Thursday, 26 June 2014

Eli Wallach RIP

Eli Wallach obituary
Award-winning character actor with memorable roles in The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Ronald Bergan
The Guardian
Wednesday 25 June 2014

The characters played by the actor Eli Wallach, who has died aged 98, were seldom good but almost always bad and ugly. The mould was set with his second film, Don Siegel's The Lineup (1958), in which he played a nervous psychotic killer called Dancer. Most memorably, Wallach portrayed Calvera, the bearded, grinning, sadistic bandit chief with gold teeth who terrorises Mexican villagers in The Magnificent Seven (1960). This role led to his being cast as the heavy in several spaghetti westerns a few years later, notably Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

"On films, my image is the villain," Wallach once declared. "Whereas on stage I play the little man from Rhinoceros, or the little good-hearted, sweet-natured boy Kilroy from Camino Real, or the good-natured truck driver from The Rose Tattoo. So it's the opposite side of the coin."

Wallach was born in Brooklyn, New York, one of four children of Abraham and Bertha Wallach, immigrants from Poland. Among the few Jewish children in the mostly Italian neighbourhood, Wallach started acting around the age of 15 in boys' club productions. A bright boy, he got a grant to study at the University of Texas, and then City College, New York, where he received a master's degree in education. He prepared for a career as a teacher but was soon studying acting under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he met his future wife, Anne Jackson. After four years of second world war service, Wallach played opposite Jackson on stage in 1948 in Tennessee Williams's one-act two-hander This Property Is Condemned.

Williams provided Wallach with some of his best roles in the theatre, and wrote the screenplay for Baby Doll (1956), in which Wallach made his film debut, aged 40. Wallach even turned down the part of Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953), which won Frank Sinatra an Oscar, in order to do Williams's Camino Real on stage, directed by Elia Kazan. Conversely, in 1990, Wallach took over the role of Altobello, the close friend of the Corleones, in The Godfather Part III, when Sinatra could not fit it into his schedule.

Both Kazan and Wallach were founder members of the Actors Studio in 1947, among whom were Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden. "We were like converts to a new religion," Wallach recalled. "We didn't understand anyone else's acting except our own. Everyone else was a pagan."

Wallach played in Shaw and Shakespeare at the American Repertory theatre, and was Sakini, the Okinawan interpreter, in The Teahouse of the August Moon on Broadway in the mid-1950s, but it was only in his Tony-winning performance as Alvaro Mangiacavallo in Williams's The Rose Tattoo, on stage opposite Maureen Stapleton in 1951, that he was able to use the "method".

With Kazan directing, and featuring Wallach, Malden and Carroll Baker, all from the Actors Studio, the film Baby Doll had "method" spread all over it. Wallach was splendidly sly, sensual and funny as Silva Vacarro, a moustachioed, vengeful Latin seducer of the virginal child bride married to a sexually frustrated cotton-mill owner.

Back on stage, in 1958, Wallach appeared as the Old Man opposite Joan Plowright's Old Woman in Tony Richardson's production of Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs, in New York. He also had a great success as Berenger in Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1961), with Zero Mostel. Eli Wallach and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, 1961. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex

In The Misfits (1961), the final film of two Hollywood legends, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, Wallach played Guido, a former wartime pilot, one of three failed men who come together in the Nevada desert to catch wild mustangs to be slaughtered for dog food. Arthur Miller's heavily symbolic screenplay gave Wallach such lines as: "I can't make a landing and I can't get up to God." He was also given the last, misogynistic speech against Monroe's character. "She's crazy! You struggle, you build, you try, you turn yourself inside out for them. But it's never enough. So they put the spurs to you. I know I've got the marks." Thirty years later, he was in a revival of Miller's The Price on Broadway.

While Wallach continued a long career on television – guest-starring in many series and appearing in 13 episodes of Our Family Honor (1985-86) as the patriarch of a crime family – he was seldom off the big screen in the 60s and 70s, mostly being asked to play madly grimacing villains such as the self-styled General who captures and tortures the hero (Peter O'Toole) in Lord Jim (1965) and the shifty Shah in Genghis Khan (1965), starring Omar Sharif.

The apogee of these evil characters came in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which he played a lecherous, obnoxious, brutal bandit, with a price on his head. With Clint Eastwood, whom Wallach calls "Blondie", he operates a racket whereby Clint captures him, gets a reward, then rescues him from the rope at the last moment. In the showdown of showdowns, Eastwood, Lee "Angel Eyes" Van Cleef and Wallach face each other with meaningful looks and lingering closeups, before the inevitable crossfire.

