First Person :Swimming naked with God


Part two of Paul Mantee’s memories of Rod Steiger.

By Paul Mantee

Over the years, our marital lives altered, yet we two remained a couple: Stan and Ollie. During the ’80s, I tried to interest him in feminism, and he informed me that my trouble was I spent my life choosing romantic interludes with various forms of my overbearing stepmother. During the ’90s and into the new century we enjoyed many breakfasts at the Marmalade Café where we objectified the female population of Malibu like a pair of ancient teenagers. I recall one morning in particular.

I arrived first and chose to sit facing the wall, so he could enjoy the passing parade. He wouldn’t have it any other way. I stood as he entered. We hadn’t seen one another in nearly a month. “Are you getting shorter?” he asked.

“We’re all getting shorter.”

“What the hell happened to my gentle giant?”

“He’s dead,” I replied.

“And stop losing weight,” he added. “I remember you when you had shoulders. And a career.”

Occasionally, I took our relationship to the edge. “You putz.”

Rod, by now stone deaf and equipped with the most expensive ineffective hearing aid on the planet, chose to hear that remark. “Putz?! You dare refer to the Great One as a putz? Whatever happened to the respect … ?”

“I respect you.”

“The love … ?”

“I love you more than ever, I just no longer kiss the hem of Caesar’s toga.”

“Oh, is that it?”

“And you miss it.”

“I see.”

I decided to push the river. “Do sit down, Marlon.”

Well. The look was vintage Steiger. A slow motion retrospective of every S.O.B. he’s ever played to the hilt. “You will pay for that remark. Trust me.”

Rod ordered the French toast with plenty of syrup and a side of sausage, and I, a double order of bacon and sourdough toast. He indicated our waitress as she slinked away, and quietly shared with me his perception of a particular skill he felt was endemic to her personality.

“You think?” I asked, enthusiastically.

“Just enough anger in the eyes.” Rod deciphered human sexuality with back-street precision.

Once we were served, he attempted to divert my attention elsewhere as he snatched a strip of bacon off my plate; a ritual I anticipated, and trapped the piece midway, nailing it to the table with my fork so that he only secured half of what he was after. Neither of us shares food enthusiastically.

We spoke of his upcoming trip to Europe, and about several screenplays whose merit he was weighing. A woman alone at the next table recognized him-a small Asian lady of indeterminate age and very soft voice. “Mr. Steiger, Mr. Rod Steiger, you are my favorite actor.”

“How’s that?” he asked.

I translated loudly, and indicated the drop of syrup on his chin by pointing to mine to let him know. “The lady says you’re her favorite actor.”

“Thank you,” Rod said absently, wiping his chin. “You’re very sweet, thank you.” His shyness was reminiscent of our encounter at the market a generation before.

The lady began to list his credits.

Again, I translated. “She loved you in ‘Oklahoma.'”


“‘Poor Jud is dead,'” I sang, biting off a piece of toast.

“‘The Pawnbroker,'” she said, ever so quietly.

I hurried to swallow so I could repeat the compliment.

“‘Doctor Zhivago,'” the woman murmured reverently. She all but touched his arm.

“‘Zhivago,'” I managed through a throat full of toast.

He asked me, “Are you having trouble swallowing?”

“A little.”

“Since when?”

“Just now.”

“I don’t like that.”

“It’s temporary.”

“I want you to see a doctor.”

“For what?”

“The swallowing.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Don’t tell me nothing. God forbid, it could be throat cancer.”

“It’s not cancer.”

“Look at me and promise you’ll see a doctor.”

“I promise.”

Rod bathed me in tenderness, placed a piece of his French toast the size of a garbanzo on my plate, and for the first time in 25 years allowed me to pick up the check.

By his final year, Rod Steiger had endured three bypass surgeries, two new hips and a prostate scare. Yet his sense of the absurd never flagged. Nor did his gusto. He weighed 250 pounds and swallowed whatever felt good in his mouth. Throughout his international career, he starred in more than 60 films, and frequently phoned me at 5 a.m. Pacific Time, from various exotic locations to remind me: “One of us is working.”

He phoned from home the night before he left for the hospital for what became his grand finale. I admitted to him he was indeed a living legend as he had so often insisted, and strongly suggested that he was also indestructible. He said, “I’ll see ya, Kid.”