Rod Steiger - Lunch With A Melancholic Old ManSaturday, December 22, 2007
The photographs in my files have no date and I never kept a copy of the Georgia Straight in which one appeared. My guess is that I took the pictures in the late 80s or early 90s. I can remember vividly everything else. I knocked on the door of one of the rooms in what was then the Pacific Palisades Hotel on Robson Street. It was run by Mel Zajak. He was discrete and liked to play golf so many movie stars (before Vancouver really became Hollywood North) stayed at his hotel. I photographed many of them but the most memorable was the melancholic man who opened the door, and said, "Please come in. I hope you don't mind but we are going to have lunch in together and we shall first drink a white wine." The man, unshaven and wearing a black hat, was actor Rod Steiger. I stared. He explained, "Today is Saturday and on Saturdays I never shave." We shared a club sandwich but I don't recall the wine. I was too fascinated by the charm and the kindness of the man who told me how he had read tons of books on Napoleon and read the headlines of French newspapers of the time in order for him get into the mind of Napoleon whom he played in the 1971 film Waterloo. But the most remarkable performance I have ever heard from an actor came after the coffee.
Steiger told me that the one part he had always wanted to play was Winston Churchill. He then recited in its entirety, Churchill's June 4, 1940 speech before the House of Commons:
...We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God's good time the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old. .
I closed my eyes and the man in the room was Winston Churchill. I broke the spell when on a lark I asked him what was the gum he chewed through most of In the Heat of the Night (1967) as Sparta, Mississippi, police chief Bill Gillespie.
"It was Dentyne cinnamon."