Cover image for Rod Steiger : memoirs of a friendship
Rod Steiger : memoirs of a friendship
Hutchinson, Tom, 1930-
Personal Author:
First Fromm International edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Fromm International, 2000.

Physical Description:
235 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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PN2287.S678 H88 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Rod Steiger is a frank and intimate memoir of this troubled and immensely talented actor, one of Hollywood's most charismatic and dynamic stars, by a film critic and longtime friend of Steiger's. Steiger has lived a life as full of drama as any he portrayed on screen. His father walked out after he was born, and his mother became an alcoholic. At sixteen he enlisted in the navy. With the help of the GI Bill, he studied alongside Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe at the Actors' Studio. Steiger's startling intensity first made its mark on television in Paddy Chayevsky's Marty. On the screen, his career was dramatically established in his second film, On the Waterfront, with Brando. Though he was nominated for an Oscar for his memorable performance in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, he didn't win the coveted award until he starred as a redneck police chief in In the Heat of the Night in 1967. In the seventies, at the top of his success, his career faltered and he sank into a deep depression that held him in its grip for several years. Altogether, Steiger has appeared in eighty-seven films.

Author Notes

Tom Hutchinson is a film critic

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

As an example of Rod Steiger's plainspoken bluntness, Hutchinson relates an incident in the early 1970s, when the actor used the word "bloody" while speaking to Queen Elizabeth II; Her Majesty was offended. Indeed, in Hutchinson's idiosyncratic rendering, Steiger's power as a performer is closely connected to his social nonconformity and desire to impart his own internal truth. Having grown up in a dysfunctional, alcoholic family in New Jersey and run off, underage, to join the navy during WWII, Steiger had few breaks when he began his acting career. But after studying method acting at the New School, he soon began getting roles on television and made a hit as the title character in Paddy Chayefsky's play Marty. (He later lost the role to Ernest Borgnine for the film version.) Once in Hollywood, Steiger became a popular character actor featured in villainous roles. By the late 1950s, he was known as "one of the five most exciting actors in Hollywood," according to the author. Since then he has gone on to make fine films (such as The Longest Day), as well as a full ledger of second raters (such as Unholy Wife). Hutchinson (Niven's Hollywood), a film critic based in London, has been friends with Steiger for 30 years, and his affection for his subject shows through on every page. Unfortunately, his book, which relies heavily on personal anecdotes, film review quotations and biographies of other stars, is neither particularly insightful nor a comprehensive critical study. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Of late, Rod Steiger has been seen in supporting parts, appearing as a crime kingpin in The Specialist (1994) and an army general in Mars Attacks (1997). Upon examining his career, however, we realize that Steiger has always been a character actor, whether as Marlon Brando's brother in On the Waterfront (1954), Poor Jud in Oklahoma! (1955), or in leading roles in Run of the Arrow (1957), Al Capone (1959), The Pawnbroker (1965), or In the Heat of the Night (Best Actor Academy Award, 1967). Like Humphrey Bogart, Walter Matthau, and Steve McQueen, the burly, intense Steiger has proven that stardom and longevity depend on talent and charisma, not looks. A close friend of Steiger, Hutchinson (Horror and Fantasy in the Cinema) doesn't allow this mutual admiration society to color unduly his diagnosis of Steiger's career or personal life. He provides revealing glimpses of the Actor's Studio, live TV, and international filmmaking and includes several Steiger poems and a 1992 Guardian interview. This is a worthy biography of an actor who, to some degree, has fallen through the cracks of the filmgoer's consciousness.DKim Holston, American Inst. for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters, Malvern, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One For some reason Soho, that raffishly degraded quarter of London, seems to have been a link in our friendship. Rod had an extra ticket to see Laurence Olivier in John Osborne's The Entertainer and invited me along. We met, why, I'm not entirely sure, outside a pornographic book shop in Old Compton Street. When I arrived he was staring lugubriously at the advertisements for fetishism and bondage. Oh, the desperate dangers of stardom! He was terrified that some photographer might have taken a picture of him and associated him with such perversities. `It's dangerous to be out with you, Hutchinson.'     