Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In Memoriam: Eli Wallach 1915-2014

Actor. Preferred the stage, but appeared in over 90 films and TV productions anyway.

"What is in my makeup that makes me want to fly halfway around the world to play a character? Why can't I just take it easy?"

Wallach first studied under the noted acting teacher Sanford Meisner at the National Playhouse School of the Theater in New York City. After serving in World War Two, Wallach resumed his studies under the noted acting teacher Lee Strasberg at the newly-opened Actors Studio. The two acting teachers were themselves followers of the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian thespian and theater manager who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meisner and Wallach wanted to disseminate Stanislavski's theories to a whole new generation of American actors (though they both sometimes grumpily disagreed as to what those theories were; more about that in a later post.) Wallach, of course, was one of those young actors, often described, when he was no longer young, as a "method" actor, though I don't believe he ever referred to himself that way. Let's just say all the studying paid off brilliantly.

The person at the Actors Studio who had the most impact on Wallach wasn't Lee Strasberg but fellow classmate Anne Jackson, whom he married in 1948. 

Wallach appeared on Broadway alongside Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, for which he won a Tony in 1951.

Another Actors Studio classmate of his.

Wallach made his film debut in 1956's Baby Doll, playing a sleazy businessman who tries to get between fellow sleazy businessman Kurt Malden and his child bride Carrol Baker. Based on a hoot of a screenplay by the aforementioned Tennessee Williams, it was quite controversial in its day, but now is merely a good time, assuming your idea of a good time is watching sleazy businessmen trying get between other sleazy businessmen and their child brides (Baker also sleeps in a crib.)

Two on a swing.

As  Mexican baddie Calvera in The Magnificent Seven. Not the last time he'd play a Mexican baddie.

Wallach finally got to appear alongside that Actors Studio classmate of his in The Misfits, her final film. He thought she might have talked director John Huston into casting him as a working-class widower. 

Here's a couple of posters from the time of the movie's 1961 release. In the one at the top, Clark Gable's (it was his final film, too), Marilyn Monroe's, and Montgomery Clift's names are all prominently displayed, above the title, above everything. Eli Wallach's, meanwhile, is lower and smaller, to the right of Thelma Ritter's. On the bottom poster "GableMonroeClift" stands out, whereas Wallach's name is even smaller than before, and now underneath Thelma Ritter's. This all echoes the credits as they appear in the film. So why am I pointing this out? Because in the actual movie, not only does Wallach get more screen time than Ritter, but also MONTGOMERY CLIFT! His character is a major catalyst for much of what happens in the story, but you wouldn't know that from these ads.  In 1961, Wallach simply wasn't as big a name as Gable, Monroe, Clift, or even Ritter. Having seen this film several times I can assure you he's just as memorable.

Wallach tries out some pickup lines--in a pickup! 

One of many actors to appear in How the West Was Won (1962). He played an outlaw. Not his last Western, nor his last outlaw.

Wallach's relatively burgeoning film career didn't prevent him from appearing on stage. In 1964, he and wife Anne starred in the mildly successful comedy Luv by Murray Schisgal. That's Alan Arkin on the left.

Wallach, Jackson, and Arkin as Mystery Guests on the popular 1950s-60s game show What's My Line, emceed by John Daly. All the way up to 25. Must be stumping the panel (whom, if you've never seen the show, are blindfolded.)

“Actually I lead a dual life...In the theater, I’m the little man or the irritated man, the misunderstood man...[but in films] I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.”

So let's get to one of those bad guys. But first allow me to introduce...

...Sergio Leone, an Italian director who in 1964 had never been to the United States and couldn't speak a word of English, yet had an abiding interest in the American West. He decided he'd like to make a western, and cast in the lead Clint Eastwood, an actor on the popular American TV show Rawhide (his first choice, Eric Fleming, from the same show, turned him down.) The result, translated in English, was A Fistful of Dollars, a hit--in Italy, that made Eastwood a movie star--in Italy. There was a sequel, also with Eastwood, called For a Few Dollars More, another hit--in Italy. Word of these Italian hits did make its way to Hollywood. United Artists approached Leone about distributing the two movies in the United States, but asked if he could make a third to go along with them. As Leone was interested in breaking into the American market--after all, his films took place in America--he readily agreed. For this third picture...

