“Eli Wallach, who was one of his generation’s most prominent and prolific character actors in film, onstage and on television for more than 60 years, died on Tuesday,” reports Robert Berkvist for the New York Times. “A self-styled journeyman actor, the versatile Mr. Wallach appeared in scores of roles, often with his wife, Anne Jackson. No matter the part, he always seemed at ease and in control, whether playing a Mexican bandit in the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven, a bumbling clerk in Ionesco’s allegorical play Rhinoceros, a henpecked French general in Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors, Clark Gable’s sidekick in The Misfits or a Mafia don in The Godfather: Part III.”
“Wallach, who won a Tony Award in 1951 for playing Alvaro in Tennessee Williams’ original production of The Rose Tattoo, made his movie debut as a cotton-gin owner trying to seduce a virgin in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) and worked steadily well into his nineties,” notes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Mike Barnes. Wallach was 98. “‘As an actor I’ve played more bandits, thieves, warlords, molesters and mafioso that you could shake a stick at,’ Wallach said in November 2010 when he accepted an Honorary Academy Award at the second annual Governors Awards, becoming the oldest Oscar recipient…. In addition to his wife and daughter [Katherine], Wallach is survived by his other children Peter and Roberta and film critic A.O. Scott, whose grandfather was Wallach’s brother.”
In 2000, Michael Billington spoke with Wallach for the Guardian, and this is the piece to read if you’re looking for a sense of Wallach’s approach to acting, his dedication to the Method—or simply a few good name-dropping anecdotes. Elia Kazan, John Huston, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe all share the stage with Wallach for a paragraph or two. And here’s Wallach on The Magnificent Seven: “When I was cast as the head bandit, it struck me that in Westerns the villain holds up the bank, robs the train or steals the cattle—but you never see what he does with the money. So I went to a Mexican dentist and got him to put in two gold caps, wore silk shirts and got a great horse with a beautiful saddle: for me it was a way of defining the character’s objective and giving him reality.”
Rob Hastings spoke with Wallach for the Guardian in 2010, noting that the actor gave us “one of the screen’s most memorable accounts of villainy” in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach on Tennessee Williams: “We knew him very well. He praised my wife very much, and then he said, ‘And Eli pisses everyone off because he’s happy.’”
Updates: The Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver has notes on several clips.
From John Exshaw‘s 2006 profile for Sight & Sound: “‘There is no “the Method,”‘ he growls, index finger thrusting upwards. ‘Everyone says, “the Method”—it’s like mumbo-jumbo. Each teacher or director develops their own method.’ Having already encountered Stanislavsky’s theories during his studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Lee Strasberg (who would become artistic director of the Actors Studio in 1949), Wallach soon realized that Kazan and his colleagues were putting their own spin on what ‘the Method’ should be. ‘I wasn’t convinced that this Method knew the answer to it all. A good actor steals. I take from what’s given, the rules of the game, and I sift it through my machine. I take what I need and what I think I can use.’”
“Whether the movie was good or bad, he was the guy you remembered,” writes Bilge Ebiri in Vulture, “the one who stood out because his performance was so often bigger than everybody else’s. That was his great gift, and maybe to some, his great flaw. Sure, there was often a theatricality to his performances, but it was never staginess. Rather, he conveyed a kind of delight in the ability to be larger than life. His great-nephew, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, put it rather well in a touching profile of Wallach in 2010: ‘With Eli, there is an impish, sly quality, not self-conscious winking, exactly, but a relish at the sheer fun of acting.’ You loved watching him chew scenery. He made you feel like you were chewing it along with him.”
Peter Bradshaw notes that Wallach “had a kind of stern cerebral handsomeness, and grew to resemble Sigmund Freud. But his ability to project villainy or cynicism or worldly power, often while mounted on a horse, was to be his calling card in the movies. He was a founder member of the actors’ studio, and in the theater was noted for taking leading roles of great subtlety, but in films he was in demand as a character player whose face lent gristle and presence.”
Also in the Guardian, Ronald Bergan: “Though he was forced to rely on his macho mannerisms in his later films, he occasionally managed to show a milder side in roles such as the rather sympathetic Jewish bailbondsman in Steve McQueen’s final movie, The Hunter (1980). He also provided good support to ageing contemporaries Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in Tough Guys (1986); was Barbra Streisand’s psychiatrist in Nuts (1987); a wise rabbi in Keeping the Faith (2000); a screenwriter taken under Kate Winslet’s wing in The Holiday (2006); and, in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), a CEO given to ending sentences with bird noises and fluttering hand gestures.”
“In the 1970s,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, “he appeared would appear in as many as five movies a year, lending his colorful presence to projects that ranged from the generic to the eccentric. He did everything from auteur passion projects—like Abraham Polonsky’s Romance Of A Horsethief, which also starred Yul Brynner and, improbably, Serge Gainsbourg—to scuzzy Italian crime films.”
