Walking the Boards of Life with Joan Benedict Steiger

By , Columnist

If you take a few moments to read up on her, you'll see that Joan Benedict Steiger is one heck of a woman. Now, I'll let you in on a little secret: she doesn't just look good on paper.

I was fortunate enough to interview Joan earlier this week, and after getting off the phone with this fabulous stage and screen star, I was still riding high on the passion and enthusiasm she exudes for both her career and her life. She's been an actor since she was 15 and, over several decades and three wonderful husbands later, she's still going strong. In fact, her enduring vibrancy and dedication have been recognized as recently as this year, when she received the Eternity Award at the Los Angeles Women's Theatre Festival.

Since I had a few questions for this lovely lady, I gave her a call on Wednesday morning. We spent a few moments remarking on the dreary weather that seemed to be plaguing both coasts - since I was calling from Richmond, VA, while she was at home in Malibu, CA. After we had exhausted the weather, Joan asked me what I had for her, and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the Q&A session that followed.

What's one key thing a twenty-something can be doing to make the most out of both her life and her career?

To always be thinking and planning ahead, whether it be for a lifetime or for a day. "I think I was always doing what they call today networking. When I was doing one job, I was always very alert to 'if I do this or that it'll further me here or there.' I was never at a standstill. I just was always in constant motion, is the way I'd explain it, always going forward.

"To this day, I still have my address book and my notes, and every day I make a note of what I'm going to do 1, 2, 3, 4 style. I not only do that . . . I cross them off and I feel very accomplished. If you've got an objective and each day you feel like you're doing something towards that . . . it's like you're building a building. You start from the groundwork up. You have your plans laid out, and you have to think of yourself kind of in that way. You're a plan under construction: how do you want this building to be? Mixed with tradition? Modern? Have your plans, don't just be all over the place."

You've had an incredible array of roles in a number of different environments - is there one in particular you would say really affected or helped to shape you, or that you learned the most from?

Her first love is the stage, and "Leona" is her favorite role to date, as it's based on Leona Helmsley, one of the biggest female hotel owners in the world and the "Queen of Mean." She's the kind of woman that Joan describes as "incredible."

When I asked her what she thought she learned from this role, she laughed and said, "what I learned was 'oh, I'm a lot like that!' I've always had determination and will-power - it SO pays off. I've never listened to people who said 'you can't do that' or 'why are you doing that.' I always kind of knew, starting when I was about seven - I can't explain it - that this is me and this is what I do. So whatever all the others around were doing, that was nice for them, but I always knew what I was going do to. I've been blessed with willpower." Just like Leona.

You talk about the three wonderful men whose love you were fortunate enough to have. Do you have any thoughts on love to share?

"The thing is that when I was little, I was born in Brooklyn and my grandfather owned this beautiful brownstone off of Prospect Park . . . and my mother came from a family of ten, seven of which were boys, and they were my seven uncles. I was always surrounded by a lot of men, so I've had a great affection for men, which is why I think I was married three times and widowed three times, never divorced."

That, "and I've been so lucky! I have nothing but the greatest things to say about love. There's nothing like it. You can always find wonderful love, and it's a kind of give and take. But I find a lot of young people today, they don't want to give things enough of a chance, and it's not just a one-way street. I just found great enjoyment in doing things for my husbands - and I don't mean I was some kind of a lackey or servant - oh no, no! I enjoyed things.

"[Also,] all my husbands were in the entertainment business and that's what I enjoy. It's very important that you find a partner that you have things in common with, otherwise I don't think there's that much of a chance. I could never be married to just a business man, because I find that very boring, personally."

You acknowledge in the bio on your website that you initially thought you'd be a dancer, not an actor - then, once you became an actor, you didn't just stick to one sort of acting but branched out into several. How much of the way your career unfolded was planned and how much of it just seemed to find you?

Though she says her career turned out to be "pretty much what I wanted," Joan also makes the point that timing and the intentions of destiny, the universe, or whatever else you'd like to call it, play a big part in how a career unfolds. As she puts it, things just fall into place when the time is right.

