Rod Steiger was of the same Hollywood generation as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Monty Clift. Like them, he studied the Method approach to acting and, like them, wowed audiences with his emotional realism. What he lacked, with a face that looked as if it belonged in a crowd rather than on a screen, was sex appeal. “I missed that one prerequisite for real stardom,” he once said. “If you don’t get the female following of a tribe, you don’t get that big.”
The ladies got one less hunk, but Hollywood gained the Legend, as his friend Pierce Brosnan always called him. Steiger, who died at 77 on July 9 following surgery for an intestinal tumor, was powerful in role after role: a corrupt lawyer in 1954’s On the Waterfront, for which he was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar; a bigoted sheriff in ’67’s In the Heat of the Night, which brought a Best Actor Oscar; a jealous farmhand (Oklahoma!); a Russian cad (Doctor Zhivago).
He vanished from movies in the ’80s, crippled by a depression that led to three suicide attempts before he was treated with medication. “I have experienced the pain…the embarrassment,” he said in 1994. That shared suffering was the basis for his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor, who was housebound by the illness in the 1990s. “I will miss his gruff tenderness and humor,” Taylor says.
In his last few years Steiger—whose four previous wives included actress Claire Bloom—at last succeeded as a romantic lead. He wed actress Joan Benedict, 60, in 2000. “Every day he bought me roses—a huge bouquet,” says Benedict. “He was so grateful he had finally found happiness.”