in that film.[8] He found playing Fields challenging because he had two different ways of talking, one downbeat and one more animated. One day, Fields's mistress Monti turned up on set, and watched the scene where he briefly thanks everybody. Nervous that she might not approve, he broke down in tears after Monti met him after the scene and fondly said "Woody, Woody, Woody, My Woody", a nickname used only by those very close to Fields.[8] Despite the energy Steiger put into the picture, like previous films, it was poorly received by critics. Canby called the film "dreadful" and referred to Steiger's enactment of Fields as a "wax dummy of a character",[99] while Time Out London called it a "witless biopic", which was "sloppily slung together", and stated that though Steiger "makes a brave stab at the part", the "reality and genius of Fields never get a look in".[100] The New York Times, however, later referred to Steiger's portrayal of Fields as "superb", but noted that his Hollywood career had "undeniably fallen from his 1950s and '60s heights".[21]

In 1977, Steiger had a role as Pontius Pilate in Franco Zeffirelli's TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. Stacy Keach, who played Barabbas, expressed his joy at the opportunity to work with Steiger on the production, describing him as "generous and opinionated".[101] In 1978, Steiger played a Senator in Norman Jewison's F.I.S.T., opposite Sylvester Stallone, who plays a Cleveland warehouse worker involved in the labor union leadership of the fictional "Federation of Inter-State Truckers".[102] Love and Bullets, later that year, in which Steiger appeared as a mafia boss, was poorly received; Roger Ebert dismissed it as a "hopelessly confused hodgepodge of chases, killings, enigmatic meetings and separations, and insufferably overacted scenes by Steiger alternating with alarmingly underacted scenes by [Charles] Bronson".[103] The following year, Steiger was cast as a general opposite Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum in Andrew V. McLaglen's war film Breakthrough, set on the Western Front.[104] The picture is a sequel to Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, and borrows several characters from that film. In The Amityville Horror (1979), Steiger appears as a priest, who is invited to perform an exorcism on a haunted house. Again Steiger was accused of overacting; Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote: "Mr. Steiger bellows and weeps and overdoes absolutely everything. He won't even pick up the phone before it's rung 12 or 15 times."[105]

Steiger portrayed Benito Mussolini for the second time on screen in 1981's Libyan-funded Lion of the Desert

In 1980, Steiger received two Genie Award for Best Performance by a Foreign Actor nominations for his roles in Klondike Fever and The Lucky Star, both Canadian productions. Klondike Fever is based on Jack London's journey from San Francisco to the Klondike gold fields of Yukon in 1898. Despite Steiger's nomination, the book Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies calls it "a pathetic piece of bad historical fiction", comparing it to the bad films made in Hollywood about Canada in the 1930s and 1940s.[106] After a role portraying U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman in the American Old West in Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981), which was given a rave review by Pauline Kael,[107] Steiger returned to the part of Mussolini in Lion of the Desert. The film was financed by the Libyan government under Muammar Gaddafi, and co-starred Anthony Quinn as Bedouin tribal leader Omar Mukhtar, fighting the Italian army in the years leading up to World War II. The Italian authorities reportedly banned the film in 1982 as it was considered damaging to the army,[108] and it was not shown on Italian television until a state visit by Gaddafi in 2009. Nonetheless it received critical acclaim in Britain, where it was praised in particular for the quality of its battle scenes.[109] Later in 1981, Steiger won the Montréal World Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of white-bearded Orthodox rabbi Reb Saunders in Jeremy Kagan's The Chosen.[110][111] Maximilian Schell had originally been cast as the rabbi, but Steiger reportedly wanted the part so badly that Schell agreed to play the professor instead.[112] Janet Maslin commented that though Steiger "speaks with a great sonorousness", she thought his "slow, rolling delivery" was more "numbing than prepossessing" and that his scenes were a "bit more overwhelming than is necessary".[113]

B-movies and criticism[edit]

