A dancer from childhood, Joan forged a career in show business as an actress in the early days of television, where she made notable appearances on shows like the original “Candid Camera” and “The Steve Allen Show.” Dozens of television and film appearances later, including memorable stints on “General Hospital” and “Days of Our Lives,” she’s still dedicated to all facets of her craft, having appeared in numerous stage productions, from the classics to modern comedies to her acclaimed solo shows (“Leona,” about Leona Helmsley, and her autobiographical “The Loves of My Life.”)
Today, Joan immerses herself in every acting opportunity, including a recent appearance on Fox’s “Dollhouse” and a starring role in the feature “Dead Border.” She was awarded the “Eternity Award” for “lifetime achievements that have made a lasting contribution to the world of theatre” recently at the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. She is also preparing to write her memoirs. Remembering the past with no regrets, she looks forward to a future of even more accomplishment.
Tell me what your childhood was like?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: My child was very interesting. I was the only grandchild and my mother had seven brothers and two sisters. My grandfather owned a brownstone off of Prospect Park, which is Brooklyn’s version of Central Park. The house was very large and some of my uncles lived there on and off. Having seven uncles, it was like Christmas everyday for me.
I fantasized about being an actor at a young age. I saw my first movie when I was 7 which was Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat. I remember walking out of the movie and running back in thinking, “No, I want to be in that world.”
I started my tap dancing and ballet at the same time. Tap was my favorite My mother sent me to Rome when I was 9. She sent me to her cousins villa. (laughs) I was shipped off by myself with a governess. I didn’t speak Italian or anything. I was there for a year studying ballet and then my mother joined me later on. I remember writing letters saying that I was running away from home with no idea how I was getting across the ocean. Since then, I’ve been to Italy many times and I love it, but I always get this fearsome feeling that I’m trapped and trying to get home.
From there, my mother and I moved to Paris.
Aside from French and Italian, do you speak other languages?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: I can translate to Spanish and Portuguese English was always my favorite subject in school, so languages are easy for me. But mathematics I failed twice. That’s like Greek for me.
Aside from your memoirs, do you write?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: I have this strange affliction of writing in long hand. I hate it because I can’t turn myself off when I start writing. It’s easy for me to talk a lot and it’s easy for me to write a lot too.
Do you still dance today?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Three times a week I tap dance. I had top choreographers in my life. You cannot not smile when you tap dance because it’s so wonderful. Oh and we have a great class. They are all actors or someone in the entertainment business and we have about 6 or 7 fabulous routines. We’ve been together over 15 years.
What/Who inspired you to pursue acting?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress. I was 15 when my mother said to my father that I wanted to be an actor. So I’ve been studying acting since I have been 15. I’ve had all of the great teachers; Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, and Betty Cashman to name a few. I’ve been a member of five acting groups over the years. I’ve done about 40 plays. Theater is my favorite. Strangely enough, when I was in school memorizing was very difficult for me. I’m so proud of looking at these scripts and know that I learned all of them.
I’m so proud of that and learning how to fly.
You learned how to fly too?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Well I was going out with a pilot with TWA at the time. I thought “Oh I can do that too!” This only about 10 years ago. So I took flying lessons and I was able to fly. However, I could never pass the ground test. I looked over at this young man and asked where he was from. He replied that he had just graduated from MIT. I thought to myself, oh my, it’s all mathematical.
You spent three years on the soap opera General Hospital, what was that experience like?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Soap Operas are terrific training for an actor. You find that most actors were in soap operas; Robert Redford, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and hundreds of others. It’s training because you have loads of lines to learn and when you come in the next morning, it’s all changed. I recall my first day on the set, the female director said “OK Joan, so the opening scene you’ll get up, walk over there, having a small conversation, then walk over there, sit down, and get a drink of water….got it?”
It’s probably the best thing I ever did. You have to love it.
You had three husbands over the course of your life. Can you explain them in one word?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Well they were all fabulous!! I was extremely lucky. Many people don’t know this but I was with each of them every day that we were together. With all of them, my friend’s thought that they were such ladies men. They were the opposite. They wanted to be with me all of the time and I wanted to be with them. They were all great lovers, great friends, great listeners and gentleman. I’m really missing them now and thinking isn’t there another guy like them around?
What advice would you give to a woman who has lost a love to death and wanting to find love again?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Well the thing is I don’t live in the past. I only live in the past with good memories. I’m always moving forward. I’m so afraid of dying. I think that there’s so much more that has to be done, learn and do. I can’t wait to get up every day and it’s been that way my whole life. I wonder what’s going to happen today. I still plan my day the way I did when I was 15. I have my day outlined and other exciting things happen during the day. When I get home, I cross them all out.
Rod Steiger stated that he suffered with depression all of this life, but said that you were the one woman who brought happiness into his life…
Joan Benedict-Steiger: I have say I never was with him during the depression stage. I met all my guys when I was younger and getting into acting. He wasn’t in that stage earlier in life, nor was he in that stage when he met me. He was on medication. He did say that it took years of trial and error with his medication before they got it right.
When I spoke at his memorial at the Actor’s studio in New York, I said “the first thing I want to say about Rod Steiger is that he was a pussy cat.”
Working with him was so easy.
When we acted in Frozen in Fear, he said to me, “I’ll come into the motel and you’ll be sitting at the lunch counter playing Solitaire. Just go ahead and don’t worry about a thing. When I come in, you’ll just react” Oh my God, he came in and grabbed me by the back of the skin and scared the heck out of me. The scene was so fabulous. Working with him was easy. He would come and see some of my plays and he was in awe of my acting. Imagine! He won an Academy Award and he was in awe of me!
Where is your favorite place to write your upcoming memoirs?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: Right here overlooking the ocean in Malibu in my house and in my bedroom.
Any wrongs you may make right in this book?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: I don’t know. I have so much to say and I’m right in the midst of sorting out a lot of things. So I don’t know just yet.
In today’s world of technology, what advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in acting?
Joan Benedict-Steiger: It could go for any time; get as much knowledge as you can, about everything. As an actor, you’re portraying a character and you want to learn the most you can about human beings, about dancing and movement. Everything you can put into that reservoir of knowledge would make you a better actor.
It doesn’t matter what kind of machine or whatever, education is everything.