REKINDLED FOUR DECADES LATER
Benedict Steiger tells the story of her romance with the legendary
Betty Bailey/Special to The Malibu Times
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.
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
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,"
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
"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."