In Roman Polanski’s The Ghost (2010), “he was barely on screen for five minutes, but he electrified the story, as if his presence alone meant the stakes had suddenly been raised,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin.
For the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray, “even at his broadest, Wallach always seemed like a person, not a type.” And “though he enjoyed plenty of accolades during his lifetime, he still seems under-appreciated. But maybe that’s as it should be. Wallach’s generation of actors did their best to make themselves so at home on stage and in front of a camera that they just seemed to belong wherever they were placed.”
“Often Wallach costarred with Anne Jackson, whom he met in 1946 when they played in yet another Williams drama, the one-act This Property Is Condemned,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “Married for 66 years, they forged the ideal acting complement—her sugar to his spice. They perked up the 1968 Hollywood sex comedy How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life, with Wallach as a married philanderer, Jackson as his mistress and Dean Martin as the friend who moves in on Jackson. They were a frequent, welcome sight on TV drama (Michael Landon’s Sam’s Son) and, as their earthily glamorous selves, showing up on What’s My Line and Laugh-In. But their enduring love was the stage, where Wallach and Jackson reigned in Murray Schisgal’s The Typists and the Tiger and Luv, and as the parents in a 1978 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, with their daughters Roberta and Katherine in the roles of Anne and Margot.”
For more on Wallach and Jackson, see Susan King in the Los Angeles Times, where David Ng focuses on Wallach’s career in the theater and Claudia Luther recalls the actor’s “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.”‘” The LAT‘s also linking to Charles McNulty‘s 2010 appreciation: “For a long time now, I’ve held that Eli Wallach is the finest stage actor I’ve ever seen.”
Listening (52’19”). From Sam Adams: “I had the great good fortune to interview Wallach on stage when his autobiography, The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, was published in 2005.” And you can hear that conversation at Criticwire.
Updates, 6/26: “The book is a real actor’s book,” writes Sheila O’Malley, “because, in the end, Eli Wallach, with his diverse and sometimes bizarre career, was always all about the acting. He was not a huge star. Not like Brando or McQueen. He had leading roles, but he never was in that heady echelon of actors who become symbols or manifestations of a Zeitgeist. So Wallach was always focusing, pretty much, on the job at hand.” And she’s posted an excerpt from My Anecdotage.
At RogerEbert.com, Dan Callahan writes that “the vitality of Eli Wallach survived through many different periods of film and filmmaking, his passion undiminished by age, the gleam in his eye ever ready for any opportunity. He was a character actor, and that meant that he was at the mercy of what he was given.” And he brought “feeling and distinction to whatever was offered to him, all the way up to Mystic River (2003) for Eastwood. It might be said that he had his best opportunities on stage, and that extends to his work in Baby Doll, which is unusually theatrical in its sense of intimacy, immediacy and exposure. Wallach deserves to be remembered for the entirety of his long and varied career, for his stamina, for his marriage to Jackson and their beloved status in the New York theater world, but most of all for his Silva Vacarro in Baby Doll, a man who plays the game of seduction like a large cat with a sweet little bird in its paw, patiently biding his time before he inserts his claws.”
“His screen niche was the American ethnic,” writes Carrie Rickey. “In addition to Hispanics, his characters included Arabs, Greeks, Italians and Poles…. Sometimes he was the lead, more often the supporting player. (pulpjuiceandsmoothie) But when Wallach was on screen, you forgot that Eastwood, Clark Gable or Ben Stiller was next to him.”
Updates, 6/27: “Tonight, June 27, in honor of his long career in film and theater, Eli Wallach will receive Broadway’s equivalent of a flag at half mast. At a quarter to eight, for one minute, the marquee lights of New York’s Broadway theaters will dim… Though the dimming of the lights sounds like one of those things that must be as old as theater itself—or at least as old as light bulbs—it’s actually a tradition that began during Wallach’s lifetime.” Lily Rothman explains at Time.
Kimberly Lindbergs at Movie Morlocks on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “Wallach worked with many renowned directors including Elia Kazan, Don Siegel, John Sturges, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Richard Brooks and William Wyler but some of his finest and most nuanced film acting can be found in Sergio Leone’s dust drenched ode to the wild west. In front of Leone’s unforgiving camera, the gentle Jewish boy from Brooklyn was able to completely transform himself into a violent Mexican bandito. In another actor’s less capable hands Tuco aka ‘The Rat’ could have easily become a two-dimensional cartoon character sporting brownface and wearing a sombrero, but Wallach fully inhabited his role and gave Tuco a depth and breadth that was missing in his previous depictions of outlaws as seen in The Magnificent Seven and How the West Was Won.”