Rod Steiger, 77, a richly compelling Academy Award-winning actor who riveted audiences in such dramas as "On the Waterfront," "The Pawnbroker," "Doctor Zhivago" and "In the Heat of the Night" and hundreds of television and stage roles, died July 9 at a hospital near Los Angeles. He had pneumonia and kidney failure.

The son of roadhouse performers, Mr. Steiger fell into acting after Navy service in World War II. Then it became an all-consuming crusade. He made his Broadway debut in 1951 and made more than 250 live television appearances about that time, proving himself an incisive interpreter in myriad roles. He played everyone from the mystical, evil Russian healer Rasputin to the lonely New York meat cutter in Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay "Marty."

He used his puffy face and stout physique to advantage in hundreds of character parts, often using the Method acting style that required plumbing his own life experiences for character motivation. Over a lifetime, he accumulated some of the highest honors of his profession, including an Oscar for best actor in "In the Heat of the Night."

His film debut was a small part in Fred Zinnemann's "Teresa" (1951), but he jumped to the front ranks of Hollywood fame with his next feature film role, as Charley the Gent, the mob lawyer in "On the Waterfront" (1954). Elia Kazan, the film's director, had been a mentor at the Actors Studio in New York.

Mr. Steiger received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in that movie and was featured in one of the classic moments of filmdom with Marlon Brando, who played his younger brother, washed-up boxer Terry Malloy.

Sitting in the back of a car, Terry blames Charley for making him throw a fight for "the short-end money" and says he "coulda been a contender."

The role transformed Mr. Steiger's career. "That's when I had to get my first agent, to defend myself," he once said.

He was cast in a succession of malicious roles, as a studio head in "The Big Knife" (1955), as Jud Fry in "Oklahoma!" (1955) and as a corrupt boxing promoter in "The Harder They Fall" (1956). In the latter, he played the promoter with such zest that a Look magazine reporter wrote "on Steiger's performance alone, boxing stands indicted."

He also was a ruthless gang boss in "Cry Terror!" (1958) and a magnetic "Scarface" in the 1959 film "Al Capone."

On Broadway in 1959, he played the bandit in "Rashomon," which had been made famous by the Akira Kurosawa film version years earlier. The play, co-starring his then-wife, Claire Bloom, ran for 159 performances.

"If an actor stays on one level and doesn't challenge himself constantly, he will die," he told the New Yorker in 1961. "That's why I was eager to do 'Rashomon.' I like to be a gangster, then play in a Western, then go to Shakespeare."

He disliked long-term studio contacts, and the result was being out of the running for some plum parts. Those included the film version of "Marty" (1955), which won Ernest Borgnine the Oscar, and the romantic lead in "A Farewell to Arms" (1957), which went to Rock Hudson.

After his career seemed to sputter in the early 1960s, Mr. Steiger was cast by Sidney Lumet in what would be one of his defining and most haunting roles, as the guilt-racked Holocaust survivor who runs a pawnshop in Harlem in "The Pawnbroker" (1964).

The part earned him another Oscar nomination, this time as best actor.

The next year he continued to flex his range: in the small comic part of mother-doting Mr. Joyboy in "The Loved One," based on Evelyn Waugh's satiric novel about the funeral business; and as Victor Komarovsky, the wealthy and lusty opportunist in David Lean's epic "Doctor Zhivago."

Then came his Oscar for "In the Heat of the Night" (1967). He was a prejudiced southern police chief who becomes an unwilling partner of a northern black detective (Sidney Poitier) sent to his small town to aid a murder investigation.

For his controlled acting, he beat out fellow Oscar nominees Warren Beatty for "Bonnie and Clyde," Dustin Hoffman for "The Graduate," Paul Newman for "Cool Hand Luke" and Spencer Tracy for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Among those surprised at the awards ceremony was Mr. Steiger, who onstage publicly thanked Poitier "for the pleasure of his friendship, which gave me the knowledge and understanding of prejudice to enhance my performance."

After demonstrating boundless ability from one role to the next, Mr. Steiger astonished viewers with an effectively diverse performance all in one movie -- "No Way to Treat a Lady" (1968), in which he played a psychopathic killer with a penchant for disguise.

A critic for England's Observer newspaper wrote: "Starting off as a red-haired Irish priest with a leering eye for pretty girls, and working his way in a rapid succession through W.C. Fields, a camp wig-fitter, a hearty cop and a trembling prostitute, he gives a virtuoso display of characterization and comic timing which all but turns a minor black comedy into a masterpiece."

Rodney Stephen Steiger was born in Westhampton, N.Y., to a traveling song-and-dance team. The marriage dissolved shortly after Mr. Steiger's birth. He grew up in Newark and witnessed the tempestuous marriage between his mother and stepfather.

At 16, the sturdy young man whose nickname was Rodney the Rock successfully lied his way into the Navy to join the Allied effort in World War II. He served in the South Pacific.

In Newark after the war, he took a clerical job with the Veterans Administration and started performing in a civil service theater group. One of the drama coaches urged him to study acting in New York.

He did so, under the GI Bill, and took classes in performance and even opera at the New School for Social Research. Because of his operatic training, he persuaded director Zinnemann years later to let him sing in "Oklahoma!" and even dance a little in sequences choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

He furthered his studies at the American Theater Wing and the Actors Studio, where he came into contact with Brando and Eva Marie Saint -- his co-stars in "On the Waterfront."

There, he learned the foundations of his craft but also came to see his own psychoanalysis as a prime force in his work.

"My generation of actors was taught to be able to create different people," he said. "That's what an actor is supposed to do."

After his career peaked in the 1960s, he continued making numerous film and television appearances, from "Waterloo" (1970) as Napoleon Bonaparte to "The Amityville Horror" (1979) as a man of the cloth.

He was so prolific that his career sometimes suffered from his lack of discretion in film choices. He could be wildly superior to the product, but sometimes overwrought to the point of hamminess.

"I'm 60 percent virgin and 40 percent whore," he said in 2000 of his career tendencies. "I've not sold out that much, and I've made my own mistakes."

In another interview years earlier, he called acting a "fearful, joyous occupation -- the fear of being bad is the real stimulus. But after you've had 10 seconds you'll never forget, it becomes a narcotic."

Mr. Steiger, who suffered from depression, was largely sidelined in the 1980s but determinedly sought out acting parts in recent years. He was in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" (1996) as a general and a federal district court judge in "The Hurricane" (1999) with Denzel Washington.

His last role was in "A Month of Sundays" (2001) as an ailing grandfather who tries to find his long-lost son.

His marriages to Sally Gracie, Claire Bloom, Sherry Nelson and Paula Ellis ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Joan Benedict, whom he married in 2000; a daughter from his second marriage; and a son from his fourth marriage.

"I like to be a gangster, then play in a Western, then go to Shakespeare," Rod Steiger once said. He died at 77.