Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Farewell, John & Rod

This thing about famous people dying in threes is getting really creepy.

Now that we have lost John Frankenheimer and Rod Steiger within a matter of days, is there a third great film figure out there about to be tapped on the shoulder by a celluloid angel? Or perhaps this phenomenon operates under a liberal definition of “entertainment” and Ted Williams completes the triumvirate?

Enough of such morbid thoughts. Let’s raise our virtual glasses in a toast to two more giants that have left the soundstage.

What can you say about a filmmaker who began working with the likes of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra and lasted long enough to direct Ben Affleck? The literal answer is, of course, that he had a 52-year television and movie directing career. The fact is that John Frankenheimer had worked so long in Hollywood that it had become easy to take him for granted. A cold examination of his work would suggest that he peaked artistically in the 1960s, but he was nowhere close to being a has-been, even in the last few years of his life. In 1998 he directed the extremely competent and realistic spy thriller Ronin (featuring Robert De Niro and Jean Reno), and in 2000 he made the under-appreciated Reindeer Games (featuring Affleck and Gary Sinise), thereby showing that he still had a knack for telling a compelling story. If critics were disappointed, it was probably because they were holding him to a very high standard since he had, after all, made such classics as The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May and what has to be his most culturally enduring work, The Manchurian Candidate.

In a strange way, Frankenheimer’s films presaged by quite a few years the worst fears of America’s left and right. Seven Days in May foretold a military coup in Washington D.C. While America’s military is still thankfully firmly under civilian control, charges of abuse of power and assaulting the Constitution never seem to be far from the public discourse. The Manchurian Candidate, on the other hand, was the ultimate paranoid delusion. Its tale of an American hero of the Korean War brainwashed by Communists was clever enough to be seen in two different ways: as a cautionary tale of the red menace or as a satire of McCarthyism. Its stature was ironically enhanced by its suppression for a quarter-century, making it a legend that more people had heard about than had actually seen. (Youngsters who know Angela Lansbury only as the grandmotherly sleuth on Murder, She Wrote should seek out The Manchurian Candidate, if only to see what a vicious bitch she could play in her earlier years.) After a bravura directing performance like this, no wonder that almost anything else would seem dull by comparison. Still Frankenheimer could be relied on for a few good thrills in his flicks, as was seen in the 1970s (Black Sunday, in which terrorists attack the Super Bowl), the 1980s (52 Pick-Up, in which Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret do Elmore Leonard), and the 1990s (think of Ronin and forget The Island of Dr. Moreau).

What can you say about an actor whose early career includes such classics as On the Waterfront, Oklahoma! and Dr. Zhivago and whose last years included things like the wretched apocalypse flick End of Days? The literal answer is that he worked in Hollywood for exactly a half-century.

Rod Steiger was one of those actors you didn’t always recognize. He avoided typecasting, so he didn’t often play the same sorts of roles. And he always managed to look different in every movie. (For some reason, I always found myself confusing him with Lee J. Cobb.) Physically, he seemed born to play Napoleon early in his career, which he did in 1970’s Waterloo, and Benito Mussolini later in his career, which he did in 1974’s The Last Days of Mussolini and in 1980’s Lion of the Desert.

Every obituary will mention that he won an Oscar for playing the bigoted Mississippi sheriff (opposite Sidney Poitier) in Norman Jewison’s 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. Ironically, more people probably now associate the character with Carroll O’Connor’s turn on the long-running TV series. Personally, I won’t remember him for his several “great” roles (including 1964’s The Pawnbroker) as much as for the strange, unusual and/or quirky parts he played over the years. These include Mr. Joyboy in the black comedy The Loved One, the title role in The Illustrated Man, a priest in The Amityville Horror, “Pa” in American Gothic (a.k.a. Hide and Shriek), and a general in Mars Attacks! In his later years, he often turned up in undemanding small roles, exemplified by the judges he played in Tennessee Nights, Crazy in Alabama and Jewison’s The Hurricane.

In Steiger’s case, we are much better off remembering his good work from the 1950s and 1960s rather than his later work—not to mention his regular appearances on the revised Hollywood Squares, a program whose main purpose seems to be to remind us whose career is on the wane. Still, I have to say that one of the loveliest performances I ever saw Steiger give was in the 1981 film The Chosen as Robby Benson’s Hassidic rabbi father.

-S.L., 11 July 2002

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