POSTED June 25 2014

Eli Wallach, cheeky chamelon

Karl Malden and Eli Wallach (center) in Elia Kazan's "Baby Doll," Wallach's feature debut.

Karl Malden and Eli Wallach (center) in Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll,” Wallach’s feature debut.

Even the Pope was one of Eli Wallach’s biggest fans. So said the cheeky chameleon of an actor when he received an honorary Oscar in 2010 and remarked that the pontiff—he didn’t say which one– wrote him a fan letter extolling his performance as the bandito Calvera in The Magnificent Seven  (1960).

This struck Mr. Wallach as odd. “I’ve played more bandits, thieves, killers, warlords, molesters and Mafiosi than you can shake a stick at,” he said. No doubt he got a pass from the Pope because as the bad guy, the famed character actor, who died Tuesday at 98, had a smile as lethal as his aim.

The most beloved of his screen roles were as Calvera in “Magnificent Seven” and Tuco, the opportunistic robber, who was sometimes an ally but more often the adversary of Clint Eastwood, in the 1966 Sergio Leone spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.

But surely Wallach, a prolific actor who made more than 50 films and almost as many television appearances, possessed the universal blood type. His screen niche was the American ethnic. In addition to Hispanics, his characters included Arabs, Greeks, Italians and Poles.

He appeared in films large and small, from The Misfits, (1961) where he played a mechanic besotted by Marilyn Monroe, to Baby Doll, his 1956 screen debut as Silva Vacarro, the wily cotton planter who aims to deflower his rival’s virgin bride, Carroll Baker.

Sometimes he was the lead, more often the supporting player. But when Wallach was on screen, you forgot that Eastwood, Clark Gable or Ben Stiller was next to him.

Occasionally the sinewy Wallach– born to a Jewish family in 1915 in what then was the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn–played a Jew. Like the rabbi who helps convert Gentile Jenna Elfman so she can marry Stiller in Keeping the Faith(2000). And the aging screenwriter who befriends Kate Winslet inThe Holiday (2006).

Though he made more than 50 films, Wallach treated movies as a way to finance his work in theater:  “I don’t live to act, I act to live,” he said.

Indeed, he was set to make his film debut as Maggio, the character Frank Sinatra ultimately played in From Here to Eternity, in 1953 (Sinatra won an Oscar). Instead, he chose to appear on stage inCamino Real.

He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and appeared in 30 Broadway plays. Among his triumphs were Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Camino Real (1953); the latter earned him a Tony Award.

Among his personal triumphs: Wallach and his wife, actress Anne Jackson, with whom he often appeared on stage from the 1960s through 1990s, were married 66 years. (The secret of their marital longevity, claimed Jackson, was that her husband did the ironing.)

A captivating storyteller who first gained attention as a student at the Actors Studio for his monologues about his time as an Army medic in World War II clearing soldiers out of brothels, Wallach was beloved by directors and co-stars as much for his humor as his professionalism.

In his 2005 memoir, The Good, the Bad and Me he claimed that the role of Mr. Freeze, the subzero doctor who turns adversaries into ice in the 1960s TV show Batman,  was responsible for the largest percentage of his fan mail. Nothing else came close, not even his role of dapper Don Altobello in The Godfather, Part III.

He continued working well into his 90s, in roles such as the liquor-store proprietor in Mystic River (2003) and a financial bigwig inWall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010),  his last movie.

And Wallach left ‘em laughing: When he received his honorary Oscar in 2010, he told the joke about the nonagenarian whose friends send a hooker to house for his birthday. When she arrives, and promises the man “super sex,” he says, “I guess I’ll take the soup.”

Your favorite Wallach performance? I don’t want to choose, but I’m going with Baby Doll.


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