Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  Feb. 21, 2002 at 6:40 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Rod Steiger lives the good life, a man in his sixth decade of movie stardom who smilingly contemplates new roles and challenges.

The other day the longtime star looked through his living room window at a broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean and sighed contentedly. He has lived in Malibu for most of his life, and why not -- this is where movie stars are supposed to live.

His current home has a magnificent, sweeping view of the beach from a bluff high above the pounding surf, a few miles from his former home in the exclusive Malibu Colony, a gated enclave of the very wealthy.

But this large house is a gracious improvement over California beach houses with their cheek-by-jowl lots in crowded procession.

Indeed, Steiger might be said to be king of the Malibu mountain.

On this sunny February day, the actor's surroundings might have been a set-designer's vision of a wealthy, artistic man at leisure surrounded by his collections of books, paintings and artifacts amassed during a fascinating career in the public eye.

Perhaps his most precious work of art is his fifth wife, Joan (Benedict), a beautiful blonde who clearly adores the bombastic, articulate star of some 150 movies and dozens of TV shows.

Bright-eyed and as bald as a doorknob, Steiger has the energy of a man half his 76 years. He brims with good humor and a hint of mischief.

He won an Oscar portraying the redneck sheriff with Sidney Poitier in "In The Heat of the Night" in 1967 and was nominated for other performances. "I was disappointed when I didn't get an Oscar for 'The Pawnbroker' in 1964 but I was nominated for 'Dr. Zhivago' that year."

Steiger laughed ruefully when he recalled turning down two roles for which other actors -- George C. Scott and Ernest Borgnine -- won Academy Awards.

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

Steiger is as enthusiastic about his new films as any tyro.

"I've got a couple of small pictures coming out, including 'A Month of Sundays,'" he said. "I haven't changed my attitude about roles. If I like a picture, I'll take anything, no matter how small it is. I don't care about budgets.

"I don't look at a part to see if it fits me. My movie idol was Paul Muni."

"An actor is supposed to create different human beings," he said. "That's why few things I've done are similar to any others."

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

"In a sense, the part takes you. It chooses you. That's the way I've always seen it. I was offered millions of dollars years ago to do 'Mike Hammer' and turned it down because I didn't like the books."

Steiger attributes his success to more than just work. "When you're in good health -- mentally and physically strong -- and feeling good, so are your philosophies and beliefs," he said.

Not all has gone well. "'Patton' was my biggest career mistake; I might have walked into the 'Godfather' movies," he said. "Another thing that hurt me was not doing the movie version of 'Marty,' which I originated on TV."

Borgnine played the role, establishing his film career and winning an Oscar in the process.

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

Steiger gratefully sipped a cup of tea and winked at his wife, saying, "If I had my way I'd have been happy to sign with a studio if they guaranteed me I could play nothing but biographies and could choose which ones."

"I'm told I've played more famous people than anybody, including my TV movies. People like Rasputin and W. C. Fields," he added.

Among his other portraits of historic figures were Napoleon, Mussolini, Ulysses S. Grant, Sam Giancana, Robert E. Peary and Al Capone.

However, it is likely Steiger will be remembered best for individual scenes from such pictures as "On the Waterfront," "Oklahoma!" "The Illustrated Man," and "In the Heat of the Night."

Steiger cherishes most his memory of W. C. Fields' long-time female companion during his later years visiting the set to watch him play a scene from the great comedian's life.

"Fields had a nickname very few people knew: Woody," Steiger said. "At the end of the scene the woman said, 'Oh, my God. Woody, Woody; you're not dead.' That was the highest compliment I was ever given."

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