Eli Wallach, veteran actor whose work crossed many genres, died late Tuesday night, June 24, at the age of 98.
Best known for the iconic westerns “The Magnificent Seven” (Sam Peckinpah, 1960) and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (Sergio Leone, 1966), Wallach appeared in many films and TV shows over the past seven decades including Elia Kazan’s controversial film of Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll” (1956) and John Huston’s “The Misfits” (1961) from Arthur Miller’s screenplay, which was the final film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.
Wallach was a method actor trained at the noted Actor’s studio. He’d already earned a Tony Award for his performance in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” in 1951 before entering films. He acted in several TV drama anthologies like “The Philco Goodyear Television Playhouse,” which were quite popular during television’s infancy, before making an impact in his movie debut, “Baby Doll.”
Having been a founding member of the actors’ studio, Wallach never believed he’d end up doing westerns, but he did several including the aforementioned as well as “How The West Was Won” (1962) and “MacKenna’s Gold” (1969). However he also excelled in romantic comedy (“How To Steal a Million” (1966)), epic adventure (“Lord Jim” (1965)), and straight drama (“The Hunter” (1980), which was Steve McQueen’s final film). As a character actor, Wallach was sought after by directors and actors because of his ability to play good guys and bad guys, and to enhance every scene he was in without stealing it from his leading man.
“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” is one of many Eli Wallach performances that have reached iconic status. Discussing this film with Gregory J. M. Castos for Filmfax magazine, Wallach stated:
“Leone was very particular about how to make this film. He wanted it to have strong visual moments, and it did, like me about to be hanged, or the close-ups on the eyes. He used a lot of close-ups instead of dialogue….When I met Leone, he was wearing a belt and suspenders. I thought, “How unusual that is!” So I told him I wanted my character ‘Tuco’ to dress that way. Leone’s answer was that he wanted me to play this scummy outlaw with “no holster for his gun!” I asked, ‘Where do I carry the gun, then?’ He explained, ‘You’ll have a concealed gun tied to a rope; a lanyard, around your neck.’ ‘So,’ I asked, ‘the gun dangles between my legs, right?’ He said, ‘Yes. When you want the gun you twist your shoulders and then the gun will be in your hands.’ I asked him to show me how I could shoot a gun this way. He said ‘Like this!’ He put the lanyard on, twisted his shoulder, and the gun hit him right in the groin! Undaunted, he said, ‘On second thought, just put the gun in your pocket.’
Eli Wallach gradually transitioned from playing young wily characters to playing aging gangsters and hit men as he got older, and was able to continue acting successfully after he had passed 90. Remaining a popular, sought after actor, Wallach continued to work until 2010 stating that he never lost his taste for acting. He also penned his autobiography, “The Good, The Bad, and Me,” which was released in 2006.
A strong family man off screen, Wallach remained married to actress Anne Jackson, who survives him, for 66 years.