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One of the most respected actors in American performance, Eli Wallach's career never quite matched his long list of stage credits in terms of quality, but he had nevertheless contributed some memorable characters to film. Movieg rs knew him best for a pair of similar characters - the cruel Mexican bandit Calvera, whose raids on a poor village prompt the formation of "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), and as the scheming, scene-stealing Tuco in Sergio Leone's groundbreaking spaghetti Western, "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" (1967). But Wallach's career stretched back a decade prior and continued on well into the 21st century, during which he played almost every ethnic type and moral stripe under the sun. While his record on the big screen remained spotty, Wallach thrived on television with an Emmy-winning performance in "The Poppy is a Flower" (ABC, 1966) and a campy turn as Mr. Freeze on "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68). Over the years, he remained under the radar while performing onstage or in lesser-known pictures, only to resurface in projects like the revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1978), the acclaimed miniseries "The Executioner's Song" (NBC, 1982) and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather III"...
One of the most respected actors in American performance, Eli Wallach's career never quite matched his long list of stage credits in terms of quality, but he had nevertheless contributed some memorable characters to film. Movieg rs knew him best for a pair of similar characters - the cruel Mexican bandit Calvera, whose raids on a poor village prompt the formation of "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), and as the scheming, scene-stealing Tuco in Sergio Leone's groundbreaking spaghetti Western, "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" (1967). But Wallach's career stretched back a decade prior and continued on well into the 21st century, during which he played almost every ethnic type and moral stripe under the sun. While his record on the big screen remained spotty, Wallach thrived on television with an Emmy-winning performance in "The Poppy is a Flower" (ABC, 1966) and a campy turn as Mr. Freeze on "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68). Over the years, he remained under the radar while performing onstage or in lesser-known pictures, only to resurface in projects like the revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1978), the acclaimed miniseries "The Executioner's Song" (NBC, 1982) and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather III" (1990), in which he had a memorable scene as a mobster who dies while eating poisoned cannoli. By the time the nonagenarian delivered award-worthy small screen performances on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (NBC, 2006-07) and "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime, 2009- ), Wallach's place as one of Hollywood's most venerated character performers had been assured.
Born Eli Herschel Wallach on Dec. 7, 1915 in Brooklyn, NY, he made his performing debut as part of an amateur production while still in high school. At some point in his early life, Wallach lost the sight in his right eye, the result of a hemorrhage (Wallach was vague about the date in his autobiography). After gaining a BA from the University of Texas in Austin and a Masters' degree in education from the City College of New York, Wallach earned a scholarship to New York's prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse, where he first cut his teeth on the Method style of acting. After graduation in 1940, he landed a smattering of minor stage roles before WWII intervened; he joined the Army in 1941 and served as a medical administrative officer, being dispatched to numerous points across the globe, including Hawaii, Casablanca and France. It was in the latter location that his superiors learned of his acting background and asked Wallach to mount a production to entertain the recuperating troops. With the assistance of other members of his company, Wallach wrote and performed "This is the Army?" a satirical revue in which he played Hitler, among other roles. It would be the first of many memorable villains Wallach would play during his long career.
After being discharged from the service, Wallach resumed his acting career and made his Broadway debut in 1945. He also joined the Actor's Studio, spending two seasons with the American Repertory Theater before blossoming into a major stage star in the early '50s - thanks to a pair of Tennessee Williams plays, "The Rose Tattoo" and "Camino Real." The former landed Wallach a Tony Award. The actor returned to the theater frequently over the next six decades in countless productions ranging from Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," "Teahouse of the August Moon," and "Mister Roberts." In 1948, he met and married fellow actress Anne Jackson, with whom he had appeared in countless stage productions, as well as the 1967 comedy "The Tiger Makes Out," which he also co-produced. They year 1956 marked the beginning of Wallach's screen career in the controversial Elia Kazan feature "Baby Doll." As earthy Sicilian Silva Vaccaro, who lustily pursues the teenage bride (Carroll Baker) of hapless mill owner Karl Malden, Wallach generated considerable heat for his non-traditional leading man, undoubtedly contributing to the film being banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and several international markets. The buzz generated by "Baby Doll" boosted Wallach's profile in Hollywood and overseas, where he won a BAFTA for his work in 1957. He was soon busy with numerous film projects - often playing mad, bad and dangerous variations on the Vaccaro personality, including the psychotic hitman in Don Siegel's gritty noir "Lineup" (1958); Sgt. Craig, who spits insults even after a horrific facial injury in "The Victors" (1963); and as Poncho/Baron von R litz, he teamed with Edward G. Robinson and fellow Method advocate Rod Steiger in "Seven Thieves" (1960), a glitzy caper.
Wallach's profile by the early 1960s was significant enough for him to share top billing with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in "The Magnificent Seven" and Clark Gable and Marilyn Monr (who babysat Wallach's daughter Roberta during the film's troubled shoot) in "The Misfits" (1961) - the fabled last film for both Monr and Gable. He was also a frequent guest star on television, especially anthology series like "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1961) and "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" (CBS, 1951- ), for which he was a notable Dauphin opposite Julie Harris' Joan of Arc in "The Lark" (1957). He also made an amusing Mr. Freeze (one of three actors to play the character) on two episodes of the campy series, "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68). On a more prestigious note, Wallach won an Emmy for "Poppies are Also Flowers" (1966), an all-star drama penned by Ian Fleming and produced in part by the United Nations about the international drug trade.
