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Eli Wallach of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' Dies at 98

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by Sam Adams
June 25, 2014 11:06 AM
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Eli Wallach in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
Eli Wallach in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"

The great Eli Wallach, best known for his iconic turn as the bandit Tuco in Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," has died at the age of 98. He leaves behind more memorable performances than it is possible to count, from a career that spanned from 1956's "Baby Doll" to "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" in 2010. An extremely brief list of his screen credits includes "The Magnificent Seven," "The Misfits," "How the West Was Won," "The Deep" and "The Godfather: Part III." He also played Mr. Freeze on the "Batman" TV series, a role for which he noted he was paid $350. Brief notes on an indelible career in Variety, the Guardian and the BBC, clips from the Guardian's Andrew Pulver, and a visual tribute from Glenn Kenny

I had the great good fortune to interview Wallach on stage when his autobiography, "The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage," was published in 2005. You can listen to the audio below, or download it here.

Wallach was, by all accounts, an actor's actor, an early member of the Actors Studio who helped bring the Method (a term he disliked) to Hollywood. He turned down the role in "From Here to Eternity" that later won Frank Sinatra an Oscar to star in his old friend Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real." The play flopped, but Wallach said he never regretted the choice. 

In movies, Wallach remarked, he often played the villain, but he did it with so much zest that he made his bad guys seem strangely admirable. Tuco may be a scoundrel—scratch that, the scoundrel to end all scoundrels—but he's also human, a concentration of tendencies we cannot help but recognize in ourselves even though we try to keep them at bay. He's full of good advice, too: When a man bent on vengeance catches Tuco in the bath, it seems like the end, but the poor fellow takes so long blathering on about the ways his enemy wronged him that Tuco gets the drop on him, pulling a pistol from beneath the suds to blow him away. "When you have to shoot, shoot" he advises the dead man. "Don't talk."

Walach's generosity continued after he became a well-known name. In the Star-Ledger, critic Stephen Whitty recalls the time in the mid-1970s when Wallach starred in a student film he had written, and their later rendezvous in 2005, when Wallach wondered what had happened to the former film student:

How is it I'm doing this sort of writing now? Do I still work on screenplays? Suddenly, he's full of advice, and gently prodding encouragement.

"In your life, you select what you want to do, and if you have an appetite for it, you enjoy yourself," he says philosophically afterward. "'Make voyages,' Lord Byron said. And Annie and I have made our careers as actors doing just that."

Wallach was also New York Times' critic A.O. Scott's great-uncle, and spent some time with him for a short video posted in 2010, the same year he was awarded an honorary Oscar:

More tributes to Eli Wallach:

Robbie Collin, Telegraph

If ugly means unpleasant to behold, Eli Wallach was fatally miscast. Wallach, who died on Tuesday at the age of 98, was one of the few actors who could draw your gaze from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in their cold-hearted, narrow-eyed prime. That was exactly what he did in Sergio Leone’s revered 1966 spaghetti western "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," in which he played Tuco Ramirez, the cunning, quick-tongued Mexican bandit who discovers vital information about $200,000 of stolen Confederate gold.

Robert Bergkvist, New York Times

His first love was the stage. Mr. Wallach and Ms. Jackson became one of the best-known acting couples in the American theater. But films, even less than stellar ones, helped pay the bills. “For actors, movies are a means to an end,” Mr. Wallach said in an interview with The New York Times in 1973. “I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play.”


Gary Sussman, Vanity Fair

Half a century later, Eli Wallach is still probably best remembered for stealing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from Clint Eastwood. Then again, Wallach, who acted well into his nineties, stole scenes from generations of performers, from Clark Gable and Henry Fonda to Ben Stiller and Kate Winslet.


Mike Barnes, Hollywood Reporter

During shooting in Spain, Wallach was almost killed when a galloping horse carried him for a considerable distance while his hands were tied behind his back. Later, Leone positioned him in the dirt, where a speeding train’s protruding iron steps missed the actor by inches. Wallach refused to do another take, a decision that surely contributed to his longevity.


Joe Leydon, Cowboys & Indians

In his 2005 autobiography, Wallach wrote that he initially hesitated to accept Sturges’ offer to play Calvera, because he was concerned about the relative scarcity of his screen time. He had a change of heart, though, when he realized how he could make every minute count: “After rereading the script, I realized that even though I only appeared in the first few minutes of the film, the natives spoke about my return for the next forty-five minutes – ‘Calvera’s coming.’ ‘When is he coming back?’ – so, I decided to do the part.”


Claudia Luther, Los Angeles Times

As one of the original “Method” actors, Wallach did not stereotype his bandits and other lowlifes and always tried to see what made them tick and what brought them to life. For example, he said he realized that Calvera, a successful bandit, would have something to show for it, so he talked Sturges into letting him wear a silk shirt, ride a good horse and put gold caps on two of his teeth.


Sheila O'Malley, the Sheila Variations

In the end, Eli Wallach, with his diverse and sometimes bizarre career, was always all about the acting. He was not a huge star. Not like Brando or McQueen. He had leading roles, but he never was in that heady echelon of actors who become symbols or manifestations of a Zeitgeist. So Wallach was always focusing, pretty much, on the job at hand. Each job has its challenges. It is the actor’s job to make all of that comprehensible, to face each day with a problem-solving attitude, to look at a scene that might not be working and think to himself, “What can I do to make this happen?” Wallach’s book is all about moments like that.


Noel Murray, the Dissolve

Wallach could play eccentrics, and villains, and men of immense power. In that way he followed the lead of the great character actors of the 1930s and 1940s, like William Demarest and Lionel Barrymore. But even at his broadest, Wallach always seemed like a person, not a type. He was also one of the rare actors who was allowed to age naturally throughout his career, finishing up in the 2000s with roles where he looked smaller and frailer, if no less sharp.
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