Eli Wallach dies at 98; actor best known for two classic westerns

06/25/2014 9:51 AM

06/25/2014 9:51 AM

Eli Wallach, a veteran stage, screen and television actor who was closely identified with Tennessee Williams’ plays on the New York stage but gained fame in Hollywood for a string of films in which he specialized in playing bandits, thieves, mafia dons and other criminals, has died. He was 98.

Wallach, who received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, died at 4:47 p.m. Tuesday in the family’s home in New York City, according to his daughter Katherine.

Wallach won a Tony award in 1951 for his performance opposite Maureen Stapleton in Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” and also starred on Broadway in the playwright’s “Camino Real” and off Broadway in Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned.”

But, though he returned to the stage all of his long professional life, Wallach was more widely known for his films. Among his better-known roles were Carroll Baker’s sleazy lover in Williams’ “Baby Doll” (1956), directed by Elia Kazan; the roustabout Guido in John Huston’s “The Misfits” (1961), which was based on Arthur Miller’s screenplay and notable for being the last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe; and art collector Davis Leland in 1966’s “How to Steal a Million,” in which he starred with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.

But he was probably most famous for his roles in two westerns: “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), the classic John Sturges western in which he played not one of the seven gunfighters holding off a gang of thieves but Calvera, the head of a Mexican gang; and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Sergio Leone’s 1966 western in which Clint Eastwood was “the good,” Lee Van Cleef was “the bad” and Wallach was “the ugly” Tuco.

As Time magazine wrote in 1968, Leone “went out and hired his first big-time actor” for the part of Tuco; at the time, Eastwood was just breaking out of his “Rawhide” role on TV. Set during the American Civil War, Wallach plays a Mexican gunman who partners up with Eastwood’s amoral “Man With No Name” to con towns out of the bounties that are on Wallach’s head. Just as Wallach is about to be hung, Eastwood shoots the rope tied to his neck, and the two escape to repeat their scheme.

“I was hanged four times in that movie!” Wallach joked to NPR’s Scott Simon in 2004.

Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington, writing about the film nearly 40 years after its release, said that Wallach “burns up the screen as scruffy, insanely energetic Tuco, forever popping up like a berserk, evil toy.”

In one scene, Tuco is in a bathtub when one of his pursuers comes upon him and tells him all the reasons he will be glad to kill him. Tuco pulls out a gun, shoots the man in the head and says: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!”

The film’s haunting musical theme by Ennio Morricone became an instant classic, one that, even decades after the film was made, was not infrequently whistled in Wallach’s direction as he walked down a street in Manhattan.

So identified was Wallach with his role as Tuco that he puckishly named his 2005 memoir “The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage.”

As one of the original “Method” actors, Wallach did not stereotype his bandits and other lowlifes and always tried to see what made them tick and what brought them to life. For example, he said he realized that Calvera, a successful bandit, would have something to show for it, so he talked Sturges into letting him wear a silk shirt, ride a good horse and put gold caps on two of his teeth.

“For me it was a way of defining the character’s objective and giving him reality,” he told the Guardian newspaper in 2000. He later explained to NPR’s Simon: “I always feel there’s a reason for what the bandit does. I try to make them human. Because deep inside all of us – did you ever swat a fly? That’s murder.”

He said that he regretted not having heard Elmer Bernstein’s memorable theme for “Magnificent Seven” while the film was being shot.

“If I had, I would have sat upright in my saddle, ridden with authority, and felt like the head of my gang,” he said.

Wallach often said that his favorite film was his first – “Baby Doll,” in which he seduces the title character into betraying her husband. He said people seemed shocked by a scene in which he and Baker are filmed on a porch swing and his hands, slightly off-screen, appear to stroke her legs – which so excites Baby Doll that she ends by walking off and saying, “I can’t breathe!”

Wallach said that what he was actually doing was reaching out of the view of the camera to a radiator at their feet because it was “late November and it was cold as hell.”

A raucous storyteller, he would also recount his response to Francis Ford Coppola’s request that he appear as mobster Don Altobello, who suffers death by poisoned cannoli in “The Godfather Part III” (1990).

“Francis said, ‘I want you to play this old, old, old, old, marvelous old friend of the family,'” Wallach told the Denver Post in 1991. “I said, ‘Listen, if I was such an old, old, old friend of the family, why wasn’t I in ‘Godfather I' or ‘Godfather II'?”

