Rod Steiger

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Rod Steiger Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 8/12/16

Chief Gillespie may be rascist, but he’s also an intuitive judge of character. Turning to the reluctant negro homicide detective – a man who unbelievably earns a hundred and sixty-two dollars and thirty-nine cents a week – he’s sufficiently pumped up by now, and more than ready to press all of Virgil Tibb’s buttons.

“Just once in my life, I’m gonna own my temper. I’m telling you that you’re gonna stay here. You’re gonna stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do. But I don’t think I have to do that, you see? No, because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.”

It’s a masterful performance, and Rod Steiger’s portrayal of a bigoted Chief of Police would bring him a much deserved Best Actor Oscar for In the heat of the night in 1968.

I actually only ever saw Steiger on the big screen twice, when my parents took me to see Dr Zhivago (1965) and No way to treat a lady (1968). Nevertheless, his performance in both films rank amongst his very best. A brooding presence onscreen, he was always eminently watchable, a facet to his personality that spilled over into his private life.

In 1959, the burly Hollywood icon starred opposite the english rose Claire Bloom on Broadway. An affair ensued, and when they returned from a holiday in Sicily, she discovered she was two months pregnant with their daughter, Anna Steiger, now an internationally acclaimed opera singer. Predictably, for a disciple of the “method,” and a man prone to periods of acute depression, their ten-year marriage would not be easy.

Interviewed in 2009, Bloom was philosophical about this period in her life. ‘He was utterly absorbed in the roles he played,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t understand how anyone could take himself so seriously.’ After their first Oscars ceremony, at which Steiger lost out to Lee Marvin as Best Actor, he and Bloom were banished to a table in the deepest recesses of the ballroom.‘The absolute disregard with which losers are treated in that city came as a great shock to us both,’ she said. Her husband had been nominated for his performance in The Pawnbroker,” but would not take home the coveted trophy for another two years. For other contenders that year, like Richard Burton, the Best Actor Oscar would remain eternally elusive.

Rod Steiger married five times. Heaven only knows why. It seems many people can never quite work out their relative strengths and weaknesses. Two failed attempts would be sufficient to convince me that my skills lay elsewhere. A third marriage near the end for tax planning purposes? OK – possibly. But Mr Steiger, bless him, kept going throughout his life. Marriage number one to socialite Sally Grace in 1952 lasted just six years. The pneumatic allure of Britain’s Diana Dors proved irresistible, and the pair became involved during the filming of The Unholy Wife in 1957. In spite of this interlude, his marriage would endure for a while longer.

It would eventually end and in 1959, when the Hollywood star married the British actress, Claire Bloom, by whom he had a daughter Anna. Bloom would later recall how, back in the Sixties, her brooding husband would spend hours gloomily sitting ‘like a wounded child’ although his depression only really took hold after his first heart by-pass operation in 1976.‘That destroyed my sense of myself as an immortal,’ he would reflect later, adding that he had even contemplated suicide.

Marriage No 3, to the dancer Sherry Nelson, lasted from 1973 to 1979 and the old rogue was once again back in the dating game. But despite his depression, he never lost his charm.It was five years later, while dining in a top Hollywood restaurant, that he spotted young starlet Paula Ellis. By her, he had a son, Michael, but, once again, it was not to last and the couple split in 1997.

In 2000, he finally married a contemporary – Joan Benedict, a 74-year- old friend from Los Angeles. But it was his guest of honour at the wedding who attracted most of the attention. Towards the end of his life, Steiger had forged a close yet platonic attachment to Elizabeth Taylor. With their shared experience of multiple marriage, ill-health and past glories, a friendship blossomed. ‘In a way, we’re peers. I always say it’s like the meeting of two famous gunfighters – say, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok,’ Steiger joked.‘There’s an understanding, a camaraderie between us, because we know about the false myths of being a celebrity and how people take advantage.’ Steiger would regularly drive to Taylor’s home in his sports car – number plate: ‘Courage’ – and the gossip columns wondered whether Hollywood’s serial matrimonialists would finally get it together.

‘The gossip columns have made it into a big thing, which it never was or will be, I don’t believe,’ he said in 1998, adding, somewhat ungallantly: ‘She’s in a plaster cast from her chin to her hips. Romance would be a little difficult – unless you are kinky about braces.’

Recommended listening

Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4) 14/7/02

Recommended viewing

Marty (TV drama) (1954)

Across the bridge (1957)

Seven thieves (1960)

The Pawnbroker (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

In the heat of the night (1967)

So what exactly defines a truly great movie? Its topicality? Perhaps, for Norman Jewison’s directorial effort was released at the height of the civil rights tension in 60’s America. In this race drama and forensic murder-mystery thriller, the sheer tactlessness of its racial confrontation has a forthright quality and a not entirely intentional documentary realism, especially in the scenes shot on location in Sparta, Illinois – the furthest south Poitier was prepared to film after recent harrassment from the Klu Klux Klan.

For me personally, a film’s defining quality is its calibre of acting. When the characterisations are strong, the plot line stands up well to repeated viewings. The elegant Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who finds himself having to hang around at a rail station in the south, changing trains on a trip to see his mother. For unashamedly racist reasons, this well-dressed black out-of-towner is picked up on suspicion of having committed the murder that is baffling the local cops. Brought in for interrogation, Tibbs comes face to face with the cantankerous Chief Gillespie, a man initially delighted to have such a gratifyingly obvious suspect. Yet, heroically keeping his cool and his temper in the face of such bigotry, Tibbs shows them his badge, proves he didn’t do it – and then has to join forces with the local force to find out who did.

Poitier was ‘hot to trot’ at the time, yet Steiger steals the show with a tour-de-force Oscar winning performance as the bigoted law enforcer, who initially develops a grudging respect and then a genuine fondness for this black homocide expert.

It’s one of my all time favourite movies.

No way to treat a lady (1968)

The chosen (1981)