Chaim Piast

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 What is history? (Rod Steiger) 

Rod Steiger, 
Oscar-winning American actor best known for his role in the 1967 film, "In the Heat of the Night." 

Rod Steiger: Historical films, I mean the films ... like I remember once I was a pretty good student, and we had to write a story about the Pony Express, and how it was formed. And I went to see a picture called, uh, Western Union, and it was about the Pony Express. And I didn't know then I was going to become an actor, and I'm able to improvise fairly well. So, the next day I said, "I'm ready to do my Pony Express." She couldn't believe it was so fast. I paraphrased the movie (Laughs), and I wound up doing it in front of the school auditorium a week later, you know? But, history to me is ... the first place no one will ever know the absolute ... well, the truth about anything. History doesn't mean that much except we get whose point of view is it? What religious group is behind it? What political group was behind it? How it was stated at the time? Who saw who shot, and whose side were they on? Who knows what history you're getting? I like, the thing about history is, when I see history it makes me think, my God, after all this we're still here. And we've done all that. Bad or good or what have you. 

History in a sense to me is the factual dissimulation of human ... of human values, of what makes up a human being. You get a, you know, Washington crossing the Delaware and, you know, his nose would have been frozen off. (Laughs). I mean, you don't get to know about the human beings of the time, you get a reportage from somebody whose political background or religious background or something ... you have no idea. And biographies to me, I hadn't realized it, but I read so many biographies and things like, historical things, I was getting an education. Acting educated me. When I had to do Viscinski, Rudolph Hess, I don't know, Mussolini, all these people I've done, I would read books. This was my homework. This is what an actor's supposed to do. Al Capone. I mean, the worst or the best. Pope John the XXIII, right? In fact they sent me the galleys of the Pope's book before it was published, to help me, the Vatican did, right? But if you don't get educated about history through that kind of thing, you're never going to get any. So, I think to me history is basically the physically noted history of what man has done bad and good, but can give you faith ... Say, wait this happened before. This ... there was this big flood before. Now, it's interesting, I say that, cause it comes to my mind, there was this big flood before, ask Mars(?) ... (Laughs). I like to know, wouldn't it be something if the life on planets were repetitious in a way? And we're going to look, to have that kind of red dust. Anyway, it ... it depends upon the individual's perception when you look at history. If you're a ... a person who believes that like I believe the greatest miracle on earth is man, which is all is good and bad and is history, then it helps you. You say, Wait a minute, it looked terrible here in the 20s. It looked terrible there in the 1600's. The plague, what have you. I used to take the train from Newark, New Jersey to New York to study acting. And I'd be sitting there, and you got to a certain section, there were all swamps that haven't changed in zillions of years. And you look up from the dirt, and the awful smell and the swamps of that place, and you just raise your eyes a little bit, like you had a camera and there's the Manhattan skyline. Who did it? We did it! We, with all the carping of different religions, with all the criticisms we throw at each other and everything. And when I see that, I said, "Well, if that represents the history of what we're doing, I believe in mankind as the biggest miracle. Cause there it is!" We had no claws, we had no fangs, we had nothing. But basically, history to me gives me the courage of knowing that we are basically good, and we will continue no matter who says what, where or when. Now, when you get to certain things like atomic weapons, I don't know. But, my point is basically, it's like my father saying to me, "You done good." That'll teach you to ask me a question, huh?  

Question ... a lot of great stuff ...  

