Sunday, October 20, 2002

By TIFFANY YATES, Special to the Daily News

Joan Benedict Steiger, the widow of actor Rod Steiger, watched with others as her husband's character spoke during his final film, "A Month of Sundays," on Saturday in Naples.

"All I know is, it's better to keep active than to sit around waiting for death," spoke Charlie McCabe, the character Steiger plays in his final film that screened at the Pavilion Theatre as part of the Marco Island Film Festival.

Steiger died unexpectedly in July of complications following routine surgery. Benedict accepted the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of her husband, whose 50-year career included more than 150 films and hundreds of television appearances.

Rod Steiger's 50-year career included more than 150 films and hundreds of television appearances

"It's hard," Benedict said of making appearances and watching the film in which Steiger's character is dying. "But you know, people loved him so much."

On a breezy afternoon under a tent at the Village at Venetian Bay, Benedict accepted the cut-crystal award commemorating her husband's career and thanked festival coordinators and attendees for making her feel welcome and comfortable.

The film's producer, Suzanne DeLaurentiis, was on hand before the screening to introduce the film. "He was one of the greatest," DeLaurentiis said, "and we will all miss him dearly."

"A Month of Sundays," in which Steiger plays a dying man haunted by the need to find his estranged son and reconcile with him, was slated for wider exposure at festivals but DeLaurentiis decided to scale back temporarily after Steiger's death. Prior to the Marco Island event, the film showed only at festivals in New York, Palm Beach, and Atlantic City, N.J.

Although it was originally supposed to be a studio film, DeLaurentiis grew weary of the long wait for production, and decided to produce the picture independently. She credits Steiger's interest with her ability to get the film made.

"Money wasn't a concern to him," she said, and partly due to his and other cast members' willingness to work below their usual salaries, the film was made for just over $1 million.

The Marco festival had already accepted the film for the festival program when coordinators decided they'd also like to honor Steiger with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

"We were looking for more than just a contribution to the film industry, but also someone who was giving back to the world," said Cindy Dobyns, festival head of public relations.

Steiger fit the bill: having battled depression himself, the actor was very active right up until his death with publicizing and raising awareness of and support for clinical depression.

Though Steiger was honored in his lifetime with countless tributes, including the Academy Award and its equivalents in Italy, Germany, England, and Russia, he was delighted to learn of the Marco award, Benedict said: "Rod was always pleased that people remembered him and honored him."

After the screening came a tribute to Steiger's career, with clips from many of his most memorable films, among them "On the Waterfront," "The Pawnbroker," "Dr. Zhivago" and "In the Heat of the Night"; a biographical slide show; and candid snapshots of Steiger, his wife, and their friends.
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