“We come. We go. And in between we try to understand.” – Rod Steiger
I remember the day my agent called me and said, “You have an audition at 11:30. You’re reading for a lead role opposite Rod Steiger!” Pause. “You know who Rod Steiger is, don’t you?” “Of course I know who Rod Steiger is!” (I had absolutely no idea who he was.) “Good. You’re reading for the part to play his granddaughter Biddy.” I had three hours until the audition. Driving up to L.A. in my clunker of a car, I memorized the lines as fast as my brain cells could possibly absorb, formulating a cognitive pathway that I could travel upon in which I hoped to retrieve them later on in the day. I was to read for a feisty tomboy (that explains the character name) who runs away with her grandfather to find his long lost son. I walked into the audition room wearing jeans, a baseball t-shirt, and sneakers as I attempted to immerse myself in the role I had about an hour to prepare. The read went well, and by the time I got a callback, I had already begun my research on Mr. Rod Steiger. As I read through his IMDB page, I quickly understood the enthusiasm in my agent’s voice. Rod Steiger was not just an actor worthy of a boisterous announcement followed by a pause, he was an actor to be admired and respected. He was an actor’s actor, and he was larger than life. As I scrolled through his endless list of credits, I realized why his name did not register the morning I received the call. I had seen most of his films, yet I did not recognize him from one film to the next. He was a chameleon. A master of disguise as he created his iconic characters in each and every role he portrayed onscreen: On the Waterfront, Oklahoma, In the Heat of the Night, The Illustrated Man, Doctor Zhivago, Mars Attacks, The Pawnbroker, The Hurricane…the list went on and on. I sat back in my chair staring at the screen on my computer monitor, thinking only one thing: I want this part. I want to work with this master of the screen. So I went out and got as many movies of Rod’s that I could find…and I watched them all.
After several reads, and a few months later, I got the call. I had booked the part. I called around to all my friends in utter excitement, “I’m playing Rod Steiger’s granddaughter!!!” Pause. “Don’t you know who Rod Steiger is?!?!” “No, I don’t. But congratulations!!!” The irony of such a moment. The first time I met Rod was the first day he was called to set. You could feel the vibration in the air. You could sense the anticipation flowing from one trailer to the next as the crew prepared for his arrival, for the legend was coming… I was heading back to my trailer to change wardrobe for another scene when an elderly man in a golf court came barreling toward me. There was a rule on set about that golf cart. No one but the P.A. was allowed to drive it–at least, that was what was told to me. The cart stopped right in front of me, breaking hard, and the man behind the wheel shouted like a roaring lion, “So you’re my costar!” I looked at him and saw the faintest smirk forming on his lips as he looked at me through his thick-rimmed glasses. His eyes twinkled in mischief as I replied, “Actually, it’s the other way around.” That did it… He grinned at me from ear to ear and let out a loud, “Ha!” Then he winked at me, put the golf cart in reverse and said, “You’re in for it now!” He sped away, rolling over the curb with the P.A. seated helplessly in the passenger seat. Watching him drive away across the set, taking control of his environment, I liked him immediately and knew we would get along magnificently. And we did. Rod Steiger is one of the most generous actors I have ever had the privilege and blessing to know. At the time I met him, he was almost eighty years old. He had lived and breathed the Actor’s Studio, performed in televised plays that are still revered (Marty), starred opposite the most famous actors in Hollywood (Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Julie Christie, Arnold Schwarzeneger, Denzel Washington), and he was still gong strong. He loved acting. He was on fire about it, passionate about doing not just good work but GREAT work. And he was hard on himself if he missed or forgot his line (which, to my recollection, was never!), apologizing if it threw me off as we worked off of one another throughout all of our scenes, running lines between them, swapping scripts to see what each other had written and discovered in our notes marking our subtext.
There was one night in particular, one night that I will never forget so long as I live, that even now overwhelms and humbles me as I write it. We had put in a fourteen hour day, and my close-ups were the last to be filmed that night. We had already shot Rod’s, and as the camera was being turned around for mine, Rod had been wrapped for the night. It was a night shoot, and it was also really cold out. Rod had told me that over the years he had two hip replacement surgeries and heart surgery. He also had hearing aids in both his ears. He had put in a really long day and there was no reason to have Rod stay…but he did. He refused to go home. He turned to me and said, “You’re my costar. I’m staying right here to give you everything you need for your performance, as you just did for mine.” If the cold and long night weren’t bad enough, it had started to rain. But he still refused to go. A crew member had given Rod a tarp and was holding it over his head as he read his lines opposite mine. I will never forget it, seeing him standing there in the pouring rain, giving his all to a young, unknown actress in a tiny independent film. Rod Steiger stood in the rain…for me. Even now, I cannot help but miss him. He was a champion in my corner, encouraging me to take bigger risks, challenging me to listen better, and in so doing, he made me a better actor. He had set the bar for me—on how to treat your fellow actor, on how to fight for your character if you truly believed there was a better way, a better choice, a better word to convey a deeper understanding of the written word–when to stand up, when to lie down…and then do what you want anyway and get away with it. Rod was a master of improvisation. Every take, every line, he would do something new. One take he would be laughing, the next crying…I never knew what he was going to do next. He made it real. On the last day on set he said to me, “Don’t make the same mistake I did. After I won the Oscar, I waited for my next opportunity, thinking it would come. It was four years later when it finally did. Create your opportunity.” My kindred spirit.
Why I’m thinking of him on this day or at this moment, I really couldn’t say. Perhaps it’s because of where I am in life at this moment, thinking of all the places I’ve gone and all the places I long to be going, knowing that I am following his advice, with or without really knowing it. All I know is that I am thinking of him, grateful to have known him, inspired to speak about him, and feeling inspired to share him with others too. Here’s to you, Rod.
– Written by: #Corina Marie
(Corina Marie Zurcher is an actress, producer and screenwriter.)