A Conversation with Rod Steiger

by Jeff McNeal
Interview conducted and published November 1, 2001

Rod Steiger has enjoyed an extensive and enviable career as a film actor in Hollywood, appearing in such classics as ON THE WATERFRONT, OKLAHOMA!, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, plus contempory films like MARS ATTACKS and scores of other films and television appearances dating back to 1950. Steiger originated the role of MARTY on television, but Ernest Borgnine wound up in the Oscar-winning film role. To celebrate the long anticipated DVD release of the digitally restored classic DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, the always unpredictable, frank and frequently entertaining Steiger sat down with us to discuss his work in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and share some other interesting details about his work in an exclusive interview with TheBIGPictureDVD.com We discussed his favorite roles, his triumphs, his regrets and more. We found Mr. Steiger to be very pleasant and open, with a good sense of humor and a keen memory for detail regarding most of the films we brought up, but discovered a mutually puzzling gap in his recollection concerning a recent film role performed about five years ago.

TBP: Thank you for consenting to this interview, Mr. Steiger. It's a real pleasure to be speaking with you.

RS: Is this a proposal? I'm married now, you know.

TBP: I'm a great fan of your work mind you, but I'm afraid I'm not ready to talk marriage just yet... Now then, how were you first approached to play Komarovsky and were you already familiar with Pasternak's novel at the time?

RS: Well, I had read the novel and I had heard David Lean was going to direct it – and it came as a surprise to me – because usually those kind of things they use all English actors, which is one of the things I've always hated – because American actors, if given the chance, can do style as well as anybody and speak as well as anybody. I was very pleased you know, and I was afraid that I might stick out, but I didn't. My happiest thing about that picture is that I proved that American actors can speak as well and also fit in with an ensemble like that.

TBP: Some of your most memorable roles have been portraying some rather unsavory characters, yet you somehow manage to make them sympathetic...

RS: Well now, you know if you were on another planet and looked down on Komarovsky, the character in Zhivago, what did he do? He wanted to sleep with a mother and daughter. You tell me a guy who wouldn't like to take a try at that sometime. That's all he did, he was not a villain! He was an art collector... he was a man who was well spoken and educated...

TBP: And in the end, it could be argued that he was even somewhat noble in a sense.

RS: That's the point. In the end... He made one mistake. He saw this young girl and he figured that would be fun for a night or two – and he fell in love. If he didn't fall in love he would have never come back near the end of the film. Because, what man is going to dishonor himself so that he comes back in front of the man that took a woman away from him ...and warns her to save her life? That's not a villain, that's a man whose a victim of being in love with the wrong one.

TBP: I've enjoyed some of your candid remarks that are included in the supplemental material on the new DVD. Have you seen it yet?

RS: I just got it yesterday.

TBP: So you haven't had a chance to see it then, I take it?

RS: Also, sometimes on certain days I get sick of seeing myself.

TBP: You've appeared in over 120 some-odd films since you started your career around 1950. You've played Mussolini, Pontious Pilot, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, W.C. Fields and even The President of the United States. Are there any films off the beaten path that you wish more people had seen your work in?

RS: Yeah, a picture called "The Chosen" where I played a rabbi... and a picture I did in Europe called "Across The Bridge". This was in the late '50's, "The Financier", "The Mark" (1961). That's about it at the moment.

TBP: I'll give you one more that I thought you were just brilliant in, and that was just a few years ago...

RS: (interrupting) You must be a man of incredible intellect and intense instincts. I can see that by your lauding and praises. You have to be brilliant.

TBP: Not necessarily, but I do love movies and one of the ones that I found...

RS: (interrupting) Wait a minute now, that was only a joke.

TBP: I know, I have a dry sense of humor myself. But in all seriousness and candor, I thought you were terrific in INCOGNITO.

RS: Incognito?

TBP: Yep.

RS: Did they change the-- What was it about?

TBP: It was about a young artwork forger who gets himself into deep trouble.

RS: My God. I've forgotten that thing.

TBP: You've forgotten Incognito?

RS: Yeah, unless they changed the title from what it was originally... When did that come out?

TBP: It was 1997.

RS: (muttering) Oh my Lord...

TBP: You played the role of Milton Donovan.

RS: That sounds like an Irish-Jewish person. Milton Donovan...

TBP: Is Milton Irish? Just kidding. The director was John Badham and it starred Jason Patric, Irene Jacob... and I'm sorry that you don't remember it because you were wonderful in it!

RS: Jesus, I'm losing my mind, here. Was it a cameo?

TBP: I didn't consider it as cameo but perhaps it was. Maybe you were only on location for a day or two to do the shoot.

RS: Aren't you glad we got into this?

TBP: Maybe we should switch gears to something else. The films you mentioned that you wished others were more aware of... Why did you choose those titles?