By the mid-1960s, Wallach was a dependable character actor with a knack for foreign characters who often wielded a degree of swagger and occasional menace. In addition to the Mexican Calvera and the Italian Guido in "The Misfits," Wallach was a Greek kidnapper in the Disney film "The Moon-Spinners" (1965), an amorous Latin dictator on the make for American female president Polly Bergen in "Kisses for My President" (1964), and an Arab shah in "Genghis Khan" (1965). In 1967, Wallach traveled to Italy to film the third in a trilogy of operatically violent Westerns for director Sergio Leone; his performance as Tuco in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was arguably his best turn on screen; one that allowed him to work with his full and formidable acting palette. Over the course of Leone's three-hours-plus masterpiece, we were shown all sides of Tuco - from the duplicitous creep who would abandon his own partner in crime (Clint Eastwood) in the middle of the blazing desert, to the loyal friend who rescues Eastwood from the same fate, to the wronged brother who lashes out against his sanctimonious priest brother, to the sympathetic victim of a cruel sadist (Lee Van Cleef) who will go to any length to discover a cache of hidden gold. Wallach tackled each of these emotions with a vigor and humor that was positively riveting in every scene. His performance was a key element in the film's worldwide success.
Despite being nearly killed on three occasions during the making of the iconic film (due to faulty and lax production issues), Wallach acknowledged the movie's impact on his career on numerous occasions after its release. He even named his 2005 autobiography The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage and in 2003, he and Eastwood re-dubbed 18 minutes of footage that had been excised from the film before its 1967 release in America. Wallach also returned to Italy several times to appear in other "spaghetti Westerns," usually as variations on Tuco. Wallach was supposed to reunite with Leone for the film "Duck, You Sucker" (1973), but scheduling conflicts prevented this from happening (his role was later assumed by Rod Steiger).
Wallach remained as busy in the '70s and '80s as he did in the previous decade, though his roles were largely character parts and the quality frequently ranged from top Hollywood product to low-budget fare. Among his better films from the period were "Cinderella Liberty" (1973), in which he played a tough-as-nails Navy lifer; "Movie Movie" (1978), Stanley Donen's clever tribute to vintage Hollywood melodramas and musicals; John Huston's Bicentennial-themed short "Independence," in which he captured the intelligence and wry humor of Benjamin Franklin. Wallach also appeared in numerous TV movies, including the thriller "A Cold Night's Death" (1973), co-starring Robert Culp, about scientists losing their grip in the Arctic; the drama "Skokie" (1981) co-starring Danny Kaye, about Holocaust survivors facing neo-Nazis; and the thriller "The Executioner's Song" (1982), based on the Norman Mailer book about serial killer, Gary Gilmore. But Wallach also enlivened plenty of junk during this period, too, including "The Deep" (1977), the wretched Satanic thriller "The Sentinel" (1977), and the overwrought teens-on-drugs TV feature, "The People" (1970).
As the 1980s wore on into the 1990s and the new millennium, Wallach continued to answer the call for character parts - long after many of his contemporaries had passed on. He was a near-sighted hit man in the limp Kirk Douglas-Burt Lancaster comedy, "Tough Guys" (1986), a psychologist testifying against a seemingly deranged call girl (Barbara Streisand) in "Nuts" (1987), the candy-loving Don Altobello in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather III" (1990), and Ben Stiller's sympathetic rabbi advisor in Edward Norton's wry comedy, "Keeping the Faith" (2000).
In 2003, he reunited with his friend and former co-star Clint Eastwood to play a cagey storeowner in "Mystic River" - for which he was uncredited. As Wallach entered his ninth decade, he did not appear to slow down in the least. He was a former blacklisted TV writer on an episode of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, 2006- ) and enjoyed sizable roles in "The Hoax" (2006) - about Clifford Irving's bogus biography of Howard Hughes - and "The Holiday" (2006), in which he played a charming elderly screenwriter befriended by Kate Winslet in the romantic comedy. Wallach found himself back in play at the Emmy awards after a 20 year absence, earning a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his performance on "Studio 60." After voiceover roles in "Constantine's Sword" (2008) and "The T Tactic" (2009), Wallach returned to the small screen as a dying elderly man for an episode of "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime, 2009- ). His performance earned the 94-year-old an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
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Wallach had hip replacement surgery in 1997.
"When my times comes, they'll knock on my dressing-room door and say, 'Places, please," and I'll be gone. And believe me, I'll have died a very happy man." --Eli Wallach to New York Post, December 178, 1997.
On working on stage, Wallach told InTheater, December 19, 1997: "But it's always good to come back and do a play. There's nothing like it. In the movies, you don't have much to say about what goes on the screen. In television, the level of writing is appalling."
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