Eli Wal­lach

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - GLO­RIA TESSLER


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

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