Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  July 10, 2002 at 6:03 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, July 10 (UPI) -- Rod Steiger died a contented man at age 77 this week, a life with the happy ending that eluded him in most of his 150 roles.

A contemplative, compulsive actor throughout his career, Steiger was a tortured soul seeking acceptance from colleagues and desiring public accolades.

From time to time he received both, but often they were insufficient for the burly, unfulfilled artist who craved supremacy as a human being and as an actor.

Steiger was the epitome of a frustrated virtuoso whose attainments fell short of his dream of greatness. Frustrations with women and five wives along with bitter disappointments in his career cast dolorous shadows in dark corners of his being, finally driving him to the brink of madness.

During the better part of the '80s Steiger suffered the horrors of bottomless depression, often locking himself away in a bedroom of his home, sobbing for hours in dark isolation from the rest of the world.

Filled with frustration, remorse and fright, he sought to end his life, attempting suicide more than once. Once by an overdose of pills and again trying to drown himself in the ocean near his Malibu home.

Never a conventionally handsome man, he was filled with despair and self-loathing.

From earliest youth, Steiger, born in Westhampton, N.Y., of show business parents, was one of society's rejects, which etched permanent insecurities in his demeanor, draining his self-confidence.

In real life and in his early roles as an actor on stage, in television and movies he was the outsider who never got the girl.

He became the pudgy loser adding a patina of veiled anger to his aura of discontent, a lowering, dangerous presence, which served him well in villainous roles.

The more success he found in playing unsympathetic, psychopathic parts, the more he foundered in his quest for off-screen acceptance.

Steiger spent much of his life in a Malibu Colony home on the beach, a gated community of movie stars and glamour girls. A nearby tennis court became a hangout for the actor who was an excellent, aggressive player.

Among Steiger's closest friends was his long-time press agent Ben Irwin, whom he telephoned almost every day, pouring out his troubles, asking advice and providing bits of news regarding his career.

This consummate actor brought to life unforgettable characters on the screen, many of them biographical interpretations of insight and astonishing power.

Among his best such performances was as comedian W. C. Fields, Mussolini, Robert E. Peary, Al Capone, Sam Giancana, Rasputin and Napoleon, none of whom were particularly sympathetic men.

Perhaps his least likable character was Jud Fry in the movie musical "Oklahoma!" Fry was a dark, tortured man, a tormentor of women, filled with homicidal rage.

He frequently played angry sociopaths, men ostracized from decent society. Among his best was Charley Malloy in "On The Waterfront" (1954) opposite Marlon Brando.

Both Actors Studio adherents shone in one of cinema's most unforgettable scenes: in the back of a taxi when Steiger confesses he has sold his brother (Brando) down the river by fixing a prize fight.

It was under older brother Charley's domineering bullying that Brando (as battered younger brother Terry) says, "I coulda been a contender, Charley..." something that stands today as perhaps the screen's single most salient scene.

Yet even in this triumphant moment, Charley was the mean-spirited, unattractive loser and Terry (Brando) the handsome, sympathetic hero.

It was ever thus for the highly sensitive, self-critical Steiger, long accustomed to playing narrow, venal individuals who inevitably got the short end of the stick.

These endless demands on the worst in himself, dragged out to invest in real or fictional beings for the camera, had a cumulative effect on his fragile ego.

Where did the heels, low lives, evil, vilified and corrupt individuals leave off and where did Rod Steiger begin?

He once confided that as a "method actor" the continual probing of dark images and unflattering characteristics of Rod Steiger began to emerge when he wasn't acting, overwhelming him with melancholy and self-contempt.

Naturally, actor Steiger displayed these misbegotten traits in his marriages and social dealings with friends and acquaintances who recoiled from his often stormy countenance.

Such encounters contributed to Steiger's withdrawals into solitary depressions of indescribable torture. These depressions led to alcohol dependence and intolerable solitude.

But in the '90s, with the help of medication and lengthy psychiatric treatment, Steiger pulled out of his personal hell. He returned to good health and began working in films and TV again.

In recent years he lived happily on a bluff overlooking Malibu Beach in an expansive estate surrounded by his favorite paintings and books and in the company of his devoted wife, Joan.

Five months ago a smiling Steiger said, "These are the happiest years of my life."

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