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Steiger Talks Dean,

Brando, Bogey, Cooper

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Publicity photo of Rod Steiger in A Short Happy Life.
One Of The Leaders Of The Early Actors Studio Revolution, Luminary Rod Steiger Waxes On Acting, Many Of His Co-Stars And Much More In A Remembrance Of An Interview Done Into The Dusky Twilight


By David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 1, 2014 — Our long and rambling 1995 interview with Rod Steiger on the deck of his Spanish-style villa in the hills above Malibu ranks as the only interview among the hundreds we’ve done where we – the interviewers – had to call an end to the visit.
Steiger literally could have talked all night, and he did into the dusky twilight when, after a time, all we could indistinctly see of the Oscar-winning actor (In the Heat of the Night) was his white bathrobe which pulsated like a strobe as it grew darker and his voice became, seemingly, ever more disembodied.

Steiger took justifiable pride in playing social misfits and outsiders to the hilt and his favorite, he said, was the misanthropic Jewish pawnshop owner tortured by memories of the Holocaust in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 The Pawnbroker. Although raised a Lutheran, Steiger (at that time a self-professed agnostic) grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, NJ and drew on his memories for the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated performance. On Sept. 9th, TCM will devote a night to stories related to the Holocaust, including The Pawnbroker.

An alumnus of the Actor’s Studio in New York City, Steiger hit Hollywood right on the cusp when the old guard — comprised of actors like Humphrey Bogart — started to cede power to the avant garde led by the protean talent of men like James Dean and Marlon Brando. Steiger worked with them all. Here are some of his reflections:

On Brando … In On the Waterfront,  we didn’t get to know each other at all. He always flew solo and I haven’t seen him since the film. I do resent him saying he’s just a hooker and actors are whores.

On Dean … Jimmy was a friend of mine and extremely talented, but he hadn’t quite got his technique together. At the time of his death, he was working too much on instinct. He’d be brilliant in one scene and then blow the next.

On Bogart … In The Harder They Fall, Bogey and I got along very well. Unlike some other stars, when they had close-ups, you might have been relegated to a two-shot, or cut out altogether. Bogart didn’t play those games. He was a professional and had tremendous authority. He’d come in exactly at 9 a.m. and leave precisely at 6 p.m.

I remember once walking to lunch in between takes and seeing Bogey on the lot. I should have because his work was finished for the day. I asked him why he was still on the lot, and he said, “They want to shoot some retakes of my close-ups because my eyes are too watery.” A little while later, after the film, somebody came up to me with word of Bogey’s death. Then it struck me. His eyes were watery because he was in pain with the cancer. I thought: “How dumb can you be Rodney!”

On Gary Cooper … I had great respect for him as a survivor. Acting had moved on a little bit from where Cooper was, and in the interim his career had gotten a little shaky. To publicize our movie, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, we did a live scene on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was as white as a piece of chalk; perspiration was dripping out of the cuff of his uniform. A couple of times during the scene he got lost a little bit, but he had the guts of a lion. Of course the other side of Cooper was every time we had a scene to shoot during the movie, I had to pound on Elizabeth Montgomery’s dressing room door to get him out of there!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at
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