RS: Well because – In "The Mark" I played a psychiatrist. And in the '50's everybody went to a psychiatrist because if you didn't, you'd have nothing to talk about at cocktail parties... So I had my doctor and I went and I noticed he was overworked. Whether he was greedy or not, I don't know, but he was overworked. So when I did "The Mark", I had this analyst who needed a shave, his sleeves were rolled up, he was a chain smoker and a coffee drinker. And the reason I really appreciated this is because after the picture came out, I was invited by the American Psychiatric Association to give a lecture. I couldn't believe it!

TBP: That's quite a compliment.

RS: Well I should say so! Yeah, I was flabbergasted. I didn't know what to do, but when I did speak, I spoke about the humanness that lies behind the cliches that people think analysts are... and how much a bad night can affect a doctor the next day, maybe in this perception. We forget that doctors are humans, to some degree.

TBP: Are there any roles you've turned down over the years that with the gift of hindsight, you wish that you hadn't?

RS: Well, uh, I'm ambivalent about PATTON. I'm kind of a half-assed pacifist and I must tell you, you know, your philosophy is as strong as your feelings on a particular day. If you're feeling good and you've accomplished something, you can back your philosophies to the hilt. And I don't know what happened, but I decided I'm not going to glorify this thing... I wasn't going to glorify war, which was... I was a schmuck, because if I did Patton half as good as Mr. Scott, I might have walked into THE GODFATHER.

TBP: Wow.

RS: So that was a big mistake...

TBP: Let's talk about something that was a real triumph for you and that your Oscar-winning portrayal of Sheriff Bill Gillespie in THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

RS: The thing I liked the best out of that was I got to work with Norman Jewison, a wonderful director and a lovely person, and also I got to work with Sidney Portier who had been a friend of mine for years before that. In the beginning, I remember when they said to me "he chews gum", I said "Come on, Norman! That's the biggest cliche in the world" so Norman Jewison said to me "Well try it for one day, do it for me, will you?" And what I found out was, by the rhythm of my chewing, how I chewed fast, slow or what have you, I could tell the audience what my character was thinking and feeling. If you see the picture when things get exciting, he chews faster. When he really gets shocked, everything stops, including the chewing (chuckles). So I worked it in for me.

TBP: There's a discrepancy I caught in the supplements in THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT DVD that piqued my interest. In your interview segment, you talk about what good friends you are with Sidney Poitier and that you had adjoining rooms and so on, whereas Norman Jewison seems to paint a different picture, suggesting that there was tension between you and Poitier on the set, which he exploited to work into the film. Which one of you is pulling our leg?

RS: I don't think anyone's pulling your leg, I just don't think that Norman is perceiving it correctly. One of my conditions to do that picture was that I was to be next to Sidney all the way in case some fanatic or something or somebody who was anti-black tried to do anything. We had our suites with the door open between us. I don't know, is that where I talk about the kid with the gun?

TBP: I don't recall. Why don't you talk about that right now?

RS: What happened was, we had our suites with the door open and it's about 2:30 in the morning. And it's pouring rain and a knock comes on the door and I get out of bed and I open the door and there's a kid about 17-years-old with a double barrel shotgun, soaking wet and crying. He says "I'm sorry Mr. Steiger, I don't know what to say, but I'm looking for my wife." And I'm lookin' at this kid and his hand's on the trigger and he's shaking so it could go off accidentally, so there was no quarrel with him, you know. I said "Come on and look around everything" and I'm praying for God's sakes don't see Sidney's open door. And he goes through the bathroom and the front room of the suite and as he's about to leave, he says "where does that door go?" and I said "That's Mr. Portier's room" and he says "I gotta go in there!" and I said "well I've got to go in first and wake him up." Because I figured if I go in there and anybody's in there besides Sidney, male or female, white or black, this kid's going to shoot. So I go in – I'll never forget Sidney – and he's sleeping and I said "Sidney (chuckles here) wake up." He said "what's the matter?" and I said "there's a kid here with a shotgun." I thought his head was going to fall off. He got up and there were both of us in our underwear and this kid goes through the whole thing again, all the closets, the bathroom, everything else and then he left. Now that was one thing, but from an actor's point of view, this poor young man, crying from the moment I opened the door to the moment he left. Now if an actor did that they would say he's over-acting. I said "Sidney, I don't think I could do this scene" (big laugh).

TBP: So the young man was very apologetic but prepared to kill either one of you at the drop of a hat?

RS: I don't know. He didn't know what he was doing. He was so upset about his wife, you know.

TBP: A lot of younger people today.... I'm old enough to remember the '60's and the civil rights movement and all the strong tension between the races that existed during that time. I'm not so sure that younger people today really appreciate the enormous bravery that went into the creation and production of that film, or how important a film at the time it really was.

