Now…I could do a worshipful, respectful post about the genius of Rod Steiger (1925-2002) as a Method Actor, but, children, that has been done. By the bushelful. There’s not exactly a shortage of praise-prose about Steiger’s performances in Marty (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), The Pawnbroker (1964), or In the Heat of the Night (1967). On this site, though no less appreciative of this great artist, we go our own way. If you find it irreverent or disrespectful, you’re hearing it all wrong. For we above all value the outre, the outsized, the big, and the bizarre. Steiger was a risk taker. As any problem gambler will tell you, win or lose, the rolling of the dice on huge stakes is its own reward.
Steiger was the son of a husband-wife vaudeville team. (Not many of Steiger’s roles tap into that show biz background, but one we would like to mention is the title role in W.C. Fields and Me (1976), which we wrote about here.) When the stork brought Rodney, the dad took a run-out powder, forcing the mother to drop show business, work dead end jobs, and raise the boy alone. Mother and son rambled around small towns in New York State, finally settling in Newark. The mother was depressed and alcoholic. And Steiger was sexually abused by a strange man at age five. As a teenager, he ran away and joined the Navy where he saw action at Iowa Jima and elsewhere, witnessing a lot of death. All of these experiences scarred him, and added to the store of volatile resources he had access to as an actor. After World War Two, he studied at the Actor’s Studio, where he became imbued in the system known as the Method, alongside fellow students like Marlon Brando. And here is where Steiger learned to tap into that volcano he carried around with him in order to play characters you could not miss. For the sake of organization, I have broken the Rogues Gallery down into two categories: 1) Lunatics and Crooks (Often Murderous); and 2) Great Monsters from History.
Lunatics and Crooks (often Murderous)
#MeToo in the bunkhouse! Other than Agnes De Mille’s ballet, the dark “Jud” subplot is my favorite element of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And it’s probably the closest Steiger ever got to emulating the skill set of his singing, dancing vaudeville parents.
The Big Knife (1955)
This Clifford Odets classic drama about the sleaziness of Hollywood is much closer to Steiger’s Method training. Steiger deserved a special Academy Award for his hair alone in this movie, and not for the last time.
Cry Terror (1958)
One of Steiger’s first psycho killer characters, a mad bomber, in a film written, produced and directed by Andrew Stone.
The Loved One (1965)
One of Steiger’s few comedies and as always he outdoes himself. Tony Richardson gives him maximum scope to do his thing as Oedipal embalmer “Mr. JoyBoy” in this black comedy about a profit-maximizing Hollywood cemetery. The results are so out there it transcends anything normally recognizable as humor. It’s the sort of thing, I believe, that paves the way for John Waters.
No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)
A tour de force. Steiger is so highly entertaining as a Protean sexual psychopathic serial killer. He’s never the same guy in any two scenes. It’s like having a half a dozen Mr Joyboys in one long sick, vaudeville turn. .
The Illustrated Man (1969)
Steiger is a more passive weirdo in this trilogy of sci-fi stories by Ray Bradbury. You gaze, gaze at his tattoos, and see stories that tell your future!
Duck, You Sucker (1971)
Brando had played Zapata; Elia Wallach was Tucco in The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly (1965). Now Steiger got his turn as a cold-blooded psycho gun-toting Mexican revolutionary in the Sergio Leone spaghetti western.
The Amittyville Horror (1979)
What can be said about Steiger’s contribution to one of the most preposterous of all “true” stories? “Over the top” is putting it mildly. The emotional distance he travels with his screaming, crying, pleading priest doesn’t even seem to be called for by the script. It’s definitely a case of using a machine gun to kill a fly. Yet, now that you mention flies, we seem to recall the ones in this movie better than Steiger’s operatic showboating for some reason. While you’re watching his performance, it cannot help but make an impression. You’re like, “Whoa! I guess this is happening now!” But since the movie is not about that, it’s not what you take away. He does all that work and you go away remembering a pig head or something.
American Gothic (1987)
A very muddled high concept slasher film. With this title and this poster, it ought to be set in some midwestern farm Children of the Corn milieu. Instead it’s set on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What’s that got to do with the Grant Wood painting??? I’m not saying you won’t be entertained. At least I was. Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo as the elderly parents of demented adult children on an island that time forgot, just waiting for a boatload of young adults to have motor trouble and get stuck there so they can be killed one by one. Whatevs! Watch it some weekend afternoon when you’re supposed to be mowing the lawn and you won’t regret it.
Great Monsters from History
Al Capone (1959) — title character
Other gangsters he played included Gene Giannini in Lucky Luciano (1973) and Sam Giancana in Sinatra (1992)
Waterloo (1970) — Napoleon Bonaparte
As is well known, everybody who dresses up as Napoleon is crazy, right?
The Last Days of Mussolini (1974) — Benito Mussolini
I guess, because he was the wrong body type for Hitler! (Though he might have made an excellent Goering). Steiger also played Il Duce in the the 1980 film Lion of the Desert.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977) — Pontius Pilate
“You want I should nail him to a cross? Look, I’ll nail him to a cross!”
Lastly, I like this picture, just because it makes Steiger look sort of like a South Park character:
To learn more about vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,