Rod Steiger, the stocky ex-Navy torpedo operator who studied acting alongside Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, went onto become a new-style Hollywood leading man of socially minded dramas, including On the Waterfront, and claimed the Oscar for his portrayal of a racist small-town police chief in In the Heat of the Night, died Tuesday. He was 77.

His publicist, Lori DeWaal, said Steiger succumbed to pneumonia and kidney failure at a Los Angeles-area hospital. Starting as far back as the 1970s, the actor battled a variety of ailments, including a bout of clinical depression that sidelined his career for almost a decade.

Said longtime pal Elizabeth Taylor, "He was a genius as an actor and as a friend. I will miss his gruff tenderness and humor so very very much." (Steiger once tried to recruit Taylor for a Wizard of Oz remake).

"Rod Steiger was such a close friend, as well as a great actor. I always tried to put him in every film I did because to me, he was like an anchor for the rest of the cast," added filmmaker Norman Jewison, who directed and produced several films with Steiger, including In the Heat of the Night.

"Rod was a lion of a man. [He] was one of the most creative actors I ever worked with--he was a joy to direct. I loved him and will miss him."

Steiger was a three-time Oscar nominee for his three most iconic roles: as Brando's brother in 1954's On the Waterfront, as the concentration camp survivor in 1964's The Pawnbroker, and as the intractable Chief Gillespie clashing with big-city black detective Sidney Poitier in 1967's In the Heat of the Night.

Upon accepting his Academy Award for Heat of the Night, Steiger, who also won the Golden Globe for the role, made a point to single out Poitier "for the pleasure of his friendship."

On Tuesday, Poitier repaid the compliment, calling Steiger "the quintessential American actor, hugely gifted and well trained--a very unusual combination." Poitier also said Steiger's death was an "enormous loss to me and to the profession."

Steiger's career in Hollywood dated back to pioneering live TV productions such as Kraft Television Theatre from the late 1940s and early 1950s. None of these broadcasts was more key than a 1953 primetime production of Marty, the story of a lonely butcher looking for love. Steiger would say Marty changed his life, and got him a reading for Waterfront. (The role also brought luck, and the Oscar, to Ernest Borgnine, who starred in the 1955 film version.)

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> Overall, Steiger racked up more than 120 film and television credits during nearly 55 years in front of the camera.

He worked so steadily, from his film debut in 1951's Teresa to a quartet of little-seen independent movies released last year, that he found time in between to turn down both the title roles in The Godfather (subsequently scooped up to old friend Brando) and Patton.

Of Patton, WWII vet-turned-pacifist Steiger said he didn't want to "glorify war." Something must have clicked in him, though, when he saw George C. Scott (who, like Brando, won an Oscar for accepting Steiger's cast-offs) stand in front of an impossibly giant U.S. flag in the film's opening scene. Steiger later called his decision to turn down Patton the "dumbest career move."

Born April 1, 1925 in Long Island, New York, Steiger's career--and, for that matter, life--was by no means conventional. Raised by an alcoholic mother, Steiger fled home at 15, and, at age 16, enlisted in the Navy. (He lied about his age to recruiters--perhaps his first winning performance.)

"I tell young actors today to join the merchant marines for a year, and I tell young women to volunteer in a hospital emergency ward if they can," Steiger once said. "You get to see different people, cultures, dress, it's a marvelous education for an actor."

After serving on a torpedo ship in the South Pacific during World War II, Steiger returned to New York, where he took opera lessons and enrolled in acting class. The opera thing didn't pan out. But the acting thing did.

At Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg's famed Actors Studio, Steiger was at Ground Zero for the movement that was the Method. Steiger, Brando, Monroe and Karl Malden were among the first to learn to build their performances from the inside out. Any actor who's ever asked, "What's my motivation?" has the Method to thank.

Kazan, already an established film director, helped bring this new smoldering style to Hollywood, turning star pupils Brando and Steiger loose on Waterfront.

Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender!" Waterfront rant, delivered to Steiger, reportedly was improvised between the two actors. If the story's not true, it's at least true to the spirit of the Method, which prizes spontaneity.

After Waterfront, Steiger's film career took off--he was "poor" Jud Fry in Oklahoma!, a fight fixer in The Harder They Fall (Humphrey Bogart's final film), a Russian in Doctor Zhivago, and Al Capone in Al Capone.

Based-on-a-true-story stories, such as Al Capone, were a recurring motif in Steiger's career. "They say I've done more biographies than anyone," said the man who played everybody from Benito Mussolini (twice), in Last Days of Mussolini and The Lion of the Desert, to W.C. Fields (W.C. Fields and Me), to Napoleon (Waterloo), to Pontius Pilate (the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth).

Steiger's 1967 Oscar was more of a capper, than a jumping off point, for his film career. While he continued to work, he worked less and less as a Hollywood star, retreating to European productions for a time in the 1970s. Steiger said his bout of depression left him unable to work. He subsequently bounced back and was honored for helping destigmatize the disorder.

Recent movie credits included: 1999's End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1999's Crazy in Alabama with Melanie Griffith and 1996's Mars Attacks! for director Tim Burton.

In a 2000 TV interview, Steiger summed up his career this way: "I'm 60 percent virgin and 40 percent whore. I've not sold out that much, and I've made my own mistakes."

He married five times, including a 1959-69 union to British actress Claire Bloom. All but his current marriage, to Joan Benedict in 2000, ended in divorce. Other survivors include two children: daughter Anna, with Bloom; and son Michael, born in 1993 to his fourth wife, Paula Ellis.

(Updated at 6 p.m. PT.)