In contrast, in The Tiger Makes Out (1967), a fleshed-out version of Murray Schisgal's one-act play The Tiger, which Wallach and Jackson performed in New York and London, he was subtly amusing as a sexually repressed New York postman who kidnaps a socially repressed Long Island housewife (played in the film, too, by Jackson).

It was then back to playing a bandit being tracked down by the hero (Terence Hill), in the spaghetti western Ace High (1968). Apart from portraying Napoleon in Jerzy Skolimowski's The Adventures of Gerard (1970), the quality of Wallach's roles and pictures began to decline. Therefore, it was a delight to see him taking himself off in Stanley Donen's two-part spoof Movie Movie (1978), first playing a crooked prizefight promoter in the boxing melodrama, and then a stage doorman, in the musical. The critic Pauline Kael observed: "Wallach usually has irrelevant energy pouring out of him, and doesn't do anything plain any more … Somehow Donen has restored him to simplicity, and he's more likeable than he has been for years."

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 2010, the Motion Picture Academy awarded Wallach an honorary Oscar, saluting him as "the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role".

He is survived by Jackson and their son, Peter, and two daughters, Roberta and Katherine.

• Eli Herschel Wallach, actor, born 7 December 1915; died 24 June 2014

From Tennessee Williams to Sergio Leone: Actor Eli Wallach at 95
From his iconic role in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 – he was the Ugly – to apperances in Wall Street 2 and The Ghost in 2010, Eli Wallach is the actor who never stops
Rob Hastings
The Guardian
Thursday 4 November 2010

There's one myth Eli Wallach wants to put to bed. It wasn't the mafia that got Frank Sinatra the career-saving role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity in 1953, he says. It was Tennessee Williams – and no horses' heads were involved. "I had promised to do Tennessee's play, Camino Real, but they couldn't get the money together," Wallach says. "So I auditioned for From Here to Eternity and I got the job, but then they found the money for the play, so I pulled out. Whenever I met Frank Sinatra afterwards, he'd always say to me: 'Hello, you crazy actor.'"

Passing up the chance to play Maggio didn't condemn Wallach to obscurity, of course. He's racked up 162 acting credits across TV and cinema over the past 51 years, with a stage career predating his move to the screen. He's still working, too, even as his 95th birthday approaches: this year alone he's appeared in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, for Oliver Stone, and The Ghost, for Roman Polanski. "I'll retire when I die," he says. Small wonder he'll be the recipient of an honorary Oscar at a special ceremony in Los Angeles later this month.

"I'm hoping Clint Eastwood will be there," Wallach says from his home in New York, "but he is a very busy man." Eastwood, of course, was the star of the film in which Wallach gave one of the screen's most memorable accounts of villainy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which Wallach played Tuco Martinez, the Ugly. "Clint Eastwood was my coach in a way," Wallach says. "He said: 'I'm warning you that it's very dangerous, the way you ride your horse,' but I'd been riding horses in Texas since the 30s, so I knew how to ride. Clint is a wonderful horseman and we got along."

Not that acting in a spaghetti western was always easy, he says. "The actors in the movie always spoke their own language on camera. I spoke in English, they spoke in Italian or French or Spanish or whatever. The man playing my brother was an Italian and there's a wonderful scene between us, but I don't speak Italian and he didn't speak English, so it was a bit bizarre."

Wallach came to professional acting late, having been diverted from his path by the second world war. "My sister found an acting school in the neighbourhood, so I went there, and it was a brilliant school," he says. "When I finished I said: 'Broadway, here I come.' But then I got drafted into the army, and I wound up in Hawaii. Then they sent me to a school in Texas to become an officer, and after that they sent me all over the world.

"I was a captain in the army and I spent five years in world war two, and the last year we were in Berlin two months after Hitler committed suicide. The colonel in the army said 'Why don't you put some plays together for the people who are in hospital?' So I said 'OK, I'll play Hitler.'

"I was scheduled to go on to Japan after five years, but then they dropped the bomb and I was released. I went back home to New York, and I met a young lady when we both wound up in a play by Tennessee Williams, and I married her. That was 62 years ago."

Williams became an important figure in Wallach's acting career. His favourite among his own films is 1957's Baby Doll, written by Williams. "He was a marvellous talent," Wallach remembers. "We knew him very well. He praised my wife very much, and then he said, 'And Eli pisses everyone off because he's happy.' He was a marvellous character."

One might imagine Wallach these days sitting on a fortune accumulated over six decades of screen acting. Not so, he says, not least because The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – despite being one of the most popular westerns ever – was made in Italy, where the system of residual payments did not favour actors: "I got a letter from the Academy once. It was an Italian residual – a cheque for showing it in America – and it was two cents. I'm not a rich man."

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