Rod Steiger: When history ... when they discovered something so powerful they don't know how to handle it in history, it's amazing. The Dead Sea Scrolls. They got close to something, and it might have contradicted some philosophies in the world, in my opinion, suddenly you don't hear about them. I'd like to know what the rest of the scrolls say. Jesus had a brother question-mark? Some great discoveries like that, you see, that's how they become manipulated politically, religiously, and what have you. So just do the part about the crucifixion, okay guys! And I'm not attacking religions. Anything that gives you faith to get through the day and you don't hurt anybody else physically and mentally, as I said before, you can believe in this umbrella or microphone, fine, if it works for you. But that's ... things like that are amazing. And then there's books, I love to read. You have these books that tell you what actually happened. Like July 4th was July 2nd. I mean, I'm just, you know, stuff like that. And that's hysterical, because they're really, basically the facts. That wasn't Washington crossing the Delaware, that was his Second Lieutenant, who dressed like him so the troops should (Laughs) ... I don't mean. I'm just joking. But, I love those kind of books that are ... factually disproves some historic event that the world has celebrated forever. The Diaries of Michelangelo, The Diaries of Da Vinci. I'd like to read ... there you can get your true history. Uh, see another thing, history seems to be so negative. It seems to harp on terrible things. It doesn't seem to us like the man on the moon. We ... we put ourselves down for so many centuries, we do something that's extraordinary like the moon or discover the cure for ... like we will for cancer, or in my case, where I have a clinical depression, a medicine that gets me through the day. These are historical things. These I'd like to see more about, and hear more about. I want to know about the bad, so I turn to history. So it tells me what maybe instinctively to avoid. But give me a little courage. Give me a little shot in the back. Say, That's not bad, baby, you're doing okay. You know. I would ... I mean, people like Albert Einstein, who started, and got to where they did ... people who started with a bitter struggle and came off with a brilliant triumph in any of the arts, or any of the sciences, or in human being, or in their behavior, the ... one thing I think that gave me strength was the reading and you never get much to read about it, where history presents you what the common man did on a certain day when he united with his fellow man and changed the course of history. 
The French Revolution. Oh, the time in my life anybody asked me to French Revolution. That's the first speak up. Okay. The French Revolution. You know, things like that, where the people change history. They're fascinating things to me.  


Rod Steiger: What? To be reminded of the glory of man through war is something I think they should throw out of history all ... it all depends how the book is written. You know, they glorify these great battles, you know? The only history that ever affected my life, I don't know if it's to a good extreme or the bad extreme is the history like of the Medieval Ages, the knights in armor. Oh! There I was, boy, I'm going to save the lady, and I'm, you know? And now I realize, you poor romantic idiot, (Laughs), that ain't around anymore, you know? So, it made me kind of in love with romanticism. When you see all the things we've done that are bad or good, I still insist that overall we must be doing something right, we wouldn't be here. I am not, uh, I don't consider us, uh, an unimportant thing on the planet. That's why a lot of religious doctrines that affect history, I don't pay any attention to, because somebody had to be here to invent the god. You know? We invented the gods, in my opinion. So, those negative things, I don't like, the glorification. But, again I come back to my original point, we'll never know the truth about history unless we live through that particular moment. Cause, you'll either get a political slant, a religious slant, a psychological slant, a mathematic slant, I don't know what the hell, but you'll get it.  