“He said, ‘Well, you were in Sicily.’”

Film historian Richard Schickel, in his 2005 review of Wallach’s “The Good, the Bad, and Me” for the New York Times, said the actor’s “essential screen character is a curiously lovable combination of slyness and bluster.”

“There’s something uncalculated, even sometimes something pre-moral and childlike in these whirlwind performances,” Schickel wrote.

Wallach was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 7, 1915, the son of immigrants from Poland who wanted him to be a teacher. He was raised on the stories that his father, a storekeeper, told about Cossacks riding into his Polish village, pillaging and killing Jews.

Wallach grew up mostly among Italian immigrants in a neighborhood still lighted by gas lamps. He saw his first movies at the Rialto – “The Perils of Pauline” or westerns starring Tom Mix or William S. Hart. At home, he would act out scenes from “Beau Geste” or other films.

“Reenacting episodes that I had seen in movies always gave me a sense of power,” Wallach wrote in his memoirs.

After his family moved to Flatbush, he joined the drama club in high school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1936 from the University of Texas at Austin – he went there because it was during the Depression and tuition was cheaper – and his master’s in education at City College of New York in 1938. When he still insisted on being an actor, his father asked: “From this you make a living?”

After he failed a test to get his education certificate, Wallach began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Gregory Peck were his classmates and Martha Graham was a mentor.

During World War II, he served in the Army Medical Corps and, when he returned to New York, got a part in “Skydrift,” which ran for less than a week but also marked the Broadway debut of Rita Moreno.

His next role was in “This Property Is Condemned,” in which he was cast opposite a young redheaded actress named Anne Jackson. The two soon embarked on a relationship that would last the rest of their lives. They married in 1948.

Wallach and Jackson were both accepted in the American Repertory Theatre, but though ART presented several plays on Broadway (Wallach played the duck in “Alice in Wonderland”), it lasted only for a year. The couple then became charter members of the newly formed Actors Studio launched by Kazan and others. Other charter members included Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Shelley Winters and Kim Stanley.

Wallach called the Actors Studio “a workplace, almost a gym for professional actors” where they would meet twice a week to work on scenes, employing the approach to acting pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In one example of this kind of acting, Wallach told The Times in 1964, he had to imagine that Hayley Mills was stealing all his scenes in “The Moon-Spinners” to believably project that he actually wanted to kill someone with “such a refreshing personality.”

In 1948, Wallach got a major break in being cast as a replacement as Stefanowski in the Broadway cast of “Mister Roberts,” which starred Henry Fonda. He stayed with the play until the end of its long run.

In 1953, he agreed to do “The Rose Tattoo,” an obligation that prevented him from taking the role of Pvt. Maggio in Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity.” Frank Sinatra went on to win an Oscar for the role, renewing his career.

Though it was an opportunity missed, Wallach never regretted his decision to work on another Williams play with Kazan directing, even though “Camino Real” was a flop.

“All of us in the cast felt we were embarking on a trip to a world we had never encountered before,” Wallach said.

In what Wallach considered a sort of consolation prize, Williams incorporated into “Camino Real” a line that Wallach had used with the playwright in trying to persuade him to release the actor from the obligation: “I want to level with you – can I level with you?”

Wallach and Jackson frequently appeared together on stage, including several Murray Schisgal plays, including “The Typists and The Tiger” and “Luv,” which had a long run on Broadway in the mid-1960s.

“I love movies, but I don’t get the charge out of them that I got on stage this afternoon,” Wallach told The Times in 1974, when he was starring with his wife in Jean Anouilh’s “The Waltz of the Toreadors” at Chicago’s Huntington Harford Theater.

Wallach appeared on many television programs and series, including “Our Family Honor,” in which he played the head of a New York crime syndicate. He won an Emmy in 1966 for “The Poppy Is Also a Flower.” In the late 1960s, he played “Mr Freeze” in one episode of “Batman.”

“But you know, I still get more mail for that one episode of ‘Batman' than just about anything else,” Wallach said 30 years later.

Besides his wife of 66 years, he is survived by his son, Peter; daughters Roberta and Katherine; and grandchildren.

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