When one looks at the career of Eli Wallach, maybe this phrase could come to mind: an actor who was a chameleon, and who pulled off his work with longevity.
The legendary actor, who passed away on June 24 at age 98, had a career that would span through eight decades from the 1940s to the 2010s. He was never an Academy Award nominee for his film work, but managed to deliver key supporting roles in some of Hollywood’s most beloved classics. Even as his film career slowed down, Wallach found another outlet in television to channel his talents – and he would become a regular guest fixture on sitcoms and dramas.
Wallach began his career on the stage in 1945, but his first taste of success came in 1951, with a Tony Award win for his performance in Tennessee Williams’ drama The Rose Tattoo. Hollywood then came calling in the form of Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, who cast Wallach in the role of a cotton gin owner who takes an interest in a seductive teenager in his 1956 drama Baby Doll, based on a one-act Williams play. The controversial film earned Wallach critical praise, and the British Academy Awards (BAFTA) would name him their Most Promising Newcomer.
While Wallach was not a leading man throughout his career, his presence would prove useful for supporting roles – especially in the 1960s, where he achieved his greatest big-screen notoriety. He was the villainous bandit who stared down The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges’ 1960 hit adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai; he was a cowboy alongside Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in their farewell film, 1961’s The Misfits; and he was an outlaw among a cast of many prominent actors in the epic Cinerama Western How the West Was Won. It was with the Western genre that earned Wallach his most beloved role: that of Tuco, the “ugly” Mexican bandit connected with Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name of Sergio Leone’s 1966 epic work The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The experience of working with Leone and Eastwood would prove to be profound for Wallach; in 2005, he used the film’s title as that of his memoir The Good, the Bad and Me: In My Anecdotage.
Wallach’s well-known film work would slow down, but he continued to act in movies from the 1970s on. Prominent supporting roles included the 1973 Marsha Mason-James Caan effort Cinderella Liberty, the 1977 underwater thriller The Deep, and the 1987 Barbra Streisand-Richard Dreyfuss legal drama Nuts. 1990 would boast two high-profile appearances on Wallach’s resume: being directed by Jack Nicholson in the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes, and as consigliere Don Altobello in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-nominated The Godfather: Part III. The 2000s would see a surge in Wallach’s film appearances, with roles in Eastwood’s 2003 drama Mystic River, the 2006 romantic comedy The Holiday, the 2010 Roman Polanski thriller The Ghost Writer, and Oliver Stone’s maligned 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Before and during his film career, Wallach also took up the growing medium of television in the 1950s – and would become a regular fixture in the popular world of live television dramas. He starred in many episodes of the Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, Playhouse 90 and the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Wallach even had a memorable character in the villainous Mr. Freeze on the 1960s hit series Batman, with Adam West in the title role. Steady television appearances would follow throughout the rest of Wallach’s career, with notable guest spots on L.A. Law, Law & Order and ER. He received two Emmy nominations for guest acting in the late 2000s, for Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and for the Showtime comedy Nurse Jackie.
Even with the longevity of his career, Wallach received little awards attention – but in November 2010, that aspect would change. At 94 years old, he was presented an Honorary Academy Award for his remarkable career. It would prove to be the fitting capstone on a legacy of landmark performances and steady work in the over 60 years Wallach gave his talents to audiences around the world.