Rod Steiger: Well, what happens is our knowledge, in my opinion, our knowledge is ... increases over the times, and over the centuries, we become more lenient about ourselves because knowledge depends upon knowing what it is happening. Knowledge gives you the strength to go forward. And, all of a sudden they're looking at the early editions of what was written and saying, Wait a minute. This might have been written by a religious nut. Basically, the facts these are reporting may have happened. Not on that day. Not on this and that. But the interpretation of history is the weapon that I worry about. How we use history to affect the lives of people today. How we use history to affect us politically. How we use it religiously, what have you. That's the big thing about history. How is it told to the next generation? How is it communicated to the next generation? 
That's where lies the power of history. To me history should be an unfabricated guide to the foibles and glories of mankind. I don't want to see the inversion of some political philosophy that got in there and changed the thing around to make it look good. 
Like when I did Napoleon, uh, everybody deserted this man except his mother. You asked for money ... the jewelry and everything back and made them Kings of Naple and never did give it back to me, and when I'm in good, better shape cause people ... like for instance, very few, now only in new history books do you find out that the Roman legions were running out of bread and corn. And, if this guy didn't get a certain amount of ducats in time to the other place, there would have been a fall of nothing. This is the history that I think is fascinating. The human things that happen on a given day or period at the moment so to speak. See, Jesus I'd ... the weight of the armor. The weight of the shields. They marched how far? I couldn't march from here to my ... back to my hotel room with that kind of equipment. You know, how did they keep the water going? I mean, things ... 
I like more ... I like human ... history to me, should not only have the history of mankind in factual terms, but a good history book to me always has to have a sense of humor, a little ... some psychology in that ... where you get all the angles on it. I don't mean minutely. You wouldn't be able to read that. You wouldn't live long enough to read it all. But, it ought ... it's got to a have a little sense of humor, a little sense of human behavior. Not this ... that's what's wrong ... I don't know today, but the educational system ... For instance, the way they introduced Shakespeare to you in the United States, they threw this book at you and said, "Read it. It's by William Shakespeare. It's called Julius Caesar." And the kids said, Thou, this ... what? In England, they see it performed at seven years of age. They are charmed by the actual experience of seeing the play and therefore it has continued, because what is Shakespeare like everything else depend upon? The imagination of the person who's watching his work or hearing it. And also, another thing I learned from history and the history of things like that. He never defined anything. Upon your imaginary forces work. He's got you. Your imagining of the battle of Aegenon(?) Court, my imagining of Aegenon Court, his imaging ... he got you. You got to make up your own mind, your own army, your own battle thing, you know?  


Rod Steiger: Well, I tell you what about Napoleon to me that was kind of interesting history, and the public would be able to see. When you play a person that is historical, you better have a little piece of mud somewhere on this guy. I can't identify with Moses, but if you show me Moses and he's got like his hands are dirty, his skin, Oh, my God, he's a human being. That you have to have, a little piece of dirt that connects him with all the people who are going to watch it. And Napoleon, you saw him tired, and dirty, and angry, and, you know, it wasn't the glorification, you know? In fact, I am very happy cause I got my best reviews in Paris. And I was scared, the French, you're doing Napoleon, good luck to you, you know? That to me is the most important thing is not the historic, it was the human value that then enhanced the historic value, cause in films what ... if it doesn't make any difference, if the public don't say, Oh, yeah, I believe him, he was alive. And I learned a lot, you know, I mean when I did Pope John the XXIII. Now, Pope John the XXIII liked his wine and once in a while he kind of disappeared, and they'd find him around the corner with this wine shop with one of the guards, he wasn't drunk or anything, he liked his wine. Well, I wanted to put that in the movie. So, I played Pope John the XXIII. I came downstairs, I had my dinner. Mom says, Va bene. Mangare, adesso. Mangare, adesso! Eat now. Eat now. And I sat down, he had a glass of wine. He drank it rather rapidly, and went to pour another glass. They said, "Cut." This by the way, I (sic) never dawned on me, the best example of what happens to history. They said, "Cut." The man from the Vatican said, "Un bichiere solo." One glass of wine only. Understand now what I mean about the distortion of history. I'm not talking about me. That's how it happens. Somebody distorts it. I said, "But he liked wine. I wanted to identify with the common people. He didn't ... wasn't a drunk or bum." Once I came down, I handed myself a little shave. I needed a shave. No, no. Scuzate. (Italian). La barba. No beard. I said "This man was a wonderful human being, and if you keep sterilizing him ..." That's another thing, sterilize history, that gives a misrepresentation. 
Not only in any religion, Catholic, Protestant, Buddha, or Jew. They all sterilize their histories, you know? You give a false representation. And that, uh, probably is the best thing I can say about history. Unless it is humanized to a point where it catches my attention and I realize that I am related indirectly over the centuries to the human being they're talking about. Burn it! 

I don't know how I got that all out, but I got it out. Right.  


