Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Eli Wallach: Two to Tango

The late Mickey Knox once told me he’d thought of calling his 2004 memoir The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This seemed apt, because it was Mickey who – while sojourning in Italy during the blacklist era – adapted the script of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western into American English. But upon learning that his longtime pal Eli Wallach was considering the phrase for the cover of his own upcoming book, Mickey quickly stepped aside. He figured that Wallach had earned the right to borrow the title of Leone’s second Fistful of Dollars follow-up. After all, the movie’s most famous moments involve the scruffy Tuco, the cheerfully malicious and notably “ugly” character played by Wallach with infectious zest. Clint Eastwood may have been the film’s leading man, but it’s Tuco we most fondly remember. 

Mickey’s book about his oddball career ended up being called The Good, The Bad, and the Dolce Vita: The Adventures of an Actor in Hollywood, Paris, and Rome. Wallach’s own memoir, which came out a year later, bears the puckish title The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage. You can be sure it contains some lively reminiscences about working with Leone. It also covers his other celebrated bandido role, that of the gold-toothed Calvera in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. There’s no telling why a short Jewish Method Actor from Brooklyn became typecast by Hollywood as a South-of-the-Border outlaw, but Wallach made the two roles his own in a way that the movie industry has never forgotten. Thereafter he was offered a long string of colorful bad-guy parts (thieves, hitmen, Mafia dons) and seemed to relish every one of them. 

But despite his lucrative movie career, he continued to return to the New York stage, where he took on roles by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ionesco, Arthur Miller, and his longtime friend, Tennessee Williams. Six years after making his Broadway debut, he won a Tony for Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.  He also created the role of Kilroy in Williams’ ambitious Camino Real, thereby missing out on playing Maggio in a hit film, From Here to Eternity. His part went to Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar. 

Wallach was remarkable not only for living long but for living well. By the time he died on June 24 at age 98, he had wracked up 90 film credits. His final feature, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, appeared in 2010, when he was a mere 94. A video interview appeared in the New York Times that same year, just prior to Wallach receiving the Motion Picture Academy’s Governors Award “for a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters.” The interviewer was Times critic A.O. Scott, who addressed his subject as Uncle Eli for good reason: Scott’s late grandfather was Eli’s older brother. The footage reveals a man who, though aged, is still very much alive. Given how many youngish actors we’ve lost recently – Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind – it’s encouraging to see an oldster with a functioning body and an unquenchable spirit.

 Not only was the elderly Eli Wallach still capable of being charming. He was also a participant in a love story that lasted sixty-six years. He met Anne Jackson in 1946, when they were cast opposite one another in Tennessee Williams’ This Property is Condemned. They married in 1948, raised three children, and continued to appear in plays together as late as 2000. (Cautioned Jackson, “We're not the couple we play onstage. For us, it's fun to separate the two.")  

Long life; long marriage. Who in Hollywood is ever going to be able to equal that record? 


  1. He's been a favorite of mine since the mid 80's when I first saw The Magnificent Seven, then caught him on the Big Screen in support to Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in their final team-up - Tough Guys. Mr. Wallach was a hoot in both of them. I've since seen him in so many movies - another actor who could make a mediocre movie watchable and a good movie better. I'm of course sorry he's passed, but it's hard to be too sad over someone who marked almost a century of life and did so much with his time. I'm glad there are still movies of his out there that I can watch and enjoy. Thank you, Mr. Wallach.

  2. Yes -- his is a life, as well as a career, to celebrate!