NPR recently featured two mathematicians who proved that it’s Rod Steiger — not Kevin Bacon — who is the most connectable actor in show business. Steiger has over 100 film and TV-movie credits to his name, and at 74 is still adding to his résumé: He currently appears in ”The Hurricane,” reuniting with his ”In the Heat of the Night” director, Norman Jewison. EW Online talked to the screen veteran about his memorable roles and about how today’s actors compare to Marlon Brando and other greats of the past.
You’ve had your masterpieces over the years — like ”On the Waterfront” and ”The Pawnbroker” — but you’ve also had some duds, like Tom Arnold’s ”Carpool.” Do you remember the experiences of shooting them both equally?
Sometimes you remember the bad pictures more vividly than the ones you loved, because you felt a little ashamed by having to do them. Maybe you have a little sense of guilt. I did a horror thing with two college kids in 1986 called ”The Kindred.” I was in the middle of my clinical depression [which debilitated him for eight-and-a-half years starting in 1983], and I had to do it to see if I could just walk and remember lines. That was about 10 years ago, and I think it will open on top of the peak of the Andes next week. Anyway, it was a dreadful experience, but I had to do it because I was testing my talent and mental stability because of the clinical depression. It had nothing to do with any artistic dreams.
Can you tell right from the beginning of filming whether a movie’s going to be great or lousy?
Once you get to be an old bullfighter, you’re pretty good at figuring out how the bull’s gonna be. But the extent of the movie’s failure or success, nobody can figure that out. When I did the original ”Marty” on television in 1953, we knew it was a good show. But the next morning when I came downstairs to get my cup of tea at the café, a woman went by and said, ”What are we gonna do tonight, Marty?” And the truck driver said it, and then the guy behind the counter… then I knew something had happened. But if I had tried to work to make it that kind of success, it would have been a disaster.
Did that role make your career?
Absolutely. It was after ”Marty” that Elia Kazan — who I have no respect for since he sold his friends to Washington — said, ”What the hell did you do on Sunday, the whole country’s talking about it?” I told him, and he said, ”Listen, we’re doing a picture called ‘On the Waterfront.’ You go to talk to Budd Schulberg, who wrote the script, and read the taxi scene, and if he likes you, you can play Marlon Brando’s brother. I almost fell over because Marlon was in ”Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway and he was magnificent.
Are the young actors you work with today any different than they were 40 years ago?
One of the basic problems I see is that today’s actors don’t do enough homework. When I get a part, I start at home, and say the lines back and forth with somebody else, just to get familiar with what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and how I feel about the character. That’s all work that actors should do [before they show up on set]. But now you got these jackasses who think they’re so talented they don’t have to. And of course you don’t know who they are four years later. The depths of a talent is measured by its longevity. If you’ve lasted over 20, 30 years, you’ve gotta have something.
When you go on the set the first day with some huge action star like Arnold Schwarzenegger in ”End of Days,” are you ever nervous about how it’s going to be?
[LONG PAUSE, THEN SAYS IN A SLOW, LOW VOICE] Are you asking God to get nervous? No, I don’t get nervous.
I don’t mean nervous about how you’re going to fare against them, but wondering if they’re going to be tough to deal with.
You can think about that, but that applies with any actor I’m gonna work with. If the guy’s a big star and a pain in the ass, or a small actor and a pain in the ass, all that can interfere with my work. And I don’t know how to say this, but I’m fairly well respected. When I come to work, it gets a lot quieter and people seem to pay more attention to the work we’re doing. That’s a peripheral perk. Actors are like a race horse; if you’ve won 8 out of 10 races, people just sit back and want to see what you’re gonna do. That includes the director. At my stage, a director usually says, ”That may be a little too much” or ”I think you can do a little more.” That’s about it, because he knows he’s got an old gunfighter here, like Wild Bill Hickock.
What do you do if a director tries to give you too much instruction?
If he’s really an unintelligent narcissist, you’ve finally got to turn around and say, ”Why don’t YOU do this? You can replace me today.” I have to protect the work, so I don’t let myself lose my temper. Only once have I ever really lost my temper, a couple of years ago. It was a rich kid whose father owns a bank here in L.A., and he was doing his first TV movie, and he was screaming at me, ”You’re asking me too many questions! You have to do what you’re told to do!” And there was a deadly pause. You don’t talk to Wild Bill Hickock like that. When I get really angry I get very quiet and articulate. I said, ”You know something, my friend? You are on a rocket to oblivion. Do you understand the word ‘oblivion’?” And that’s exactly what happened. He loused the thing up so much they never showed it on TV.