What an Oscar meant to Rod Steiger 45 years ago

After spending more than a decade as one of Hollywood’s finest character actors, Rod Steiger had a brief run as a top-billed movie star after he won an Oscar in 1968 for “In the Heat of the Night.”

Steiger had been nominated in the lead actor category two years earlier, for his bravura performance in the title role of “The Pawnbroker,” and was considered the front runner until Lee Marvin scored an upset (for his comic performance in “Cat Ballou”).

The prize in 1968 was viewed as a make-up win for “The Pawnbroker” but it finally gave Steiger some industry clout and within the next few years he appeared in a run of star vehicles that included “No Way to Treat a Lady” and “The Sergeant” in 1968, and an adaptation of portions of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” the following year.

The Bradbury film was the most expensive of the trio and when it failed at the box-office like the other two Steiger vehicles, the actor’s bankability evaporated. He returned to the low-budget projects and smaller roles he was accustomed to playing before the Oscar win.

When he had star vehicles built around him, Steiger gave in to his hammiest tendencies, and in two of the pictures, he over-acted in multiple roles — a stunt that turned off audiences at the time, but now makes the movies fun to watch.

The Warner Archive DVD-on-Demand service has just released “The Illustrated Man” which actually holds up pretty well as an off-beat science-fiction/horror hybrid about a man who is tattooed from his neck down to the soles of his feet.

The picture opens in the Depression era where the title character is traveling across the country as a hobo. He meets a young vagrant (Robert Drivas) and as they share a campfire he tells the story — in flashback — of how he came to be “the illustrated man.”

The supernatural element involves the tattoos which can cause an unwary observer to hallucinate about their content. The Drivas character does that twice and we are taken into Bradbury stories set in the future — one about a home-entertainment device that brings out the worst in children and another about a U.S. space mission that crashes on a planet where it never stops raining.

Drivas and Steiger’s then-wife Claire Bloom (below) are in the stories-within-the-story and appear to have as much fun as the star did in playing multiple roles in a single movie.

“The Illustrated Man” becomes creepier as it progresses. The young vagrant sees what might be his own dire future in one of the skin drawings.

Tattoos were not fashionable 43 years ago, so the idea of someone having them all over their body was rather horrifying and set up the fantasy elements very well.

Steiger chews the scenery and over-enunciates almost every line (just listen to the way he stretches out the two words “skin illustrations”) but it’s an enjoyably hammy form of screen acting that vanished along with the star’s late-career reputation.

Both “The Illustrated Man” and “No Way to Treat a Lady” were directed by the long-forgotten journeyman filmmaker Jack Smight. One has visions of the poor guy simply throwing up his hands and letting the star do whatever he wanted in both movies.

Joe Meyers