Childhood & Early Life
Rod Steiger was born on April 14, 1925 in Westhampton, New York, to Lorraine and Frederick Steiger. Both his parents were vaudevillian. However, his father had left them soon after his birth and so he never knew him. He was brought up by her mother, who became an alcoholic.
His mother’s drinking habit not only embarrassed young Rodney, but he often had to pull her out from her drinking holes and then queue up for bread. In spite of that, he attended West Side High School, where he displayed an interest in writing poetry and acting. He also appeared in several school plays.
Fed up of quarreling with his mother, Stieger ran away from home at the age of 16. Lying about his age, he finally enlisted in the United States Navy on May 11, 1942 and underwent two years of training at the Naval Training Station in Newport.
He then joined USS Taussig on May 20, 1944 as a torpedo-man. While serving on the destroyer, Stieger took part in different battles in the South Pacific Theatre, including the Battle of Iwo Jima and also encountered Halsey's Typhoon.
After the war, he went back to New Jersey to look after his mother and began to earn his living by doing menial jobs at the Office of Dependants and Beneficiaries. He also joined their drama group, Civil Service Little Theater, mainly because it was attended by many pretty women.
Soon enough his acting talent was awakened. By then he had been receiving around $100 from G. I. Bill of Rights. Aided by that, he now began to study drama at the New School for Social Research and also learnt opera singing. Then in 1947, he joined Actors Studio, where he studied method acting.
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Steiger had made his stage debut in 1946 in ‘Curse you, Jack Dalton!’ a year before he joined Actors Studio. Later he made his TV debut with ‘Telas, the King’ (1950) and film debut with a small role in ‘Teresa’ (1951).
Concurrently, he continued with his stage acting. From 1950 to 1952 he enacted small, but significant roles in plays like ‘An Enemy of the People’ (1950) and ‘Night Music’ (1951) and ‘Seagulls Over Sorrento’ (1952).
Also from 1950 to 1955, he appeared in numerous televisions programs, averaging one per week. Among Steiger's credits were ‘Taste of Ashes’ (1950), ‘Café Ami’ (1951), ‘Ordeal in Space’ (1951), ‘The Window’ (1952), ‘Café Society’ (1953), ‘Raymond Schindler, Case One’ (1953) etc.
However, it was his lead role in ‘Marty’ (1953), which opened floodgate of film offers for him. He accepted the role of Charley "The Gent" Malloy in the 1954 film ‘On the Water Front’. His taxi scene with Marlon Brando later became part of film history.
His next memorable film was ‘The Big Knife’ (1955). In this film, he enacted the role of an obnoxious film tycoon Stanley Shriner Hoff, going to the extent of bleaching his hair to suit the character. ‘The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell’, also released in 1955, was another of his significant work.
His depiction of crooked boxing promoter Nick Benko in 'The Harder They Fall', released in 1956, also earned him critical acclaim. Then in 1957, he got his first lead role; he starred in ‘Run of the Arrow’. Although the film later attained cult status he did not like it.
Contrarily, he enjoyed his star role in 1957 British film ‘Across the Bridge’. In this film, he played the role of a crooked English businessman who flees to Mexico after stealing company funds and then gets into a different kind of trouble. His gripping performance was the highlight of the film.
Steiger also excelled in his 1958 crime thriller ‘Cry Terror’. Although the story contained too many coincidences, his ‘superbly laconic’ portrayal of the gangster Paul Hoplin was highly commended by the critics.
His portrayal of American gangster Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone in the 1959 biographical film ‘Al Capone’ was the next feather in his cap. Afterwards he did few more hit films such as ’Seven Thieves’ (1960), ‘13 West Street’ (1962),’Convicts Four’ (1962), ‘Longest Day (1962), ‘Hands Across The City’ (1963) etc. In addition, he also did a Broadway show called ‘Moby Dick—Rehearsed’ during this period.
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His career reached its peak in 1965 with ‘The Pawnbroker’, where he played the part of an embittered Holocaust survivor living in New York. Although he failed to get Academy Award for it, he later said, it was best work.
‘The Pawnbroker’ was followed by two other hits; i.e. ‘Loved One’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’ both in 1965. Next in 1967, he co-starred in ‘In the Heat of the Night’, enacting the role of Police Chief Bill Gillespie. The role not only earned him Academy Award for Best Actor, but also accolades from all.
The film was followed by 'The Girl and the General' (1967), ‘No Way to Treat a Lady’ (1968), ‘The Sergeant’ (1968), ‘The Illustrated Man’ (1969)’ and ‘Three Into Two Won't Go’ (1969) before he got his first historical movie, ‘Waterloo’ (1970).
Unfortunately, the American cinema went into a decline from the beginning of 1970s and it had a negative impact on Steiger’s career. Therefore, although he went on making movies, few were as successful as before.
Among the movies made in 1970s, ‘Happy Birthday, Wanda June’ (1971), ‘Lolly-Madonna XXX’ (1973), ‘Last Days of Mussolini’ (1975), ’ W.C. Fields and Me’ (1976), ‘F.I.S.T.’ (1978), ‘Portrait of a Hitman’ (1979) and The ‘Amityville Horror’ (1979) are most significant.
The situation became worse once he underwent open heart surgery in 1979. Although he did many films in 1980s and 1990s, except for ‘The January Man’ (1989), ‘The Player (1992) , ‘The Specialist’ (1994) he did not really get any worthwhile role. His final film was ‘Poolhall Junkies’ released in 2002.
Personal Life & Legacy
Rod Steiger married five times. His first marriage to Sally Grace was solemnized in 1952 and it ended in a divorce in 1959. The couple did not have any children.
On September 20,1959, he married Claire Bloom. The couple’s daughter Anna Steiger is now a famous opera singer. They divorced on June 10, 1969.
He then married his secretary Sherry Nelson on April 21, 1973. The marriage ended in a divorce on January 22, 1980 without producing any offspring.
He then married Paula Ellis on February 3, 1986 and had a son named Michael with her. They divorced in 1997.
Finally on October10, 2000, hr married actress Joan Benedict Steiger. The union lasted until his death in 2002.
Towards the end of his life, Steiger underwent a surgery for a gall bladder tumor, which resulted in grave complications. Ultimately, he died from pneumonia and kidney failure on July 9, 2002, in Los Angeles. His mortal remains were buried in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery.