Bright Lights Film Journal

Confessions of a Hollywood Tough Guy: An Interview with Rod Steiger

“The only thing that is absolutely important for me is quality.”

Meeting Rod Steiger was a matter of sheer chance. It was during a film festival in the Canary Islands, Spain, when I suddenly ran into Steiger at the hotel where we both were staying. It must have been the palm trees, or maybe this enormous man, all dressed in black, his head completely shaved, but all of a sudden I felt as if I had been transported deep into the jungle, facing Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was struck immediately not only by his massive size but also by his friendliness. Obviously he was not like the villains he often played, but he was also not the typical Hollywood star. We started talking and went on into an almost two-hour interview. We discussed Steiger’s education and early career both in theatre and television and went through some of the highlights of his film career. Below is a brief part of that conversation, which took place in March 2002 . [Editor’s note: Steiger died four months later, on July 9, 2002, age 77.]

Like many other members of your generation, you studied in the Actors Studio and recently you appeared in a documentary on the Studio. Are you still in touch with the people from the school?

Comme ci comme ça. The people at the Actors have changed. Now it’s part of New York’s New School for Social Research, which is more or less a university. At the beginning the Actors was independent. It belonged to no other institution. There were auditions to be accepted. Nowadays — in my opinion — it has lost all its independence. It has become a kind of university. But I think it’s still a place where an actor can learn from his own mistakes. That was always the best thing about the Studio. The actor could make a thousand mistakes without being dismissed. It’s very important that actors have a place to work in. A place to learn. Because if you’re not right for the theatre, you’ll be fired. So I’ll be always grateful to the Actors for giving me such a learning place.

I’m quite acquainted with your film career but not really with your previous work in the theatre. You were involved with the Group Theatre, weren’t you? What are your memories of that time?

Oh, I could be talking about it for a couple of days! I began my career as an actor in the theatre, in New York. The first play I acted in was by Clifford Odets. Then I worked in a very interesting piece based on the screenplay of the Japanese picture Rashomon. I also acted in a version of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Well, at that time I tried to work in things a lot different than television or Hollywood films.

So is there any difference between acting in the theatre and in the movies?

I don’t think so. In my experience there is not. A good actor is good in the theatre, the movies, television. The one and only thing that changes when you act in the theatre is the voice. I mean, when I’m working in a play, what worries me the most is my voice — that the audience can hear my voice clearly. That’s all. The rest is the same as working in the movies.

You finally moved to Hollywood in the early 1950s. Your first role in a film was in 1951 in Fred Zinnemann’s Teresa. 

That’s right. My first picture was Teresa. Zinnemann was a wonderful man, a great director. We became good friends. So we made another picture together. It was called Oklahoma! [1955], and it was something very unique in my career. You know, it was a musical — by Rodgers and Hammerstein — a genre with a reality and a life of its own. Something absolutely new for me. A year later I did another western, Jubal. It was a sort of Othello set in the American West. It was directed by Delmer Daves, a fine craftsman but a man lacking of imagination. Anyway, it was nice to work with him.

In the early 1950s TV shows were challenging the movie industry. A lot of young professionals working in that medium conquered Hollywood a bit later. And some very successful TV shows were then reshaped for the big screen. I’m thinking, for example, of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty. You played Marty in the TV show. Why not in the film?

That was a very sad story for me. I had created Marty. It may sound egocentric but it’s true. Burt Lancaster and a man named Harold Hecht bought the rights to the play to make a film of it. I went to see them and they agreed I was the one to play the part. I was mad with joy. But later they told me I had to sign an exclusive contract with them for seven years. I said I wouldn’t do it. I asked them, “Who will decide my parts?” They said they would. So I told them I was the one with the right to choose. Even if I chose the wrong thing. I was the one and only one to do it. So I lost the part. Sometime later somebody told me that during the shooting of the movie they were always using my interpretation of Marty.

What was it like working with Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront [1954]? He was a director renowned for working with the actors.

Yes. I was very excited. Mr. Brando had a tremendous success at the time with Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire [1951], and they wanted me to play his elder brother in the picture. So I was feeling a little nervous because he was a great actor. I got the part in the end, so we finally worked together. And then came the very famous cab scene. If I see it once more I’ll blow my head off! We did two shots and then his close-ups. I was off screen talking to him. Because acting is in the first place reacting to somebody. The actor off screen helps the one in front of the camera. You need somebody to act to. Well, we did his close-ups together, and then when we were about to shoot mine he just went home. I haven’t forgiven him for that, and I think I never will.

And what about Kazan? He had just testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. What was like the atmosphere around the shooting of the film?

I feel no respect for Elia Kazan. We all adored him when we were young and we were beginning acting. Then he went to Washington and sold out his friends. It was a big blow for everyone. As if somebody told you your father has slept with your sister. We just couldn’t believe it. How could we believe Elia Kazan had sold out his friends in order to save his career in Hollywood? That was the end of my respect for Elia Kazan. Forever.

Your next film was The Big Knife [1955] based on a play by Clifford Odets. It was directed by Robert Aldrich, a talented young director.

Yes. Bob Aldrich was a good professional and a man of great craft. It’s still a wonderful picture. It was shot almost entirely in a single set. A huge room. There was only one scene shot on location. And it’s amazing that Aldrich managed to do it so well with that restriction. Technically speaking it was a big challenge. In Hollywood the picture was received badly. It was considered an attack on the movie industry. I’d love to do it again today, because as long as Hollywood exists, the film will be still valid. It’s a marvellous story for a film.

I’d like to tell you something that happened while we were shooting The Big Knife. You see, as I was working in the film, I wasn’t very sure of the motivations of the character I was playing, Mr. Hoff. Neither the things he liked, his way of acting or treating women. Well, an actor has to use everything that helps him to improve his role. So then I did something I usually do on these occasions. It always works out fine for me. I went into a big store and walked around every floor. I also like to do it whenever I feel depressed. I imagined Mr. Hoff’s taste for shoes, jackets, and even for women’s underwear. And in the men’s floor I noticed a golden tiepin in the shape of a question mark. I told myself: “Mr. Hoff is exactly like that. He knows nothing about his feelings. He doesn’t even know if he is homosexual.” So while I was shooting the picture, any time I was feeling uneasy about the character I just touched that tiepin and all the troubles disappeared. He was a question mark! That proves that anything can help an actor improve himself.

Do you think The Big Knife shows Hollywood as it really was?

Well, it basically does. The Big Knife shows how Hollywood could corrupt a very talented man. To see this man’s corruption, it was necessary to show the corruption of Hollywood.

It seems to me a very autobiographical play, I mean of Odets’ own experiences in the movie industry.

Of course. It has a lot to do with the life of Clifford Odets. He felt as if he had betrayed himself by working in the movies. It was a common idea for all the people in the theatre who went to Hollywood — especially those working in the Group Theatre.

Otto Preminger got a reputation for being a difficult director to work with. Frank Sinatra, Tom Tyron, and other actors refer to him as a kind of a tyrant. You worked with him in The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell [1955]. Did you have any arguments with him, or was he easy to get on with?

I never had an argument with him! It’s funny you say that. I got along with him very well. If I scratched my head, Preminger made a close-up of my face. Then I’d say to him, “I’m only scratching my head!”And he would say,”Never mind, it’s perfect. Go on!” He was a very talented director. And if you worked with him as a professional, there was no trouble. But if you didn’t . . . I guess that was it!

Another classic piece of acting of yours is in Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall [1956]. What can you tell me about the film?

For me, to act in The Harder They Fall was a great pleasure and an honour because of working with Humphrey Bogart, whom I admired a lot. He was one of the finest persons and professionals I’ve worked with. You know, at that time he was very ill. In fact, he was dying. And he was always ready to shoot at 9:00 a.m. exactly and stayed on the set until 6:00 p.m. every day. I remember people often told him:”Bogie, the scene went alright, but . . . maybe you could stay a little longer.” He invariably replied [imitating Bogart’s voice],”What time is it?”And somebody said: “It’s 6 o’clock.” So Bogart said“I’m deeply sorry but I’m leaving at 6. See you tomorrow.” One day he came to work when he wasn’t supposed to be working. I was having my meal and he came closer. I called him “Mr. Bogart.” You know, I call “Mister” anybody who had survived for twenty years in this business. So as he came next to me, I asked him: “What are you doing here?” He said he was doing some retakes — some close-ups. The day before, his eyes had been watery. Just one month later he died of cancer. He was feeling terrible pain and he didn’t say a word about it. I never heard him moaning. That was a man!

I love the films of Samuel Fuller. You starred in Run of the Arrow [1956], for me one of his best.

Do you like Samuel Fuller? Seriously?

Yes, very much. 

C’est la vie! Samuel Fuller was a . . . He came to show me the script for the film. I didn’t know how to play that part, but the thing was I was absolutely sure I wanted to do it. It was something different. We worked together at his house on the role for three weeks — maybe a month. Then we went to shoot the picture, and we never talked again about it. The first day of shooting — in my first scene — I was concentrating and a little bit nervous but almost ready when I heard the sound of a gun. “Bang!” I thought: “What the hell was that?” Fuller — that idiot — was there with the gun in his hand. And that’s how he was trying to make my acting more intense! I said to him he obviously didn’t know a thing about acting. An actor should be concentrating before shooting. Doing such a thing, you would only get the actor frightened. He knew nothing about acting! I can hardly understand how he became so successful. For what? Just a couple of pictures. The Steel Helmet[1951]? He was no Eisenstein! Not even a Kazan, Lumet or Zinnemann. I do not understand why here in Europe everybody likes him . . . Some other day I went to his house and we talked about the picture we’d just finished shooting. I asked him if he had children. He answered with a plain “No!”, and then he told me that they all had died. A very human guy! Why do you like his films?

He portrays the dark side of America in his films. Something very different from the usual Hollywood style. He’s always got such intensity and passion. I think his films show very precisely how your country was at that time. His characters are basically very primitive and they are full of contradictory and intense feelings, very dramatic conflicts.

Oh, yes! Fuller was very primitive. Fuller? You can keep him . . . I prefer the man who made Les Enfants du Paradis [1945] — Marcel Carné. He was a director.

Now that we are talking about European cinema, in the early ’60s you came to work here. Especially in Italy — in Francesco Rosi’s Le Mani Sulla Città [Hands Over the City, 1963] and Lucky Luciano [1973]; Sergio Leone’s Giù la testa [Duck You Sucker, 1972] and Carlo Lizzani’s Mussolini: ultimo atto [1974]. Why did you come Europe?

I will make a picture no matter where if I like the script and, of course, the part I will play! Art knows nothing about nationalities. The only thing that is absolutely important for me is quality. There are good and bad pictures everywhere. It doesn’t depend on their nationality. I am also very keen on independent filmmaking. Here in Europe, the director is seen mainly as an artist. That’s another reason why I love Europe so much. I like the respect for Art that you’ve got here. Here, good pictures are not made just thinking about money . . . Anyway, Rosi, Lizzani and Leone were all very good directors — internationally acclaimed.

So you were looking mainly for more freedom to choose your roles. You were interested also in better parts and more complex characters to play.

Yes. That’s it. It was all about freedom. The Art is free. But, you see, there is something funny about freedom. Let me tell you a story. When I was young — in the early ’50s — everybody was going to the psychoanalyst. Everybody in Hollywood did. And if you didn’t, people looked at you as an odd sort. So I became curious about it, and I decided to visit one of them. I sat down and asked him how the sessions would help me as an actor. I told the doctor: “It is absolutely necessary for me to be free. I need to be free to walk, to talk, to act, to love . . . I’ve got to be free!” And he said something that changed my life completely: “Be careful or you will become a slave to that freedom.” After I heard that I could only tell him:”What time did you say is the next session?” I became an actor, and that’s how I kept the ideal of freedom I had had since I was a child. I could work three months a year and the rest of the time do whatever I feel like. So becoming an actor was a happy accident. I’m not going to work every day . . . After the war I had a job in the Army office. It was terrible, a nightmare. If I had stayed there for the rest of my life I would have blown my head off — or I would have become a drunkard.

But there’s no routine in an acting career. You have portrayed many different roles, including some historical personalities such as Napoleon, Mussolini or Al Capone. How do you prepare for that kind of character? What is your approach to them?

Well, first of all I read as much as I can on the character. I gather as much information as possible. But doing that, sometimes you find conflicts between the different sources, authors, and so on. So when I first find contradictions, then I stop reading and I begin searching inside of myself. My own private version of the character. Have you seen my portrait of the comic actor W. C. Fields in a picture titled W. C. Fields and Me [1976]?

No, I’m afraid I haven’t. 

It’s a pity. It’s one of my best performances.

Well, at the same time you came to Europe there was a kind of Hollywood exile. Actors, screenwriters, producers and directors came here to work in what has been called “runaway productions.” Sam Spiegel was one of the most notable producers at the time. And you worked in one of his productions, David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago [1965], filmed here in Spain.

David Lean was a man of the movies. He began editing newsreels. He had to put all the news together in less than 20 minutes! So he was one of the best English editors. I think that ability helped him a lot to become a director. I’m sure one of his virtues was precisely that he shot his pictures thinking all the time of the editing room. He also had a fine taste for actors. And as he had the capacity to choose among the best. . . Well, for me, that’s not all. You see, a director should be able to help an actor with his performance — especially if the actor’s in trouble. David wasn’t at his best on that, even when he chose great actors trying to avoid that kind of trouble. You know, I’m thinking of Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson and all those amazing English actors. At least Lean was able to value good performances.

But sometimes you have to take risks. I mean, sometimes it’s more productive not to control everything so much.

Yes, of course. I think nobody can live without taking some risks sometimes. For example, have you seen The Loved One [1965]?

Yes. It’s one of my favourite films by Tony Richardson. It’s a masterpiece of black humour, very funny and bizarre. And I also love Evelyn Waugh’s novel. 

Well, that picture was a risk for me. I played Mr. Joyboy, a homosexual, and I had to perform the character trying not to offend the gay community. I did it and I’m very happy to say that nobody felt offended. You know, an actor has to play so many different roles, different kinds of human beings. This particular one was absolutely different from everything I’d done previously in my career. So I loved doing it.

What do you think about the awards? Do you like them?

I guess everybody likes to win sometimes. It makes you feel good.

But, for example, you won an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night [1967]; do you think it’s your best performance?

No, of course not. Everybody thought I would win it for Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker[1965]. That’s a far better film. But, you know, that year Lee Marvin won the award for a picture called Cat Ballou [1965]. Nobody knows that film nowadays . . . Sometimes it’s just like that. But I remember I felt very happy winning it. First, because — as I said before — everybody likes to win sometimes. And also, and this is something very important for the industry, too, because to win it means they’re going to offer you the best roles. You’re going to work with top director and producers. That’s what is important about it. And it’s always good also because you’re getting paid a lot better. Believe me!

In all these years, after working in the movie industry for such a long time, have you ever felt the temptation to direct your own pictures?

Sure. Although it’s a difficult matter to talk about. In California you need to be part of the social life to be able to make things on a big scale. I’ve never been part of that. I’ve lived there for fifty-two years, and I’ve never done such a thing. I don’t want to deal with people I don’t like even if I could direct a picture by doing so. No way. But I still hope I can direct a couple of screenplays I’ve written. At my age — and I’m seventy-seven years old now — I know it will be very difficult. So I need to take it seriously. Another problem is that I feel the things I’ve written are closer to the European sensibility. So, you know, it just won’t be easy.