Olivier impressed us both. There is a ferocious moment when Olivier's Archie Rice, the skid-row music-hall comic, slides down the proscenium arch bawling out a blues song on hearing of his son's death in Korea. I could hear Steiger mumbling; I leaned nearer. `The bastard! The bastard!' muttered Steiger. `How does he get away with it?' It was the risk Olivier was taking in trying for that proscenium slide that was admired; he might have slithered into bathos. No, he didn't want to go backstage to meet Olivier. `What could I say to him? He must have known he was pulling off a marvellous stroke of theatre. He doesn't need me.'     It was an interesting contrast of styles. When I worked on the film, Battle of Britain , I told Olivier of that night, knowing that Olivier had no truck with the Method style of acting which had created Rod Steiger's stage attitudes. Olivier's film hero was Spencer Tracy, who never seemed to be acting at all, whereas those who came from the Method stable bucked and reared like nervy thoroughbreds. You knew that they were acting, all right. `Steiger, I like, though,' said Sir Larry. `He is, for all that malarkey of the Studio, very disciplined.'     `He never bumps into the furniture,' I ventured, remembering Olivier's dictum that actors should learn their lines and never stumble into the furniture.     `Oh, he lets you know the furniture's there all right. But it becomes part of the way he acts and the character he's building. He should have come backstage.' Nobody ever swore as elegantly as Olivier. `I would have been fucking flattered.'     Taking risks is what Rod Steiger most admires in another actor, because he also is a risk taker. When he saw Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris , he wanted to rail against him. Instead he said, `Did you see the wiggle of arse that Brando gave when he left the dance hall? I'll bet that was unrehearsed and yet it gave so much extra to the character. Sure, I still hate the bastard. But you have to admit talent when you see it. And Brando sure has talent.'     Talent was the oxygen required to breathe in those days of the fifties and sixties, when the Method Studio, under the stridently theoretical control of Lee Strasberg, nurtured such young actors as Brando, Steiger, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe. Sir Michael Redgrave once told me that he had studied there for a short period. `I don't think they taught me anything I didn't know, apart from being able to efface myself. I felt myself to be invisible while on stage in Clifford Odets' The Country Girl -- for the first act anyway; I was thinking myself into the background.'     Some actors have the foreground thrust upon them, but Rod Steiger fought to achieve his place in the sun. It was on the shifting deck of a warship in the not-so-peaceful Pacific that Rod took the first step in his transformation from a New Jersey youth, with limited prospects, to an acclaimed actor. It was there, at the age of sixteen, a boy among men preparing for sea-battles against the Japanese, that he stopped using his given name of Rodney. `Answering the roll-call with Rodney was definitely not so hot. I used to use an extra deep voice in case anyone got the wrong idea.'     Rod Steiger, as a mutual friend has said, is a name that suits its bearer, suggesting as it does a brusque, swaggering masculinity. If it is not the man, then it certainly approximates many of the roles he has played over a career that has lasted nearly fifty years.     Following his birth on 14 April 1925, his mother named him after a Dr Rodney who had delivered him. Only his mother and his first wife, Sally Gracie, were to use the less commanding-sounding Rodney in the years to come.     To be sixteen and playing an active part in the war in the Pacific was the result of young Rodney's desperation to escape from his life and its constant humiliations. His childhood had been a troubled one. His parents, Fred and Lorraine, had worked in showbusiness of a sort -- they played roadhouses as a small-time song-and-dance act. Their life had been an itinerant one, moving to where the work was. At the time of Rodney's birth they were living in Westhampton, Long Island.     The marriage was as unsettled as their way of life. The relationship had stalled in Westhampton, and soon after Rodney's arrival Fred walked out, never to return. His mother divorced Fred within a year. So far as he knows, Rod has never even seen his father. The only knowledge he has of him comes from his mother and other relations, and their memories do not always match. He is a shadowy, fugitive figure, but one who has haunted Rod through his life; he has been an invisible presence and unseen influence.     `He was supposed to have been a very attractive rather Latin-looking gentleman, a natural musician -- he could play anything -- and a great dancer,' says Rod, relying on the memories of relatives. But to his son he remains `a void. A hole. An emptiness, a blackness, a longing.'     Rod's feelings about his father remain ambivalent. `If I had met him, if a strange man had come up to me one day and said, "I'm your father," I don't know if I would have burst into tears or broken his jaw in anger, screaming, "Where were you when I needed you!" I don't know why he never contacted me. He certainly knew once I got lucky and my name started to get in the media that I was around. But I always think of him as a dancing fool, I don't know why: slick and patent leather and Rudolph Valentino.     `I've never had a longing to know him. I don't believe that blood is thicker than water. I tried to find out what he was like. But by the time I'd asked my mother and my aunts and uncles I realized that nobody knew. I wouldn't know him even if we were in the same room.'     Rod's mother, Lorraine, plump, energetic and small, with long auburn hair that reached the middle of her back when she wore it loose, was pretty enough to have been offered a movie contract when Rod was five, but she turned it down for unspecified reasons. Shortly after, an operation on her right knee went wrong and it locked so that she was unable to bend it. `She managed to walk beautifully, swinging it from the hip, so you hardly noticed it,' says Rod.     She noticed, though. This, remember, was in the days when disablement was considered almost as a physical curse upon the morally afflicted. The pain and the shame of it had their effect; Lorraine began to drink more, and, as time went on, she would drink all day. The daughter of Scottish and German immigrants -- `She made a great sauerkraut', Rod remembers -- she had been brought up as a Lutheran, a believer in the austere doctrine that, in a world where all are sinners, worth or effort count for nothing in the long term and salvation is by faith alone. She would inculcate the same stern beliefs into her son, even though by her own standards she fell by the wayside into alcoholism.     Steiger himself recalls, when in his teens, being attracted to the Lutheran Church, preaching a few sermons and making friends with the minister, who saw in the actor-to-be a possible propagandist for the faith. `I liked the guy very much; I also liked the authority I could exert from the pulpit. But one day I had to tell him that I no longer believed in God or, at any rate, not enough to preach His gospels. The minister, I could tell, was very hurt. But if I had taken up that vocation I know now that I would have condemned myself to a life of misery.'     There were other men in his mother's life. When Rodney could barely walk, she met and married Walter Tours, whom he remembers with affection. `A big man, big in kindness, big in body, big in spirit. A man who I considered my father, having not known my father.' But Walter, too, was fallible, and disappeared for a time when Rod was still a small boy. He left a note on the kitchen table, saying that he had gone to the corner saloon for a beer, and did not return for more than two years.     Lorraine's drinking got worse. Rod never knew whether she'd be home, or he might return to find the house full of boozed companions: I remember one of her lady friends was sleeping in a drunken stupor with her legs spread and I lit a match and carefully approached her to try to see underneath the darkness created by the blanket what women were built like. Scared to death, but titillated and fascinated. That match went out and I thought I might burn her, or that my mother would never forgive me. Lorraine worked when she could, in shops and stores, in an attempt to support herself and her son. When the days of Depression hit, they went on Relief, with the young Rod queueing to collect handouts of day-old bread. They moved from one New Jersey town to another: Irvington, Bloomfield and, lastly, Newark, where they settled long enough for Rod to go to the West Side High School, though he was only to spend a year there. He was a popular boy, the dominant figure in his circle of friends: a capable softball player, an incisive storyteller and an enthusiastic participant in plays and entertainments, where his roles ranged from Father Christmas to George Washington. By the time they moved to Newark he was fifteen, a burly, well-built boy who looked older than his years.     On good days, in the evenings when his school work was done, his mother would sit at their upright piano and play and sing songs from her past, sentimental Tin Pan Alley melodies such as `Roses of Picardy' and `Shine On, Harvest Moon'. It was rather a pathetic attempt at home life. On bad days, she drank too much. Rod, returning from school, would hear her screaming and shouting as he walked down the street.     