THE NIGHT AFTER ROD STEIGER DIED, I dreamt I was on a Jersey pier reading a sign noting the spot where racketeer Johnny Friendly's office stood in the film On the Waterfront. In my dream, this wharf had become a small tourist attraction, just as so many movie locations have become faux historical sites every bit as important to the American imagination as Harper's Ferry or even the Ravenite Social Club.
My dream's detail about the labor gangster's office had a certain commercial logic because of the long shadow cast by the film upon the pop consciousness. Even if you never read a word of testimony about mob influence in unions, you may have watched On the Waterfront and, if you haven't, you've probably seen a clip of the taxi-ride scene between Steiger and Marlon Brando and, if not, you've at least heard some impressionist do Brando's famous "Charley, Charley" speech from this scene. Brando played Terry Malloy, who uttered his tormented accusation (I coulda been a contendah!) at his brother, played by Steiger.
Brando, of course, went on to become an even bigger star while Steiger simply remained the receiving end of a classic movie speech -- "Charley," the brother-as-character-actor. When Steiger died last week, comparisons were made about the career trajectories of he and Brando, but more pertinent are the two actors' performance styles, which is to say, their interpretation of the Method. Like Frank Sinatra's song phrasings, the Brando style adapted to the mood and fashion of whatever time he happened to be in. Steiger's, though, never evolved and, while his blustering technique was suitable to costume pageants built around characters like Napoleon and Al Capone, or caricatures like the talent agent Stanley Hoff in The Big Knife or the undertaker Mr. Joyboy in The Loved One, to younger audiences he appeared to be anachronistically stagy, if not outright hammy.
Steiger certainly had his career highs, though, and he gave the performance of his life in The Pawnbroker as Sol Nazerman, an emotionally dead Holocaust survivor who operates a Harlem hockshop. The beauty of this Steiger performance was how much against type he acted -- how, under Sydney Lumet's restraining direction, he appeared as a shrunken and even wraithlike figure.
As Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago, Steiger's onscreen persona returned to its ungirdled bulk and robust appetite for scene chewing, but he was nevertheless masterful portraying a Russian balancing himself between tectonic historical forces. True, he sounds like one of Johnny Friendly's Brooklyn goons when he drunkenly bellows, "Who are you to refuse my sugar?" at Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, but he also ventriloquizes the hurt of a modern soul crushed by the 20th century. He managed, to borrow from Dostoyevksy, to leap from Johnny Friendly's pocket into Gogol's overcoat.
STEIGER GOT THE OSCAR FOR HIS ROLE AS the Dixie law man of In the Heat of the Night, a belated consolation for missing out with The Pawnbroker. (Police Chief Bill Gillespie may be a memorable role, but he's basically a concert version of all the Southern sheriffs we'd met on the screen up till then.) For a little while Steiger seemed to have Hollywood on a key chain. Role offers came in, and he was on all the talk shows when such shows were still really about talk. And he improbably became, like Brando, an impressionist's staple. ("Bad news, bad news!" gloomily intoned David Frye's Steiger. "Have I got bad news for yoooou!")
But a changing Hollywood not only abruptly deep-sixed stories about Napoleon and Capone, it also cold-shouldered actors who brought too much ham to the table, even when portraying "little people." Suddenly, a Charley Malloy required a cooler yet somehow more volatile temperament and a lower-keyed actor to portray him. The new character actor of the 1970s became more profane, more dangerous, more athletic and, finally, more versatile -- able either as supporting player or leading man. He became Gene Hackman.
Shortly after receiving his Oscar, Steiger appeared as a serial killer in No Way To Treat a Lady, a black-comedy misfire in which a Broadway theater owner impersonates various characters in order to murder women. Steiger's gallery of homicidal personae was really a collection of clichés (gay wig salesman, Irish priest, etc.), including one that might even be taken as a spoof of Sol Nazerman. In an unintentional way, this performance devalued the actor's repertoire of characterizations, as though showing us just how hollow they could be.
Yet Rod Steiger's legacy will not be so much his over-the-top portrayals, but the fact that the older that audiences become, the more they recognize the outrage simmering behind the very artifice of those performances. No longer rebels fighting a system or mourning our lost chances to be contenders, sooner or later we all feel like Steiger's sputtering, defeated figures, angrily demanding to know who has the right to refuse our sugar.