RS: Well you see... When you're an actor... I didn't ever think of it as a social thing at the time. I took it as a good story. Maybe because I've always been kind of progressive so I never thought of it, you know. Only after awhile. After it came out and people began to engage in discussions about the social reflections of the film that I realized it had an importance I hadn't thought of. I suppose because an actor's always scared to death that he's not going to do the part well that I didn't think of anything else.

TBP: Getting back to Doctor Zhivago for a moment, in working with David Lean...

RS: Well, I made a big mistake with him the first day I shot. We're shooting the scene where I come back from the party, the dance, in the sleigh with Julie Christie and we turn the corner and go past the camera and the camera follows us just a little bit and we disappear. And I'm supposed to grab her and kiss her and she's supposed to react. Well, what happened was, Julie was very nervous at that time, given this incredible part which she did beautifully. We came around the corner and I kissed her, but her body anticipated it, you know? You could see it kind of stiffen for a minute. We did about three takes and I went to David Lean and I said "Can I make a suggestion?" and he said (affecting a British accent, sounding impatient) "About what?!" And I said "about the scene." "Well yes, what would you like to say, what is it, what is it?" Cause don't forget, he and Bolt worked on this for about three years – they thought it was the Bible, you know. And I said "well, I'll kiss her twice, you see? We'll come around, I'll kiss her, and if you put a little more track down for the camera, then I'll put my tongue down her throat and you'll get what you want". He said "You think so?"

TBP: Was that to give him what he wanted or to give you what you wanted.

RS: To give him what HE wanted!

TBP: Now I'm the one who's joking...

RS: We came around the corner, I kissed her and after I kissed her she relaxed. And then I grabbed her and kissed her again and she was shocked! And that was what we wanted.

TBP: How was it working with Julie Christie both before and after you jammed your tongue down her throat?

RS: Julie is a lovely girl. I love her. I wish, I don't know what... she should have done much more. I don't know what happened there, but then I think her personal life got kind of involved. She fell in love and it was the wrong kind or something, I don't know...

TBP: Were there any special problems or peculiarities about having to shoot the Doctor Zhivago in Spain?

RS: Yeah, we had no snow!

TBP: You had to make it.

RS: Well no, we had a man named Eddie, he was a prop man. He was really a genius in his own rite. He had worked with Lean before. In fact, he was so good on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Lean gave him his Rolls Royce, which he'd always liked. Anyway, so what he did was, he spread sheets for 100 yards and underneath them he'd put things so there were bumps and different levels and on top he'd put little bushes and if you didn't look to close, it looked like snow!

TBP: And it still does.

RS: He saved the production a tremendous amount. Now they did the scene where Omar is on the horse and he's in the deep snow, they went to Finland to do that. That scene they went to Finland for a week. I wasn't around then.

TBP: How was working with David Lean different than working with other directors?

RS: Oh I don't know, it's hard to ask me that (chuckling) because I don't work any different.

TBP: Or what distinguished his work from others, I should say.

RS: Everything was extremely professional. You never heard a more quiet set in your life, everybody was very comfortable – and also I was working with some of the best actors there were! Tom Courteney who became a friend of mine -- an extraordinary actor – he had Guinness and Richardson for God's sake, you know. And I was pleased when the picture was over I fit in all right and I spoke well enough as I said before, cause I was scared to death there for a minute. I mean, you're doing a scene with somebody like that or they're watching you or something, you'd better come up with something.

TBP: Clearly, you did. I have just one more question to ask of you...

RS: Remember, I'm married now...

TBP: What was your experience like in working on "Jesus Of Nazareth" in 1977? The scenes between you and Robert Powell were quite powerful.

RS: Well, one of the problems of working on a story with a character that sacred in the religions of the world or in a picture about that person, is that you have to forget about that and play it as real as you can because you can't look at yourself and judge yourself. For that matter, who knows if Jesus had an accent or not? You know, so... you just play it as you play any character, any other part. (Franko) Zeffirelli was fun to work with. He's wonderful as far as the sets and everything are concerned and he's very simpatico with his actors.

TBP: Mr. Steiger, I could go on talking to you for the rest of the day. I've got a million questions but I do respect the value of your time and am very grateful that you spoke with us about DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and some of your other experiences.

RS: Well, let me tell you, you have time in your life too and I appreciate you taking the time.

TBP: I've really enjoyed the comments you've shared in a few different DVD's I've seen. You're very frank in your language – my grandmother would have characterized you as someone who's "full of piss and vinegar".

RS: (hearty laughter) Your grandmother was right! And it's been my pleasure to participate in things like this.

TBP: Be sure to track down Incognito because you were really quite good in it. I really enjoyed your role in MARS ATTACKS, too.

RS: Oh, the studio really ruined that one.

TBP: Really? How so?

RS: They told Burton he had to turn it in at a certain time, they kept pressing him to finish it before he was ready. So they said "you gotta get it in by here" and he finally said "here, take the fuckin' thing." Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's bad. I think the film could have been a lot better.

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