As clinical depression and health problems in the 1980s directly impacted upon his career, Steiger often turned to B-movies, low-budget independent productions and TV miniseries to make ends meet. The major studio producers were wary of his issues and thought him a liability.[21] After his open-heart surgery in 1979, they treated him as if he was dead, leading Steiger to advise a younger colleague: "Never tell anyone if you've got heart problems, kid. Never."[114] His reputation as a fine character actor, however, remained high, and Joel Hirschhorn at the time considered his talent still to be "as strong as ever".[115]

In 1984, Steiger starred as a detective who is assigned to investigate the murder of a Chicago psychoanalyst (Roger Moore), a man whom he detests from a previous case, in Bryan Forbes's The Naked Face. Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune referred to it as a "wimpy suspense movie shot in Chicago in the fall of 1983, [that] doesn`t do much good for the city or for anyone connected with it", and considered Steiger to be "acting in his high hysteria gear", who "snarls and whines and overacts".[116] Steiger took a break from cinema in the mid 1980s, during which he appeared in the Yorkshire TV mini-series The Glory Boys (1984) with Anthony Perkins,[117][118] and Hollywood Wives with Angie Dickinson (1985).[119] He also performed on Joni Mitchell's 1985 album Dog Eat Dog, where he provided the voice of an evangelist in the song "Tax Free".[120]

Steiger in 1978

Steiger returned to low-budget film productions in 1986 in the horror film The Kindred, and the following year appeared in the Argentine-American film Catch the Heat, a martial arts picture about a Brazilian drug baroness who smuggles drugs into the United States inside her breast implants.[121] According to director Fred Olsen Ray, it was pulled from distribution within a week of release.[122] In 1988, Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo played a spooky elderly couple with retarded children in John Hough's horror film American Gothic. Universally panned by the critics, Caryn James of The New York Times wrote: "Mr. Steiger addresses the camera as if he were reciting Shakespeare, he is truly, straightforwardly, hilariously bad."[123] The last year of the decade was a year playing authority figures, including a mayor in The January Man, and a "freakish, music-loving judge" in Tennessee Nights.[124]

In 1990, Steiger starred in Men of Respect, a crime drama film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth. He played a character based on King Duncan, opposite John Turturro as Mike Battaglia (Macbeth), a Mafia hitman who climbs his way to the top by killing his boss. The film was critically panned, with Roger Ebert believing that the concept was a "very, very bad idea", awarding it just one star.[125] He played another mobster, Sam Giancana, two years later in the TV miniseries, Sinatra (1992).

In 1991, Steiger appeared as a Reverend in a small Georgian town in the macabre Merchant Ivory film production The Ballad of the Sad Café, co-starring Vanessa Redgrave and Keith Carradine. The film was entered into the 41st Berlin International Film Festival,[126] but was met with lukewarm reviews, although Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader praised the quality of the acting by the lead actors and Steiger.[127] In 1993, Steiger portrayed an aging gynecologist who terrorizes his urban neighbors in a rural community in Burlington, Vermont in The Neighbor. Dennis Schwartz considered it to have been one of Steiger's creepiest roles but thought a poor script had rendered the role awkward and "mildly entertaining in the sense that Steiger is asked to carry the film and hams it up".[128] The following year, Steiger agreed to play a Cuban mob boss opposite Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone in Luis Llosa's thriller The Specialist, citing its purpose as a "$40 million commercial" to show a new generation that he existed.[37] The critical reception was so negative that as of July 2015 it has just a 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 27 reviews.[129] The film earned Steiger a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor nomination and was listed in The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of "The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made".[130]

Later work[edit]

In 1995, Steiger appeared in Tom Clancy's Op Center, a film which was edited down into a TV miniseries, and in the Columbo television film, Strange Bedfellows.[131] The following year, he had a minor role as Doc Wallace in the Dale Rosenbloom family drama Shiloh, which was shown at the Heartland Film Festival. He reprised the same role three years later in the sequel. Also in 1996, Steiger played a "jingoistic top general" who "petitions the president to go nuclear in the middle of a global crisis" in the ensemble production of Mars Attacks!.[132]

In 1997, Steiger played Tony Vago, the mob boss of Vincent Gallo's character in Kiefer Sutherland's Truth or Consequences, N.M., a gritty noir about a drug heist gone seriously wrong.[133] After a performance as the father of a painter (Jason Patric) in Incognito (1998), in 1999, Steiger played judges in Antonio Banderas's comedy-drama Crazy in Alabama and in the prison drama, The Hurricane, which tells the story of former middleweight boxer Rubin Carter convicted for a triple homicide in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey. The film reunited him with Norman Jewison, who had directed him in In the Heat of the Night. Steiger portrayed H. Lee Sarokin, the judge responsible for freeing Carter. Sarokin himself thought it was a "marvellous film" which was Oscar-worthy, but found Steiger's enactment of himself as overacted and a "little arrogant and pompous for my taste".[134]

After a minor role as a "bombastic priest" in End of Days (1999),[21] Steiger was one of the lead actors in Burt Reynolds's The Last Producer (2000), a film about a washed-up, veteran producer (Reynolds) who tries to re-enter the movie business by producing a new film. Steiger's last film was Poolhall Junkies (2002), but it was poorly received by the critics.[135]

Acting style[edit]

Steiger was one of Hollywood's most respected character actors; he was cited by biographer and friend Tom Hutchinson as "one of Hollywood's most charismatic and dynamic stars".[136] He was an "effusive talent" according to The New York Times,[21] who was particularly noted for his intense portrayal of offbeat, often volatile and crazed characters.[137][138][139] One 1960 publication referred to Steiger as an "angry, hot-tempered newcomer of prodigious acting talents, [who] works best only at emotional white heat", and remarked that he found it "stimulating to carry theatrical fantasy into his private life".[140] Films and Filming, surveying his career in 1971, noted that his talent "developed steadily through films good and bad", and that the secret of his success was that he stayed grounded, citing a 1956 interview where he said "I pity the player who can't keep his feet on the ground. It's too easy to trade on success."[141]

Robert De Niro in 1988, who had modeled his performance the previous year in The Untouchables on Steiger's portrayal of Al Capone

A product of the Actors Studio, Steiger is closely associated with method acting, embodying the characters he played. Writer James F. Scott notes that during his career, he "many times put aside his own personality to think his way into an alien psyche".[142] However, "method acting" is a term that he disliked. Steiger once said: "I don’t like the term Method, but for the sake of argument Method Acting is a means to an end. It is something that helps you get involved in the part personally so that you can communicate with the audience. No matter what, the American actor of the fifties changed acting the world over. Montgomery Clift was perhaps the actor who started it, Brando caused the sensation and [James] Dean made it a cult".[15] So devoted to his craft was Steiger that during the 1970s he turned to many foreign productions, especially in Italy, to obtain the sort of roles he desired, but often clashed with directors over his method acting techniques during production.[21] In one of his last interviews, Steiger said: "What is the greatest thing an artist in any profession can give to a person?—that would be a constructive, warm memory. Because that gets into your brain and therefore into your life, so to speak. And that's it, when somebody says to me "I'll never forget", that's worth more to me than five Academy Awards, I'm in that person's life.[8]

Film writer Paul Simpson notes how closely Steiger prepared for his roles, and how he "effortlessly" recreated the mannerisms of figures such as Mussolini, in a "compelling take on an enigmatic figure".[94] New York Magazine, reviewing Duck, You Sucker!, commented that Steiger was "totally without mannerisms, always with manner", and noted that his "silences are stunningly effective".[143] Roger Ebert later echoed this statement, concurring that he was without mannerisms, writing, "When he gets a character worth playing with, he creates it new from the bottom up, out of whole cloth. I don't know how he does it. It's almost as if he gets inside the skin of the guy he's playing and starts being that person for a while".[144] Steiger said: "I always tried to do things different. If I got a role which was similar to another I'd try to do it a little different."[8] His powerful screen performances were an influence on many later actors, including Robert De Niro, who used Steiger's portrayal of Al Capone as a reference for his own performance in The Untouchables (1987).[21] Elvis Presley had also been highly impressed with Steiger's "powerful and wrenching performance" in The Pawnbroker.[145]

