Rod Steiger

On this date in 1925, actor Rod Steiger was born in New York City, the only child of parents who had played on vaudeville and got divorced when he was a baby. His mother, who suffered from alcoholism, raised him as a single parent. After Pearl Harbor, the 16-year-old lied about his age and joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific during WWII. Steiger attended drama school on the GI Bill, and eventually studied at the Actors Studio. He participated in the Golden Age of live television, and began a memorable career as villains and heavies, such as playing the menacing ranch hand Jud Fry in “Oklahoma!” (1955).

Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor, playing the redneck Mississippi police chief opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.” He played a tortured Auschwitz survivor in “The Pawnbroker.” That and several other Jewish roles, such as the rigid rabbi in “The Chosen,” made some fans suppose he was Jewish. According to Tim Boxer’s Jewish Celebrity Anecdotes, Steiger, an agnostic, was actually born of Lutherans (cited by Warren Allen Smith in Who’s Who in Hell).

Other memorable roles included “Mr. Joyboy” in The Loved One, the domineering seducer of Lara in “Dr. Zhivago” and the lead in Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” He was married five times and spoke openly of the depression he suffered during the 1980s. He died in Los Angeles at age 77 of pneumonia and kidney failure as a result of complications from surgery for a gallbladder tumor. (D. 2002)

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