Rod Steiger: I have no human identity. That's how history should be presented with enough human factors. I never realized this before, that historical figures become human to the relief ... to the reader and the student, and they get interested in the human beings who have done something, not as figures or pawns.  


Rod Steiger You know, and I want to see more about that common, human qualities in the history that we teach, so that my son, I have a four year old boy, not only gets to see the glory of the accomplishment of the American Revolution, but knows what the hell it means to really be cold. I mean, if I was a teacher I'd come to class with a bowl of ice that day. Somebody would say, "What are doing?" "Put your hand in the ice. Just hold it there." "Oh, my God ..." "Well, that's Valley Forge, kid." 
Wow! That's history. That's history. That's what they had to go through, right? Unbelievable. So, history, I'm saying should engender in us enough, the courage to question, the courage to believe there is a reason to go forward. That to me is how history should be presented. Not as a factual detail, but as proof that we have something inside of us that at times can touch glory.  


Rod Steiger: I like Augustus Caesar, uh, the intelligence and the kind of insisting upon an educational thing to be, uh, I like those people who have kind of through their courage benefited. Uh, this brings me to society, this brings me to, uh ... I like those who have truly, unconsciously helped us to continue. Like this woman, Rosa Parks sat in the back of the bus. Now she will become a heroic, historical figure. And, if you would have told ... asked her, I'm sure she said, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm just not going to sit in the back of the goddamned bus! But that insane insistence is what heroes are made of. She don't know if she's going to be into idol. She just had enough. And, I don't know, Einstein always fascinated me. I also loved ... Napoleon I was ... in the movie, Napoleon, I was always ... I always wanted to put in the relationship between him and Josephine. Just, because when he started she paid no attention to him. She married him as a Lieutenant. All of a sudden, she says, What's this victory in Egypt? What's this victory in Austria? What's it ... Oh, boy, I better be good to him. I always want to have the scene where he came home, and, uh, she says, Let's go into the boudoir, and he said, uh, "... tard maintenant." 

It's a little late now. (Laughs). I learned from reading the lives of great people. That's how I got educated, cause I get a part like the Pope or whatever they are. Rasputin, I still can't understand how he got out of the table(?), walked through the snow, and they're shooting him all the time, and he dies against the tree. I don't know what kind of ... what he was made out of, but ... 
And Napoleon had five dishes presented for lunch. They'd be waiting. And I put it in the picture. He'd go look at this, look at this, look at this. He says, I'll have that and that. Get rid of the rest. That's what excited me about history. Cause then I knew, Oh, he's a human being. He's Napoleon, you know? I enjoyed that. I learned a lot from these things. With a man like The Pawnbroker, he was drowned in his own sense of guilt, cause he didn't save his family. And his best friend would have told him inside the cattle car when they stomped her family to death, you couldn't move. There was no way, 10 million troops could have saved her. It didn't make any difference. He had convinced himself he was not worthy, but he couldn't kill himself. So what happens is he tried to exist in society, without any responsibility, to withdraw. And, as long as you breathe, you're a member of society, and have something to do with it whether you like or not. And, so it's kind of the awakening of a man who condemned himself falsely, and that to me is what, uh, we put in ... In fact, when you ever see the picture again on tape or something, all during the first part I never look anybody in the eye. I'm the only that kind of knows it, but what the hell, I had the ... it was good for me. Until somebody said, "What's the tattoo for?" And his eyes go like that. That's my favorite line. He says, "It's for walking on water." Of course, the rest of it is, "You jackass, what kind of stupid question is that, you know?" But I love it, because it also alludes to Christ. (Laughs). I think ... and that's my favorite line of the picture. I don't think half ... anybody notices it, "... from walking on water ..." Then they, from then on he begins to look at people. That's the first kind of jolt, you know?  