Despite Steiger's acclaim as an actor, he was frequently accused of overacting and won his fair share of critics, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. His acting was so dynamic at times that critics found him excessive and overbearing,[103][116] and even uncomfortable or laughable to watch.[123][128] Steiger once clashed with Armenian director Rouben Mamoulian during a theatrical production of Oklahoma!, as he was intolerant of Steiger's "unusual acting technique". Steiger ignored the director's concerns that he was mumbling his lines, and when he began chomping loudly on an apple during a scene with Gordon MacRae, Mamoulian exclaimed: "Get out of my theater. Get out of my life!", and fired him.[146] Even director Kazan found several of the Actors Studio's techniques disagreeable, preferring "more humor and verve and less self-indulgence, self-pity and self-awareness".[147] Several co-stars also found him difficult; Warren Oates, according to director Norman Jewison, viewed Steiger as "somebody who had a tendency to go over the top", during the making of In The Heat of the Night.[148] In that film, writer Richard Dyer highlights the contrast between the acting styles of Steiger and Poitier, with "Poitier's stillness and implied intensity" and "Steiger's busy, exteriorised method acting".[149] Hutchinson notes that Steiger often suffered from panic during filming and that fear of failure haunted him throughout his life, but fear in a way also provided him with a source of strength in his acting.[150]

Personal life and death[edit]

Steiger was married five times: he married actress Sally Gracie (1952–1958),[151] actress Claire Bloom (1959–1969),[151] Sherry Nelson (1973–1979),[151] Paula Ellis (1986–1997)[151] and actress Joan Benedict Steiger (married 2000 until his death).[151] He had a daughter, opera singer Anna Steiger (born in 1960) by Bloom, and a son, Michael Steiger (born in 1993), from his marriage to Ellis.[151] Biographer Hutchinson states that "family is what Rod Steiger always yearned for during his long, eventful existence. Sadly, he has never been able to achieve it properly", but added that if he had he may not have been as great an actor.[152] In an interview with journalist Kenneth Passingham, Steiger stated that Bloom was "all ever wanted in a woman", and that "maybe our marriage was better than most because we were both established when we met".[153] It upset him greatly when their marriage ended in 1969 and that she quickly remarried Broadway producer Hillard Elkins the same year, a man whom Steiger had entrusted to care for her while he was away shooting Waterloo.[154]

He was outspoken on McCarthyism, which led to his being blacklisted for a period. He was particularly critical of Charlton Heston's stance on weapons, and publicly referred to him as "America’s favorite fascist".[15] In one clash in a column in the Los Angeles Times, Steiger responded to a letter sent by Heston saying that he was appalled that the American Film Institute hadn't honored Elia Kazan because of his witness to the Un-American Activities Committee. Steiger wrote that he was "appalled, appalled, appalled" at actors and writers who had been forced to drive cabs because they were blacklisted and had even committed suicide as a result. Heston did not reply.[155]

Steiger suffered from depression throughout much of his life. He described himself as "incapacitated for about eight years with clinical depression" in the years leading up to his Oscar win for In The Heat of the Night in 1967.[15] His career problems from the 1970s onwards were often exacerbated by health issues; he underwent open-heart surgery in 1976 and 1979 and had problems with his weight. After the decline of his third marriage in 1979, a deep depression in the 1980s affected his career, but Steiger continued to act into the 1990s and early 2000s.[21] In one of his final interviews, Steiger stated that there was a stigma wrongfully attached to sufferers of depression and that it was down to a chemical imbalance, not a mental disease. He commented: "Pain must never be a source of shame. It's a part of life, it's part of humanity."[8]

Steiger died of pneumonia and complications from surgery for a gall bladder tumor on July 9, 2002 in Los Angeles[151] and was buried in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery. The film Saving Shiloh, released in 2006, was dedicated to his memory.[156]

Performances[edit]

References[edit]

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