From the age of nine, if his mother was not at home he would wait in fear for the telephone to ring: a call from a saloon telling him to come to collect her and lead her home. `I remember thinking, one day you're going to do something so good no one will laugh at the name of Steiger again. I think that's what gives my acting some of its intensity,' he says. Once, Steiger and I were lunching when he heard that Sir Charles Chaplin had hired a suite upstairs for a party. `I must go and pay my respects,' he said. I assumed it was to say `hello' to the genius who had given Rod's second wife, Claire Bloom, her chance in Limelight .     That wasn't the reason. It was because he felt Chaplin's own childhood -- with a mother whose mental health had forced Chaplin into an orphanage -- mirrored his own. `I think I know what he went through, because I went through it as well.' Chaplin, by then in his dotage, accepted Steiger's worship, though he was rather confused by its enthusiasm.     One Christmas morning, when Rod was nine, he awoke to discover the house empty. His mother had not arrived home from a drinking binge. The Christmas tree was lying on the floor, and she did not return for three days. The distance of adulthood makes us forget just how painful childhood hurt can be. Children have no yardsticks of experience to go by; the pain seems likely to go on for ever. Steiger was, as he says, his own father and mother.     As a boy, Rod began to write poetry, something he continues to do, finding in it a release from everyday worries. Gloom invaded those poems like night.     He determined to leave home as fast as he could, which was sooner than he expected. As he was growing up, the US had moved from a position of neutrality towards foreign conflicts to a realization that some sort of involvement in a world war was inevitable. In September 1939, German armies invaded Poland and war in Europe began. Less than a year later, for the first time in America's history, there was peacetime conscription.     By early 1941, the US Congress had passed the Lend-Lease Act, providing the president with seven billion dollars to send weapons and aid to Britain and other countries, to combat the growing power of Hitler. This was a move to help without directly involving American troops. By the summer, the US Navy was escorting convoys west of Iceland and had authorization from the president to attack and sink enemy ships. It was Japan's sneak attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, early on the morning of 7 December 1941, that brought America into the war in an uprush of belated outrage and patriotism.     For Rod, the war presented not only a chance to serve his country, but to get away from the atmosphere of home and school. Forcing his mother to lie about his age -- he is still acutely embarrassed that he had to twist her arm behind her back to make her sign -- he enlisted in the US Navy, becoming a torpedo-man, first class, on a destroyer in the Pacific, involved in operations of the Third and Fifth Fleet. `I loved the Navy. I was stupid enough to think I was being heroic,' he reflected later.     Although he had no idea what career he might follow, he gave his companions a foretaste of things to come by reciting Shakespeare one night while on watch. He hadn't noticed that his microphone was open until an officer on the bridge yelled, `Get the hell off the line!'     Steiger persisted in his tannoyed turns, almost as though he had to be heard by as big an audience as possible: the need for fulfilment was there already. At that time Orson Welles was the sinister voice-over narrator of a popular radio series called The Phantom Knows -- all about the secrets of the human heart, exposed for posterity in soapily operatic form.     On the ship's radio intercom Steiger constantly parodied the style and some of the substance of that programme. His stories were often comfortingly lewd for women-deprived men. They were a reminder of a world outside the grim rationale of military responsibilities and duties. Navels rather than naval.     Steiger used to end his nightly monologues with the words, `The Phantom knows ... and the Phantom says goodnight.'     Then one night came a blast on the all-ship microphone: `And this is the captain on the bridge saying goodnight -- and get the fuck off the air!'     But Steiger was back quite soon by popular request because the captain knew he had a morale-booster in these nightly tirades. Then the ship's padre butted in. He had enjoyed the parodies as much as anyone, and asked Rod to give a series of stand-up routines. `They were the filthiest of all the jokes and stories I knew, but the chaplain loved them, rubbing his hands with joy. It really took their minds off the war,' Steiger proclaimed.     This lifting of the spirits was much needed. Not only was the ship engaged in combat, but -- worse -- there were the soldiers who were taken on board before battle. And after. `When they came back they were far gone, too pitiful, most of them. When you've seen a man trying to dig fox-holes in steel decks you knew just how awful their lives had been made.'     