Rod Steiger: You will have evil men and evil parts of the city as long as we breathe. Whether they call them the Mafia, or they call them the SS Troops, or KGB, or whatever you want to call them. In another way of looking at it, evil if it becomes so forceful and strong and overwhelming, defeats itself. See, the problem with our government, a democracy, it takes the majority to get rid of anything. We hardly listen to each other, never mind ... (Laughs). So ... when something gets finally too bad, we move and do something. We ... we're forced to. And that, I ... you learn in history, too. They wait till there are impossible almost odds against them and then there'll be a revolution or something. They try to fight it back. And at that time a lot of it was because there wasn't much reading going on, there wasn't much communication, and some governments didn't allow it. You have history books around the world that are completely distorted. If you're in France, the French are the heroes. If you're in England, the English are the heroes. If you're in the United States, the Americans are the hero. You'll never know who the hell was the hero. World War II, we're all screaming and yelling, the people of Stalingrad, who ate themselves broke the back of Hitler. No fighters. No soldiers. They would not give in. And they came in and found families frozen at the table. These are historical people, you know? I did ... I like human things like Napoleon not being able to get the money back ... get enough money to do the troops or anything, cause his family refused him. That's another thing in history that's very interesting. 
MacArthur, was a Mama's Boy. Eisenhower was a Mama's Boy. Napoleon was a Mama's Boy. I get fascinated by that. I say, Why, I don't ... Why are they Mama's Boys? You know, it's very interesting. They were very big about their mothers. You never hear about the fathers. In fact, you don't hear about the fathers in general much, anyway. (Laughs). But, it was amazing ... 


Rod Steiger: I always sometimes think that evolution is the continuance of the impossible. We get to a point, we says, You can't go through. We'll never get through. We get through! I ... what I'm talking about, I'm talking about any of you kids that are listening, and it's good to read history for knowing the courage of people that were called Mama and Papa before your Mama and Papa. It's very important to know what has happened, to let you enjoy the pleasures of today's society. Very important. Not politically. Not religiously.  


Rod Steiger: But we did it. You're going to do it. And your children will do it. That's what I like about history. And that goes back to history, how history is taught in the schools. You never heard about the black regiments, in the Civil War. I was astounded when they showed me ... you know, I walked in, "What's that? Oh, I didn't know that!" It's like in ... in, uh, in World War II, there were many instances that we in the service felt that they sent a lot of minorities in, in the first wave. Daren't talk about it. There's no way you could really prove it. You'd say, "I don't know, that's a lot of multi-colored people in the first group going in the (Inaudible). I don't know what the hell is going on here." I don't know if that's a fact or not, but ... there were always rumors like that.  


Rod Steiger: The best time will come when you read a history book, and it makes you laugh with contentment, and the joy of being alive. That's a good history book. (Overlap) You know what I need? A copy of The Little Prince by Saint Exupery. The book he wrote, which is about this little prince that comes down to earth, and looks for help because its little pal ... uh, planet's being overgrown by these terrible weeds. This book sells three hundred to five hundred thousand copies a year, around the world. And it has ... and you know it's not a ... it's always in the children's section, but you know it isn't for children, because it has for instance the ... the boy and this pilot who crashed in the desert, they meet, the little prince and him. And they get this wolf! And the boy wants to keep the wolf! And the wolf says to me (sic), "All right. But if you tame me, you are also responsible." That ain't no children's book. It's one of the most spiritual uplifting books that has nothing to do with any doctrine whatsoever, except somebody, Saint Exupery who wrote it, who believed that men, women or the human race are really basically miracles. And ... I ... it's ... I cannot tell you, uh ... I ... when Mr. Reeves has his unfortunate accident, the first thing I sent to him was a copy of The Little Prince in which I wrote, uh, "Life is an experience. Cards(?) can make it a miracle." Now, this book is ... and you never see it many places anymore. I thought it would be in the educational system, when you get to be around 13.  

Question: That's a very unique (Overlap)  

Rod Steiger: Well, I would leave a copy of The Little Prince.  

Question: That's an excellent answer. That really ...  



This transcript has been edited for clarity.  

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