Romance rekindled four decades later

Joan Benedict Steiger met Rod Steiger when she was 19. It wasn't until four decades later that she married the larger-than-life actor.

Joan Benedict Steiger tells the story of her romance with the legendary Rod Steiger.

By Betty Bailey/Special to The Malibu Times

The Malibu home of Joan Benedict Steiger is a tribute to her late husband, Rod Steiger. His Oscar, awarded for his portrayal of Sheriff Bill Gillespie in the film “In the Heat of the Night,” sits on the coffee table. Photos and awards decorate every room, and framed poetry, written by the actor, adorns a bedroom wall. Each is a reminder of a recent past that began long ago.

The year was 1959. Nineteen-year-old Joan Benedict was sitting in the makeup room, preparing for her part in the television series “Masquerade Party,” when she saw a familiar face enter the room. She recognized Steiger from the movie “Al Capone” and from the Broadway play “Rashomon.”

“He was larger than life,” Benedict Steiger says. “I had seen ‘Al Capone’ at least 10 times. He looked at me and said, ‘Come here, little girl.'”

They went to dinner and began an affair that would last for a year.

As happens all too often in show biz relationships, time and distance took their toll. Steiger moved to Los Angeles to make movies and would marry five times. Benedict Steiger married John Myhers, an actor playing Captain von Trapp in the theater version of “The Sound of Music.”

The Myhers’ life was full. They traveled, worked at their acting craft and raised a daughter. Their marriage lasted 32 years, until John Myhers died in 1992 from cancer of the tongue.

In 1999, 40 years after their meeting in the makeup room, Benedict Steiger picked up the phone to find Rod Steiger on the line. “I nearly fell over,” she says. “My heart just jumped out.”

She says Steiger, who was recently divorced, heard someone speak of her at a party and found her through her agent. When the two met for Chinese food at Mr. Chow, Benedict Steiger says they picked up where they had left off four decades before. In October of 2000, they tied the knot in their home in Malibu. “He was the dearest, kindest, most loving human being,” she says. “He was so opposite the roles he played.”

Steiger’s roles included Mussolini, Pontious Pilot, W.C. Fields, Napoleon, Rasputin and even a pope. In all, he made 120 films, which earned him awards from England, Russia, Germany and Italy in addition to his Oscar. “He did more biographies than any other actor,” Benedict Steiger says. “He loved to do the research. He always said he got so much of his education in researching his characters.”

The larger-than-life roles seemed fitting for a man who lived life to the fullest. “We did more in a day in our marriage than most people did in a lifetime,” she says. “Life was just so full. We just had everything to talk about and to laugh about. We might be at lunch or dinner and he would write a poem to me. He brought me roses every day.”

Benedict Steiger describes their “red carpet life” as days of scripts, film festivals and appointments. “There always were scripts coming and going and interviewers coming to the house,” she says. “There would be television cameras or radio interviews.”

Despite their hectic schedule, the Steigers found time to play. “We were never home for more that two weeks at a time,” she says. “There were the Academy Awards, the Kentucky Derby, Superbowls and art galleries all the time.”

Their travels took them to many parts of the world-Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, the Canary Islands. “All over the world, our first stop would be art galleries and museums. He really educated me about impressionists,” she says.

In July 2002, Rod Steiger had to undergo surgery for cancer of the pancreas. He was expected to make a complete recovery. When he died from an infection resulting from that surgery, Joan Benedict Steiger’s bustling world came to a crashing halt. “I felt like I was dropped into an empty canyon,” she says.

“Rod had such courage,” she continues. “He was brave in life and he was brave in his acting.”

Trying to follow his example, Benedict Steiger is pushing her life onward. She looks forward to playing the role of a veteran writer who mentors a young writer in the Malibu Stage Company’s production of “Collected Stories” this fall. “I’m going to help publicize this little jewel of a theater to the rest of the community,” she says. She also has a film project in the works with producer Suzanne De Laurentis, which was written by actor Chazz Palmenteri.

Although the legendary actor is gone, Benedict Steiger says memories of the man who loved to play poker and sing in the car are part of her life everyday. She answers mail from his fans, some of whom haven’t heard of his death. And she is on hand to accept the many honors he receives posthumously.

On April 17, she will attend Florida’s Palm Beach Film Festival, where her late husband is being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. She’ll also be at UCLA May 2 when the “Rod Steiger Drama Scholarship” will be donated to help future drama students at the school.

“I’m filled with memories and it is wonderful,” she says. “I’m very fortunate. A lot of people never get, in a lifetime, what I had in a day.”