Although Steiger saw enough action to turn him into a fervent pacifist, taking part in ten major engagements, one of his most frightening moments was being caught in a typhoon. `It knocked the front off the battleship Pennsylvania . You certainly feel insignificant when you look up at a wave sixty feet above your head.' On 4 September 1945, the day after Japan formally surrendered to General MacArthur aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Rod left the Navy with a medical discharge: it was not a war wound, though, that necessitated the exit, but acne.     Or it might have been eczema -- the medics were never quite sure. All Steiger knows is that he was allowed to wear a lighter shirt than other crew members, to ease the soreness of the rash that was his constant singlet of pain. `It became a great joke to clap me on the back in supposed comradeship -- and the blood would spurt through, so that there was a bloodied handmark on my vest. Great fun. It didn't hurt all that much, but it did get me noticed!'     Steiger also had his first sexual encounter while in the Navy, when his ship was harboured during its spell off-duty. North Fork, Virginia, was a place which found servicemen less than endearing. In the parks the signs read: `Dogs and servicemen keep off the grass'.     Steiger went to a local dance-hall with some friends and spotted two girls, one blonde the other brunette, holding court with admiring swains. The girls were unresponding to each and every advance, enjoying their power, their disdain for the opposite sex. Steiger went over to chat up the blonde and was, equally, rebuffed. So he tried a ploy he had been working on for just such a contingency. `Let me tell you a story,' he said. And he put a book of matches on the edge of the table, weighting it down with a glass. One match stuck out and Steiger lit it.     Then, timing it with the movement of the match, he said that there was a man in hospital who could not get an erection. The nurse said: `Think about your wife.' The match sagged down. `Think about your girlfriend,' urged the nurse. And the match straightened like an erection.     The girls laughed, especially the blonde, and Steiger took her off to seek a hotel. The town's attitude to servicemen was evident here as well. Servicemen could not get a room for the afternoon -- it would have been too disgusting. So, master criminal he -- or just desperate for sex -- Steiger bought a small cardboard case and a fake wedding ring. Then he stormed into a hotel. `My wife and I are newly married. Where can we get a room? Where can we get a room? Look, do you want to see our marriage licence? I'm fighting for my country.' He reached into his inside pocket, but the receptionist was anxious to please such a noisy customer. Steiger and the blonde got the room and, in Steiger's words, `We had one helluva time.'     Three days later he went to the urinal and began to tap-dance -- `it burned so much as I pissed. That's right, it was the clap. Thus do circumstances defeat master criminals!'     I said it sounded like a short story by Guy de Maupassant, with the beloved girl passing on the disease to the novice lover of lowly origins. He mused, `You're right, it would make a neat parcel of a play. But, you know, I still feel saddened by the incident all these years afterwards. Losing my virginity should have been more important than that kind of demeaning disease.'     He is grateful to this day that he had a virginity to keep until that tender age. For he still remembers vividly an encounter with a paedophile when he was five years old.     There was a man, who lived near his mother's, who invited young Rodney in to look at a butterfly collection. Rod sat on the man's knee and the man began playing with the boy's genitals. `This is why child-abuse is so monstrous. The child has no experience, he or she cannot comprehend what is happening to him. I knew it was wrong, deep-down, some instinct, but it was also very exciting. No child should ever have to be exposed to that kind of emotion.'     It only happened once. Next day he heard that the man had left the neighbourhood. Or been pushed from the neighbourhood? Steiger never knew. Fortunately, his first experience of sex had no lasting effects, and he developed a healthy desire for the opposite sex. Mind you, that could have its comic, subversive, side ...     `As a young man you're so clever and sure of yourself: arrogant. I went with this woman who was a bit older than me. And I thought I would give her a good time, by being Casanova: so I took my time, my good time, to do all the stroking and caressing, to make her ready for me.     `But she wasn't having any of that! She grabbed my hand as in a vice and almost pushed it up her vagina, with the rest of me following! Subtlety was not the name of this dame's game. It taught me a lesson, though, not to be over-confident.'     