Peter Lester
August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

Even tough guys get the blues. Three years ago Rod Steiger—whose hard-nose roles as pawnbroker, redneck sheriff and Al Capone won him an Oscar (for In the Heat of the Night) and enormous respect in the profession—touched rock bottom. His third marriage was failing, the critics seemed to have turned on him and, in the aftermath of his 50th birthday and a massive coronary bypass operation, Steiger was literally afraid to face the world. “I was scared to death I couldn’t work,” he recalls. “To get out of bed and brush my teeth was a big accomplishment. The bed is death,’ I used to say to myself. ‘Go ahead, lie here and talk to yourself, but the goddamned bed is going to kill you.’ ”

Seeking help, Steiger turned to Dr. Eugene Landy, the $3.50-per-minute Beverly Hills psychiatrist to the stars (PEOPLE, Sept. 25, 1978) who has nurtured the likes of Richard Harris, Alice Cooper and Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Landy is cautious about his progress with Steiger. “For Rod or any other person to be ‘cured’ would be to die, because the human condition means having problems. Rod has just learned to handle them.” But Landy must believe he has achieved more than that. Today a patient seeking treatment at Landy’s F.R.E.E. clinic (Foundation for Rechanneling of Emotions and Education) might well be assigned to one of its most recent and enthusiastic counselors-in-training: Rod Steiger. “Rod has an investment in the process,” explains Landy, adding: “A depressive can talk to a depressive better than anyone else. A schiz can talk to a schiz. They’re able to reach out and grab quicker.”

Steiger’s belief in psychotherapy is deeply rooted. At 26, the former civil servant from Long Island who found stardom suddenly as TV’s Marty began four or five years of analysis in New York. He credits that psychiatrist with steadying him as his marriage to actress Sally Gracie dissolved. As recently as 1968, Steiger was still seeing the doctor occasionally for “a checkup.” But the end of his second marriage, to Claire Bloom, and of his third, to Sherry Nelson (who tried unsuccessfully to void a prenuptial agreement denying her a share of his earnings), sent him into a tailspin. Then came the devastating news that he needed a bypass operation to relieve constriction in four major arteries. “Confronting death is a big shock to the ego,” he says. “It scares the sh– out of you.” (Nonetheless, Steiger denies a recently circulated story that once he considered suicide.) By the time the surgery was over he was reeling from reviewers’ indifference to his W. C. Fields and Me and felt besieged on the set of F.I.S.T. “I was in the midst of the terror then,” he says. “I didn’t think I could remember my lines. I was getting hit from all sides.”

At first Landy put Steiger on a regimen of individual and group therapy. “Being as dramatic as he is, he overplayed his depression,” says Landy. “It was difficult to get him to believe he was going through a normal process—not a serious illness.” Landy makes a practice of using former patients as counselors—Richard Harris will soon begin training for the job—and Steiger jumped at the chance, though his training required him to read 40 books on psychology in a year. Now twice a week he spends a six-hour day at the clinic, attending meetings and seeing patients under the supervision of a licensed therapist. “He is serious enough about this that at one point he put off a movie,” notes Landy, “because he had to see a girl who was in a crisis. I’ve seen him come for a night session with his makeup on.”

Steiger admits his prospective patients “do sort of a double-take” when confronted with their celebrity therapist. One of Rod’s three current clients is a woman in her 20s who considers him no less than “great.” “He’s incredible—sometimes he’ll lapse into a vocal inflection from W. C. Fields or another of his movies, and it really comforts me.” Inspired, she has decided to become an actress.

Steiger, now 54, still attends a weekly therapy group himself and, for all his marital misadventures, is deep in a relationship with Cannes Festival-winning filmmaker Julene Compton. He rules out marriage for the moment, but says, “It’s serious when we’re together—as serious as two people can be.” His work now is prodigious: The Amityville Horror opened last week, and four other films are in the can. Steiger feels his problems are almost behind him. “I’ll always have my down days and my up days,” he says. “But now I know the secret of life is just putting your right foot forward, then your left foot forward—just keep moving. I’m out of the depression now, and I won’t ever again allow the child in me to feel so sorry for myself that I won’t get out of bed.”

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