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Tuesday, May 25, 1999 Published at 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK


Rod Steiger on surviving Hollywood

Rod Steiger has been a Hollywood icon for decades. He has starred in a host of film classics and won a best actor Oscar in 1967 for his part in the movie In The Heat of the Night.

But despite this success, his own life has been far from easy, and now at the age of 74, he talks to BBC HARDtalk about the rocky road to becoming one of Hollywood's most respected actors.

[ image: Rod Steiger: Level-headed about his Oscar win]
Rod Steiger: Level-headed about his Oscar win
"The first thing that your should do when you win an Oscar is thank God. The second thing you should do is forget it," said Rod Steiger, after picking up the award.

Steiger won his Oscar for playing a small-town police chief forced to rely on a Northern black detective, played by Sidney Poitier, to solve a local murder.

In The Heat of The Night was a groundbreaking film and American audiences loved it, but Steiger was unmoved by his Oscar win.

Rod Steiger: "Successful people have control over the time in their life"
"You get the Oscar and you get better scripts, better actors and better directors to work for and of course your salary goes up until you make your first mistake and then you have to start from the beginning again."

Born in New York on April 14, 1925, Rod Steiger had a tough upbringing marred by alcoholism in his family. As a child he often found himself ridiculed by classmates when he had to fetch his inebriated mother from the local pub or saloon.

He trained as an actor at New York's Theatre Workshop and soon found success on the stage and screen.

Steiger's Hollywood credentials include Doctor Zhivago (1965), Al Capone (1959), The Pawnbroker (1965) and in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954).

Rod Steiger on Elia Kazan: "What he did was despicable"
But Steiger now says he probably would not have done On The Waterfront if he had known then about Kazan's naming of suspected Communists for the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"What he did was despicable," says Steiger, who saw many Hollywood friends blacklisted from the industry because of Kazan's actions.

And it was Kazan's motives that Steiger found most deplorable. "It wasn't like a man got into a position where he couldn't pay the rent, feed his family and panicked," says the actor.

"He was already a millionaire in the theatre, he didn't need to do another film again, he named names because he just wanted to do movies, that's all."

[ image: Rod Steiger alongside Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront]
Rod Steiger alongside Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront
Although Steiger still finds it hard to stomach the level of political intolerance that existed at that time, he sees Hollywood as greedier than ever in the 1990s.

"They're not going to defend anything if they think they're going to lose a dollar," says the actor, of the industry he calls, "show business, business, business".

Indeed Steiger himself was abandoned by Hollywood when his health deteriorated and he underwent a heart bypass operation in the 1970s.

He was warned by doctors that the surgery could leave him depressed, to which he now says: "You should never tell an actor he might be depressed because then he's going to give you the best depression scene you've ever seen in your life."

After surgery Steiger promptly fell into an eight-year depression which brought him very close to taking his own life.

Rod Steiger: "The public kept me alive"
"I figured I'd go out in a fishing boat, lower myself into the water and put a gun in my mouth," said Steiger.

"That way there would be no mess."

After a slow recovery Steiger is now active in a campaign to promote mental health, recently addressing Congress on the issue.

These days, although he maintains a strong presence in the movie industry, fame and success are no longer Steiger's over-riding goals.

"There is no such thing as success once you have mental and physical health," he says.

You can watch the HARDtalk interview in full on Tuesday 25 May on BBC World at 1530 and 1930 GMT (1630 and 2030 BST) and in the UK on BBC News 24 at 2030 and 0330 BST.

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