The adolescent had become a man, toughened by his experiences but hardly thinking of what lay ahead. He had no worries; it was enough to eat and sleep. He felt no real connection with the rest of the world; he was never to be quite sure whether that world had cut him off or if he had cut it off. Either way, it was mutual.     With nothing better to do, he left the Navy and returned to Newark to work in the Office of Dependants and Beneficiaries, taking home to his mother $27.50 a week. He was little more than a messenger, carting boxes stacked with cheques from one office to another and occasionally oiling the cheque-signing machines. It was a dreary existence.     His return home brought all those overwhelming emotions he had felt as a child to a head: I don't have the temperament for a regular job. If I'd worked in one, I'd be the guy who, when he came into a bar, people would have said, `Oh, Christ, here he comes again. Who's he going to pick a fight with tonight?' And one night someone would have slipped a knife between my ribs. I'd have been a miserable alcoholic. I was lucky. I belong to the luckiest minority: someone who can make a living at something he loves. The influence of his unsettled upbringing and the lack of a father was to affect his future life. Like his father, he has found it difficult to settle, despite his desire for the sort of family life he never experienced as a child. `I don't want my personal life ever to be one of agony, like John Barrymore's,' he once said. Yet agony has marked his personal life, in a career punctuated by broken marriages, and terrible depressions.     The past contrived to impact upon his life. In 1968 he was filming the black comedy No Way to Treat a Lady in which he played a serial killer. Disguised as a hairdresser, he has murdered one of his victims and rings a detective to taunt him. As Steiger played the scene, he began to improvise, adding a W. C. Fields impersonation, ranting about degeneracy and debauchery and how much he had enjoyed killing. For a moment, he lost control. His voice took on a hysterical, menacing tone. He was shaken: I was enjoying my hostility towards women. A certain piece of sickness in me happened to fit the situation. All of a sudden, under the guise of entertainment, came this psychological vomit. I scared myself. Something took over for about thirty seconds. It might have come out of the fact that for years I didn't like my mother at all, because she was an alcoholic. I had no use for her until I got older and realized she had a disease. Because that's what alcoholism is: a disease. There was a concussed silence on the set after this rant, as though the crew had suddenly peered into an unexpected abyss. Steiger put the phone down and Jack Smight, the director, asked him, `Do you want to do that again?'     `Never,' said Rod.     One of the best things Steiger remembers about his mother is that finally she managed to beat her alcohol craving. She was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the last eleven years of her life. When she was taken seriously ill, a few months before she died in 1967, Rod was sent for and told that she was dying; she would not breathe in the oxygen that was fed to her through a mask. She was sedated, too, which didn't help communication.     So Steiger sat down by her bed and yelled, `Mom! You're acting like a cunt! You never were an actress, you could never sing, so why are you using this cheap way of attracting attention?' He ranted on like that, tears streaming down his cheeks and down the cheeks of everyone round the bedside.     But then she started to breathe, gulping back great breaths of oxygen. And her right hand came up to greet him.     `I knew that to make her angry was the only way to help her -- even though I hated, just hated, doing it.'     By the time of his mother's death, Rod had been reconciled with her for many years. She had taken a vicarious pleasure in following his career and, with his stepfather Walter, watched his films more than once. She had kept scrapbooks detailing his work, even cutting out advertisements for his films in her local paper, where he was billed as `North Jersey's Own Rod Steiger'. Rod's only regret was that she did not live to see him win an Oscar for his role as a Southern redneck sheriff in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night . `She would have died happy. She lived through me; she was a frustrated performer. But she went out knowing we loved each other; she's in a better place, waiting for me, as I'll wait for my son and daughter,' he says.

Table of Contents

Rod Steiger
Forewordp. 11
Introductionp. 15
Part 1 Steiger, Steigerp. 21
Part 2 Burning Brightp. 65
Part 3 In the Forests of the Nightp. 129
Afterword: Song of Innocence - and Experiencep. 165
Poems and Piecesp. 167
The Guardian Interviewp. 177
Filmographyp. 229
Bibliographyp. 233