"When I was in New York, I was so busy acting on television and films and stuff and I was just starting to reach my peak of stardom - each time in my career I'd be [making it big], I'd be in love again and that would [put things on hold].

"But even if I wasn't acting, my husband would be or would be directing, so I was always a part of it. I was on the set with Rod every day - he was such a fabulous actor, and after he'd do a take he'd call over and say 'How was that, Joanie?' My Academy Award-winning actor of a husband! This may sound unbelievable, but with all the guys, we were inseparable - they were all they really gorgeous guys. We traveled over the world, they'd be writing scripts, I'd be writing with them, it was teamwork and I was just so in love. I think you can have it all like that."

I read that you initially dated Rod for a short period when you were 19, but the dedication each of you had to your careers made a long-term relationship difficult. Having lived through that - and of course been lucky enough to be loved by what sound like three wonderful men - do you think it's worth it to put your career before a relationship?

"Things kind of fall into place with [those] plans, too - there's the element of life that doesn't always go according to plan. You're going to have ups and downs and all of that.

"When we were dating in NY, [Rod] was starring on Broadway in 'Rashomon' . . . It just seemed to be the time [for a relationship] - at the time I met Rod, I also met John [Myhers] - so I was busy dating several actors, and I wound up marrying John first" because the timing was right. The demands of both of their careers seemed to match up, they loved each other, and things just fell into place.

Regarding the way the universe seemed to be watching out for her heart, Joan went on to say, "We were married 30 years and [John] passed away from cancer. And about five or six years later, I got a phone call: 'Benedict? This is Rod Steiger.' I tell you, I about fell off the chair! I asked him, 'How did you find me?' and he just said, 'Joan, I'm Rod Steiger!'

"Everything just seemed to fall into place. It was great with John, but it would've been great with Rod--it's just the timing. Everything kind of falls into place - it's one of the things you figure out: it's the universe. I'm kind of a fatalist. I think everything's planned out, but you're given different paths to choose. Everything's ready, but you make the selection."

I love talking to strong women who have made vibrant careers and lives for themselves - you seem to have this overwhelming positivity that has motivated you. Would you say that's gotten you where you are?

"Oh, I was born with that. I'm always thankful that I'm a very positive person. But I adore my daughter Claudia, and she tends to be a negative person. And you know things are easier when you're positive, but I seem to have always had that, and I kind of remember back from the beginning of time, I was always positive, always smiling; I'm a big laughter.

"If in any way you're more on the negative side, just try to sit down and tell yourself, try to be more positive - be prepared for the challenges, but always think on the positive side." Basically, be prepared for the worst, but hope for the best? I asked. "Yes, exactly! Think, 'that happened for a reason - this bad thing happened, but it's connected to this good thing that's happening or will happen.'

"You can always turn things around because there are always two sides - turn the page over and make it the positive side."

Talking about positivity in the face of losing the loves of her life, she says, "People ask,' Joan, how do you rebound from all of that?' I'm an incredible romantic - I live with all the wonderful fabulous love I've had in my life, [and I'm] still going strong, still dancing, still acting, still growing. . . When people say 'are you still acting?' I say, of course! I AM an actor, it's my being, it's what I am. It's just so fun, so rewarding, so fantastic."

I'm sure you've probably been asked this many times before, but I think my readers would be interested. In either acting or in life, what is the most influential piece of advice you've ever received or your favorite piece of advice to give?

"My advice, know who you are and follow that path - be dedicated, keep going, [and know] you'll have tremendous ups and downs. But I had a friend of mine who said 'what seems to be at the moment, isn't what it seems to be' - you can take that if you're unhappy, happy, whatever, because that moment is connected to the next moment," and you never know where life is going to take you.

And though that's the case, if you want to do it up like Joan, here's a quick how-to summary: make plans, make connections, don't be afraid of love - whether it comes around once or thrice - and live each day with a positive outlook and a laugh. What a woman!

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Emmie Scott is an English major-turned-marketing exec, with a passion for writing, humor, sharing knowledge, and "pink drinks." After hours, she started Are Toe Rings Professional Attire?, a blog for college grads and twenty-somethings looking to find their way through that daunting labyrinth called…

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