There are two items of note on YouTube by which to remember — and re-experience — the greatness of the man:
This is taken from a VHS home recording someone made. As such, I don’t think this should ever qualify as a DMCA violation (lawyers will disagree).
Says Rod, ‘I was lucky. I came along with some sort of talent when television was born and unknown people got a chance to be hired. Big business didn’t move into television until about 1955. Before then, nobody was paying too much attention. There were no rules. The sponsors didn’t have the grip on the material they have today.’
When his moment came, he was ready for it. ‘There are many, many young actors who don’t prepare themselves beyond the glossy photo, don’t study hard enough or well enough, don’t do their homework, and when their good luck arrives, which does not happen that often in the theatrical world, their talent may be ready for it but their technique is not,’ says Rod.
He was ready on 24 May 1953, when he played the lead in a play for the Goodyear Television Playhouse which became the most talked-about production in the history of those anthology series. This showed that it was television, more than the theatre or the cinema, that was mirroring its times, providing gritty, realistic drama that, for all its artful contrivance, its audience recognized as real.
The play was Marty, a drama about a fat little Bronx butcher who picks up a skinny schoolteacher that his friends regard as ‘a dog’. It was the masterpiece of [Paddy] Chayefsky, who strove to reproduce the speech patterns of the ordinary people — ‘dialogue as if it had been wire-tapped’, as he put it. The great Italian director, Federico Fellini, once told me that his movie about losers and layabouts, I Vitteloni, had been inspired by Marty and its understanding of the way men gang together in their unknowing need.
One particular exchange in Marty was to become almost a catchphrase, when his friend Angie asks Marty, ‘Well, what do you feel like doing tonight?’ and Marty replies, ‘I don’t know, Angie. What do you feel like doing?’
The role of Marty had been intended for [Elia] Kazan’s former assistant, Martin Ritt, who later was to become a successful director, notably of Hud, starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal. But in the Cold War atmosphere that then chilled Hollywood and television his career came to a sudden halt when he was blacklisted because of his earlier involvement with the Communist Party. (This was a time an actress could find herself out of work for having sent a congratulatory message to the Moscow Arts Theatre on its fiftieth anniversary; when a top sitcom could lose its sponsors because one of its actors had been named as a communist in the scurrilous pamphlet Red Channels; and when the TV networks employed security chiefs to ensure that the political views of writers, actors and directors would not upset the conservative companies who sponsored their shows.) [Fred] Coe [NBC’s manager of program development] recommended Rod for the role, playing opposite Nancy Marchand as the teacher. Delbert Mann directed.
There was only one problem moment during the broadcast, and Rod’s training and his belief in improvisation carried him through it triumphantly. It came when Marty goes to phone the teacher to ask her out. As he put his dime in, Rod allowed himself the luxury of a moment’s relaxation to think, It’s going well. But as she answered, he realized he’d forgotten his next line. Quickly, he improvised.
‘Do you know I called you and I don’t know what I called you about,’ he said. Nancy Marchand did not panic either. ‘Yes?’ she said. Rod continued. ‘Isn’t that funny? Life’s funny. I know what I called you about. I’m a silly fool. Like to go to the movies?’ He remembers, ‘What it looked like on screen was beautiful. But if you improvise in front of forty million people, you’ve got to have a lot of guts.’
When the show was over, Rod knew that it had been something special. ‘You felt it in your bones, you felt it in your blood, in the songs that you were singing in your heart to yourself.’
The next day, he got up and went to get a corn muffin and a cup of coffee at the corner coffee shop. As he walked down West 81st Street, a garbage truck went by and the driver yelled out the window, ‘Hey, Marty — how’re ya doing?’ Two women passed him in the street. ‘Marty, how are you?’ they asked.
In the coffee shop, as Rod went to the counter, the guy behind it immediately picked up on Angie’s dialogue. ‘What’re you going to have for breakfast today, Marty, what do you feel like doing?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know, Angie,’ said Rod. ‘What’ve you got for breakfast today ? ‘
The public impact was enormous. Time and Newsweek both wrote about it, and producers and writers attempted to reproduce Marty’s success with similarly realistic plays featuring ordinary people. As Chayefsky put it, ‘There is far more exciting drama in the reasons why a man gets married than in why he murders someone.’
It was a breakthrough year for Rod. The final accolade came in 1953, when he won the Sylvaner Award for the five best performances of the year: as Vishinsky and Rudolph Hess in two episodes of You Are There, the gangster Dutch Schultz in a thriller, a radar operator in My Brother’s Keeper, and, his greatest television triumph, as Marty in Paddy Chayefsky’s play. He was so convincing in My Brother’s Keeper, giving a panic-stricken pilot instructions on making a blind landing, that viewers called to ask whether he was an actor or a real-life radar-man. His only regret was that, later, he lost out on the film of Marty, which was to win four Oscars and bring its star, Ernest Borgnine, an Acadenly award as best actor of 1955.
I once asked Steiger just how disappointed he was at being passed over. ‘Hurtful,’ was the reply. ‘Actors, like writers, are paranoid: I thought it was something I’d done wrong. But, Ernie Borgnine was very good indeed. It was a totally different reading to my own. Oh, yes, he deserved his Oscar. But, then, [chuckle] so did I!’ [Rod Steiger: Memoirs of a Friendship by Tom Hutchinson; pgs. 72-75; Copyright © Tom Hutchinson 1998]