BORN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, USA , DECEMBER 7, 1915.. DIED NEW YORK CITY, JUNE 24, 2014, AGED 98
TWO TENNESSEE Williams’ plays, The Rose Tattoo and Carmina R eal helped establish actor Eli Wallach’s career, the first play earning him a Tony Award. But he is probably most remembered for his role in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Psychotic killers and bearded bandits like the sadistic Calvera, whose reign of terror raged in Mexican villages in The Magnificent Seven, were grist to his mill.
In 1960 Wallach’s star was clearly rising, whether he was playing an amorous Latin dictator in the 1964 film, Kisses for my President, in which he chases an American woman president (Polly Bergen), an Arab shah in Genghis Khan or filming violent spaghetti westerns for director Sergio Leone. By the mid-60s he had established himself as a larger than life character actor, identifiable by his broad features and toothy smile. He portrayed Italians, Greeks and Mexicans with equal panache and was was one of three actors to play Mr Freeze in two episodes of the Batman series, between 1966-8.
Brooklyn-born Eli Herschel Wallace was one of the four children of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Abraham and Bertha Wallace. He began acting in boys’ club productions at the age of 15, but quite early in his life a haemor- age caused him to lose the sight in his right eye. A scholarship to Texas University gained him a BA, followed by a Masters in education at the City College New York. But after teacher training, it was clear that the acting bug had got him and he started studying drama under Sanford Meisner ay the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. There he met the woman he was to marry, Anne Jackson, and after four years national service, he played opposite her onstage in 1948 in Tennesse Williams’ play This Property is Condemned. The previous year he cofounded the Actors Studio with Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Elia Kazan.
Wallach made his screen debut at the age of 40 in Williams’ controversial 1956 screenplay, Baby Doll with Carroll Baker, in which he played a rapacious Sicilian seducer of a teenage bride. It offered a chance to use the famed Method actor, practised by Brando and the other founders of the Actors Studio. The Method had been clearly visible in his Tony Award-winning performance as Alvaro Mangiacavallo in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo opposite Maureen Stapleton.
But throughout his career he continued to appear onstage; in Shaw and Shakespeare at the American Repertory Theatre, and in the Teahouse of the August Moon on Broadway in the mid 1950s, while in the late 1950s he starred in new York productions of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs and Rhinoc- eros in 1961. He brought humour and vigorous intensity to his roles. The film that allowed him to demonstrate all of these formidable talents was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although production negligence nearly cost him his life in three accidents. Time and again Wallach referred to the powerful influence of the film on his career, even paraphrasing its name in his 2005 autobiography, The Good, the Bad and Me; In my Anectotage. He remained prominently on the big screen during the 60s and 70s, while always maintaining a TV presence, playing villains, like the “general” who tortures the hero, Peter O’Toole in Lord Jim (1965).
He starred in other spaghetti westers over the next few years and he spent the 1970s and 80s filming Hollywood blockbusters as well as low budget films, including many TV series. In 1981 he starred opposite Danny Kaye in Skokie which dealt with Holocaust survivors coming face to face with neoNazis
Wallach’s thespian life-span passed well into the 1990s, and the millenium, out-living or out-distancing many contemporaries. These character parts included Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather 111 and he played a rabbi counselling Ben Stiller in Edward Norton’s comedy, Keeping the Faith ( 2000). A more sympathic opportunity came in the role of a Jew in Steve McQueen’s last movie, The Hunter, (1980). At the age of 94 his TV performance as an elderly, dying man for an epsode of Nurse Jackie (Showtrime, 2009) earned himn an EMMY nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
A well-earned salutation for many of Eli Wallach’s character roles came in 2010, when he received an honorary Oscar from the Motion Picture Academy, which hailed him as “the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters”. He is survived by his wife Anne, their son Peter and two daughters, Roberta and Katherine.
Eli Wallach: strongman actor of panache , vigour , intensity and humour