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STAR TURNS: Rod Steiger, a tough guy actor close to despair

American actor Rod Steiger. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

TIM WALKER talks about the time the Amityville Horror star opened up about his depression

In a kinder, gentler time in journalism – and in showbusiness – I used to phone up the press office of the Savoy and ask if they had anyone staying who’d make a good interview. No PR people involved, no money exchanging hands, no long-winded negotiations, just a quick call to the star’s suite and they either wanted to do it or they didn’t. And so it was I met Rod Steiger.

This was an actor whose career had come in distinct stages: Marlon Brando’s brooding young co-star in On the Waterfront; the world-weary police chief in the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night defined him in middle-age; and then came the wilderness years when the shouty priest in The Amityville Horror could probably be regarded as a high point. During those later years, when I met him, he was probably best known for getting married – a feat he managed five times – and appearing on chat shows, such as Parkinson, when he did something that was rather brave at the time and talked about his depression.

Steiger greeted me around midday in a dressing gown, a slightly lop-sided wig and the news that he was going to marry his present wife – Paula Ellis – again as he’d been so doped up the first time around he had no recollection of it even occurring. The actor best known for his tough guy roles had about him an air of melancholia and vulnerability and nothing about his life appeared to please him. He even sighed when I mentioned On the Waterfront.

‘Marlon was awful to work with. It’s generally accepted you can count on your fellow actors to help you out when you’re doing a close-up shot – they look at you off-camera as you’re delivering your lines, so you have someone to play off – but, oh no, not Marlon. He headed off home for that big scene I did in the back of the cab, so I was on my own. A selfish sonofabitch. Admired him as an actor, of course, but never as a man.’

I asked Steiger if he felt it was wise to talk about his depression and he said he was past caring. ‘There were eight years of my life when it pretty much incapacitated me. Honestly, there were days I just didn’t get out of bed. People see it as a weakness, but it’s a medical condition, just like any other. A chemical imbalance in the body. We’re never going to understand it – still less work out how to fix it – if we don’t talk about it. Success can sometimes help ease it – the Oscar I got for In the Heat of the Night gave me a sense of validation, which I think was helpful – but I’m not sure if you ever entirely beat it.

‘Some people seem to go through life continually optimistic and cheerful and I envy them. Boy, do I envy them. I see all the time the pointlessness of the human condition, I wonder if I’m making the people around me happy or sad, I wonder if I’m any good at what I do, I fear failure, and I dwell on the fact that my body is falling to pieces…’

Steiger was never exactly a looker, but he was a mesmerising screen and stage presence and I’ve no doubt his internal demons were a factor in that. He’d been raised a Lutheran, but had come to the view that there was no God. He said that had made his performance as Pontius Pilate in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth important to him.

‘The poor guy has always been portrayed as a baddie – the one who sentenced Jesus to death – but it was the last thing he wanted. He was a career civil servant, a fundamentally decent guy, trying to stop a load of religious zealots from causing mayhem. I thought his decision to evoke an ancient custom and let the crowd decide was a brilliant act of statesmanship. I tried to communicate all of that in my performance. And anyway if you understand the whole idea of pre-destination, the poor guy had no choice in the matter. If he’d found a way of freeing Jesus, there would have been no Christian faith.

‘His big line, when he says to Jesus, ‘what is the truth?’ well, that’s really the whole problem humanity has to face. What the hell is it? Why are we all here? What’s the point? Jesus never did give him an answer and there’s never so far as I can see been one since.’