Through ups and downs, flinty Rod Steiger was always a contender.

By Scott Brown
July 19, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Good actors are often defined by their finest characters. Great ones aren’t afraid to define their own character by the roles they despised. Rod Steiger was one of the latter. The 1967 Oscar winner — who died on July 9 at age 77 of pneumonia and kidney failure — boldly discussed his less timeless films (e.g. Carpool) with EW in 2000. ”Sometimes you remember the bad pictures more vividly than the ones you loved, because you felt a little ashamed by having to do them,” he explained. ”You lie yourself into believing.”

For such an accomplished on-screen liar, Steiger was a notoriously straight shooter. He passed on Patton (which won George C. Scott an Oscar) because he found it militaristic. He never forgave Elia Kazan — the director who cast him in On the Waterfront — after he learned of Kazan’s role in blacklisting suspected Hollywood Communists. And he held a grudge against Brando for 44 years because the actor left the set early after finishing close-ups for Waterfront’s famous ”cab scene,” forcing Steiger to film his close-up alone. (Brando eventually apologized, and Steiger, running into him at a restaurant, said, ”Well, I guess I can’t say anything s — -ty about you anymore.”)

But despite his deep convictions, Steiger preferred his characters morally murky. A graduate of the same Actors Studio class that produced Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden, Steiger was known as a ”Method” actor (though he hated the label). He loved to inhabit wary pragmatists with vulnerable underbellies: Doctor Zhivago’s scabrous opportunist Komarovsky, In the Heat of the Night’s saturnine sheriff (for which he won Best Actor), even poor Jud Fry of Oklahoma! ”He played these tough guys, and he was a sweetie pie,” remembers Waterfront costar Saint. Among Steiger’s favorite roles was the emotionally stunted protagonist of 1965’s The Pawnbroker (he lost the Oscar to Lee Marvin).

Then, at mid-career, Steiger had to become a pragmatist himself. Crippled by depression in the ’80s, he accepted so-so roles to prove to himself that he could still do the work. (”I had to see if I could just walk and remember lines,” he said of his part in the 1987 horror film The Kindred.) Through it all, he never took himself too seriously. ”I’d like to thank all the people for feeding me and paying the rent for 51 years,” he declared to EW. No, Rod — thank you.

— ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) Don’t forget who Brando’s talking to in the back of that cab — it’s Steiger (as his shady brother, Charley), who won his first Oscar nomination for the role.

— OKLAHOMA! (1955) Doing his own singing and dancing, Steiger embodied the pitiable country Caliban we all love to boo.

— THE PAWNBROKER (1965) Steiger pulled out all the stops for his nuanced portrayal of a Holocaust survivor living a hermetically sealed life in ’60s Harlem.

— DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) Shading thuggishness with hints of vulnerability, Steiger redefined the heavy as ineluctable life force.