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Actor Rod Steiger dies at 77

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   July 9, 2002 at 5:18 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, July 9 (UPI) -- Academy Award-winning actor Rod Steiger died Tuesday of pneumonia and kidney failure. He was 77.

Steiger, who starred in more than 100 feature films and TV movies, achieved ultimate recognition as an actor when he won the Oscar for best actor in 1967 for his performance as a redneck Southern sheriff in "In the Heat of the Night."

Born Rodney Stephen Steiger on April 14, 1925 in Westhampton, N.Y., Steiger grew up in Newark, N.J. and lied about his age in 1941 to join the U.S. Navy at 16. Five years later, he took a civil service job at the Veterans Administration, where he signed up with a local theater group, eventually progressing from the Dramatic Workshop to the New York Theatre Wing -- and joining Elia Kazan's Actors Studio.

He went on to establish himself as one of the most-respected actors or his generation, playing a variety of roles including a pope, a president, a Civil War hero and a notorious gangster. Steiger's repertoire included a long list of notable historical figures, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Rasputin, Pontius Pilate, Rudolf Hess, Ulysses S. Grant, Benito Mussolini, Sam Giancanna, Robert E. Peary, Al Capone and W.C. Fields.

Steiger's first professional role was a small part in the national company of "The Trial of Mary Dugan," followed by his Broadway role in the revival of Clifford Odets' "Night Music."

In 1951, Steiger starred in his first film, "Teresa." He gained his first recognition as a TV actor when he earned the Sylvania Award for the top five TV portrayals of 1953 -- the year he originated the title role of "Marty," a drama about a Bronx butcher who unexpectedly finds love.

Ernest Borgnine won the best actor Oscar in 1955 for his performance as Marty in the movie adaptation. In an interview with United Press International in 2001, Steiger said he had been offered the movie, but turned it down.

"I didn't want to play 'Marty' because the producers wanted to sign me to a seven-year contract," he said. "That was slavery, and I didn't want a contract when they told me they would choose my roles. It broke my heart. I told them I reserved the rights to make my own mistakes."

Steiger became a movie star anyway, with his Oscar-nominated performance as Charley Malloy in the 1954 movie "On the Waterfront." In 1965, he was nominated for best actor for "The Pawnbroker," as a Jewish pawnbroker in Harlem tormented by memories of life in a Nazi prison camp.

In the late '60s, Steiger said he made his "biggest career mistake" -- turning down the role of World War II Gen. George S. Patton. George C. Scott won the best actor Oscar for his performance in the 1970 picture.

"I didn't want to do a war film when they offered me 'Patton,'" he said.

Among his most notable films were "The Illustrated Man" (1969), "No Way to Treat a Lady" (1968), "Doctor Zhivago (1965)" and "The Longest Day" (1962). His most recent movie appearances included "A Month of Sundays" (2001), "Poolhall Junkies" (2001), "End of Days" (1999) and "The Hurricane" (1999).

His television credits included a string of made-for-TV movies such as "Hollywood Wives," "Jesus of Nazareth," "Sword of Gideon," "Desperado: Avalanche at Devil's Ridge," and the miniseries "Passion and Paradise."

In addition to the Oscar, Steiger also won awards from the New York Film Critics, Cleveland Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which honored him with a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for "In the Heat of the Night."

Steiger's versatility was on display in the 1955 screen adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!," when he was cast as Jud Fry, even though he had neither sung nor danced professionally.

"I've always tried to do a variety of things to avoid boredom with my work," said Steiger. "A part is like a beautiful woman you see at a cocktail party and you want to take home and everything.

Illness and marital problems took their toll on his personal life, particularly in the 1970s.

In 1976, Steiger, then 57, underwent a quadruple bypass heart operation. He healed physically, but he was ailing emotionally and decided to undergo psychological treatment.

"I was in a deep depression after the operation. I began losing confidence in myself personally, professionally and physically," he said in an interview.

After marriages to Sally Gracie and Claire Bloom ended in costly divorces, Steiger insisted that his third wife, horse-race handicapper Sherry Nelson Steiger sign a prenuptial agreement waiving spousal property rights. She challenged the agreement in court when the couple divorced in 1978 after five years of marriage, but a judge ruled in Steiger's favor.

In 1986, Steiger married his fourth wife, Paula.

He is survived by his fifth wife, actress Joan Benedict, as well as a son, Michael, and a daughter, Anna.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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