...he again cast Clint Eastwood... well as Lee Van Cleef, who had been in A Few Dollars More, but was playing a different character this time around. Finally, Leone cast an actor he hadn't worked with before...

...Eli Wallach as Tuco, a more hapless, and hilarious, variation of the Mexican baddie he had played in The Magnificent Seven.

Now, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the whole wasn't a comedy, but Leone definitely took a tongue-in-cheek approach whenever Wallach appeared on screen. In fact, Van Cleef , "the Bad", was occasionally forgotten about so the director could focus on the comic (if occasionally violent) you-scratch-my-back-I'll-stab-yours relationship between Eastwood and Wallach. As for Clint--who finally did become a movie star in the United States thanks to this film--he may have missed his true calling as a comedy team straight man, albeit a straight man who scowls a lot. 

Tuco and the Man with No Name forge an uneasy alliance...Their third or fourth uneasy alliance, actually.

Can't a man get a little privacy?

What better sign that a second-tier actor had arrived in the 1960s than to appear as a villain on Batman? Wallach was the third person (following George Sanders and Otto Preminger) to play Mr Freeze. Several decades later the character would pop up again in a movie, which raises the tantalizing question, will Arnold Schwarzenegger ever star in a remake of The Misfits?

 Wallach won an Emmy for a supporting role in the 1966 made-for-television movie The Poppy Is Also a Flower, an anti-drug spy film.

Wallach and Milo O'Shea (on the left) played an aging gay couple in the Broadway comedy Staircase.

 Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson did most of their acting together on the stage--they were often compared to the one-time famous Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, another married acting couple--but did appear on the big screen in a couple of 1960s comedies, The Tiger Makes Out, where they played the leads, and How to Save a Marriage (and Ruin Your Life), in which they played  supporting roles. I've only seen the latter, a dated sex farce starring Dean Martin and Stella Stevens. Nice to see them together, even in sub-par material.

Wallach chats with a writer whose plays helped give him his start, Tennessee Williams.

In Godfather III (1990) Wallach played a ruthless Mafia mastermind, whom is nevertheless oddly trusting when it comes to accepting pastries. The woman is Talia Shire, whose brother, director Francis Ford Coppola, told Wallach his character was an old Corleone family friend. Wallach asked, "If he's an old family friend, then why wasn't he in Godfather I or II?"

 Wallach and Eastwood remained friends.

And the latter cast the former as a liquor store owner in Mystic River (2003)  

In 2010, Wallach recieved an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Not bad for a guy who resisted going into movies in the first place.

Anne Jackson survives him.   



  1. I must admit I always enjoyed "The Good The Bad and The Ugly. It's on my favorite list. It also kinda made no sense if you followed the story. Confederate solders just popping up here and there.
    And I thought Lee Van Cleef could just stand there smile and chuckle and you knew you trouble.
    So funny that he did so well and was in so many movie, when he really didn't care about. What a long and wonderful career. I think he had a good life.
    Isn't life a hoot sometimes.
    Great post as usual.

    cheers, parsnip

  2. Union soldiers, too, parsnip. But you're right, the three title characters have absolutely no rooting interest in the Civil War raging around them. Most movie westerns I've seen take place after the Civil War, as if the Wild West didn't come into being until after 1865. That the Old West and the war actually existed at the same time, and sometimes rubbed up against each other, is one of the many things that makes this movie so good. Now, this is a fictional movie made by an Italian 100 years after the fact, but that you have these three fellows with no strong feelings about what's happening to their country, well, I imagine there had to have been people like that back then.

    These Sergio Leone westerns (he also made a very good one without Eastwood, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) are always a bit hard to follow story-wise, simply because there's never really much of a story. They're really just vignettes about the Old West strung together.

  3. hahahahahahaaha... I so agree with what you sad. I tried to say what you did but you wrote it better


  4. I wouldn't have known he died had I not read this. I've always enjoyed him in films, but thought he looked like he had already died when he appeared most recently at awards shows.

  5. He almost made it to 100, Kass.

  6. I wonder if either of us will. Mom was 97 when she died.

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