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Rod Steiger


Last Updated: 9:54pm BST 09/07/2002

Rod Steiger, who has died aged 77, was a Hollywood character actor who, in pictures of the 1950s and 1960s, often overshadowed the nominal stars.

He was an exponent of the "Method" school of acting - based on the teaching of Constantin Stanislavski, in which an actor fleshes out the text by inventing a full-scale biography of his character.

It was a technique which could backfire. One of Steiger's least convincing performances was as Napoleon in Waterloo (1970). He dreamt up a private CV for the Emperor riddled with disease and drugs. Under this scenario, Waterloo was lost for reasons unsuspected by historians. "I believe," Steiger asserted, "that on the night before the battle, he bombed himself out on laudanum."

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Steiger was also a liability in Fred Zinnemann's film of Oklahoma! in 1955. Cast as the villain, Judd Fry, he loaded the part with so many psychological hang-ups that he undermined the prevailing tone of exuberance and optimism.

He needed firm control by a director able to steer him away from his worst instincts. In On the Waterfront (1954), he had precisely that from Elia Kazan, one of the founders of the Actors' Studio, home of the Method. Cast as Marlon Brando's gangster brother Charley the Gent - "a killer in a camel hair coat" - he gave a performance of subtlety and restraint.

Steiger's finest role, for which he won an Oscar, was as the bigoted Southern police captain in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. Cast opposite Sidney Poitier, whom he routinely arrests on suspicion of murder only to discover that he is a police officer like himself, he brought to the role all the power and conviction of Method acting at its best.

The scene in which Steiger lets his guard down and, over a bottle of Bourbon, admits his loneliness, is one of the most moving in the picture.

After this, however, he seemed to lose the instinct for choosing the right part. He passed up the chance to play Patton, in the film for which George C Scott won an Oscar, because he suspected it was pro-war. But he did sign to play a variety of historical megalomaniacs for film and television - Napoleon, Rasputin, Mussolini (twice), Al Capone, even W C Fields.

With the exception of Al Capone, none of these roles enhanced his reputation. They were essentially make-up jobs.

In later life, the mannerisms that always threatened his work gained the ascendant. He retreated into cameo roles calling for short bursts of over-acting. Among these were his tortured priest in The Amityville Horror (1979), the manic mayor of New York in The January Man (1989), a hell-fire preacher in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991) and a heavily-accented Cuban gangster in The Specialist (1994), who thanks the Lord ("Chew a kind God") for destroying his enemies.

Of French, Scottish and German extraction, Rodney Stephen Steiger was born on April 14 1925 at Westhampton, Long Island. His parents had been a travelling song-and-dance team but divorced before he was a year old. He never knew his father and was brought up by his alcoholic mother in various cities in New Jersey.

He started acting while still at Newark's West Side High School but quit at 16, enlisting in the US Navy by lying about his age. He served for four years aboard the destroyer USS Taussig. After the war, he took a civil service job with the Office of Dependants and Beneficiaries of the Veterans Administration.

He then went to New York and studied drama for two years at the New School for Social Research, the Dramatic Workshop and the Actors' Studio, at the invitation of the director Daniel Mann. From 1947, he worked extensively in television and in 1951 made his Broadway debut in a revival of Clifford Odets's Night Music. His first screen role was a small part in Fred Zinnemann's Teresa (1951).

In 1953, he played Marty in the original TV production of the Paddy Chayefsky play about a Bronx butcher who finds love with a shy schoolteacher. Steiger was aproached to repeat the role for the film but turned it down; Ernest Borgnine got the part and won an Oscar for it in 1955.

The 1950s were Steiger's best years, with a stream of memorable supporting performances. In 1955, he played a ruthless movie mogul in Robert Aldrich's film of the Clifford Odets play The Big Knife.

He was the prosecutor in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), a crooked boxing promoter in Humphrey Bogart's last film, The Harder They Fall (1956) and a sadistic cowboy in Jubal (1956). Though Run of the Arrow (1957), in which he played a Southerner who joins the Sioux after the Civil War, was considered a wrong move at the time, it has acquired a cult reputation and worn well.

Its director, Samuel Fuller, admitted that Steiger was hard to handle. "He has lots of talent," he said, "but he doesn't know how to use it . . . he gets carried away and needs to be closely directed."

After The Unholy Wife (1957), a lurid melodrama with Diana Dors in her Hollywood debut, Steiger came to Britain for Across the Bridge (1957), taken from a Graham Greene story about a shady financier on the run in Mexico, but it was not a success. Far better was his impersonation of Al Capone (1959), for which he carried out considerable research.

Returning to Broadway, Steiger embarked on an ambitious venture, playing the bandit in Rashomon (1959), a stage adaptation of the celebrated Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa. It ran for 159 performances and co-starred the English actress Claire Bloom, who became Steiger's second wife.

During their 11-year marriage, they played together twice more, both in 1969 - in the science fiction film The Illustrated Man, based on short stories by Ray Bradbury, and in Three into Two Won't Go, a story of marital infidelity.

A personal triumph in the Sixties was his performance as a Jewish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in The Pawnbroker (1964), for which he won an acting prize at the Berlin Film Festival, while David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965) was his most commercially successful film.

He also demonstrated an unexpected flair for humour as Mr Joyboy, the mother-loving mortician in The Loved One (1965), Tony Richardson's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's satire on the American way of death, and was hammily brilliant as a serial killer in the black comedy No Way to Treat a Lady (1968).

Steiger appeared regularly in European productions, where his best work was with Italian director Francesco Rosi, for whom he made Le Mani sulla Citta (1963), a study of corruption in Naples, and Lucky Luciano (1973), a biography of the American criminal who was deported to his native Italy.

A sad failure was Ermanno Olmi's E Venne un Uomo (1965), a semi-documentary profile of Pope John XXIII. Other European work included a spaghetti Western, Duck, you Sucker (1971), a thriller for Claude Chabrol, Les Innocents aux Mains Sales (1975), and Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977), in which he played Pilate.

His later career was marred by mental illness. A combination of marital failure and surgery for heart disease led to the onset of a depression that lasted eight years. By his own admission, he would lie in bed staring at the ceiling, scarcely speaking all day and not bothering to wash. The symptoms were so severe that twice he almost shot himself and once planned to murder his wife as well.

Of Rod Steiger's four marriages, the first three were dissolved. His first, to Sally Gracie in 1952, lasted 14 months; by his second marriage (1959-69) to Claire Bloom, he had a daughter, the opera singer Anna Steiger; his third wife (1973-79) was Sherry Nelson, and his last, whom he married in 1986, was Paula Ellis, by whom, late in life, he had a son.

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