Eli Wallach, who was one of his generation’s most prominent and prolific character actors in film, onstage and on television for more than 60 years, died Tuesday. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Katherine.
A self-styled journeyman actor, the versatile Wallach appeared in scores of roles, often with his wife, Anne Jackson. No matter the part, he always seemed at ease and in control, whether playing a Mexican bandit in the 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven,” a bumbling clerk in Eugène Ionesco’s allegorical play “Rhinoceros,” a henpecked French general in Jean Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors,” Clark Gable’s sidekick in “The Misfits” or a Mafia don in “The Godfather: Part III.”
Despite his many years of film work, some of it critically acclaimed, Wallach was never nominated for an Academy Award. But in November 2010, less than a month before his 95th birthday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar, saluting him as “the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role.”
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His first love was the stage. Wallach and 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,” 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.”
Wallach, who as a boy was one of the few Jewish children in his mostly Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, made both his stage and screen breakthroughs playing Italians. In 1951, six years after his Broadway debut in a play called “Skydrift,” he was cast opposite Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” playing Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a truck driver who woos and wins Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian widow living on the Gulf Coast. Both Stapleton and Wallach won Tony Awards for their work in the play.
The first movie in which Wallach acted was also written by Williams: “Baby Doll” (1956), the playwright’s screen adaptation of his “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Wallach played Silva Vacarro, a Sicilian émigré and the owner of a cotton gin that he believes has been torched. Karl Malden and Carroll Baker also starred.
Wallach never stayed away from the theater for long. After “The Rose Tattoo” he appeared in another Williams play, “Camino Real” (1953), wandering a fantasy world as a young man named Kilroy. He also played opposite Julie Harris in Anouilh’s “Mademoiselle Colombe” (1954), about a young woman who chooses a life in the theater over life with her dour husband, and in 1958 he appeared with Joan Plowright in “The Chairs,” Ionesco’s farcical portrait of an elderly couple’s garrulous farewell to life.
In another Ionesco allegory, a 1961 production of “Rhinoceros,” Wallach gave a low-key performance as a nondescript clerk in a city where people are being transformed into rhinoceroses. The cast also included Jackson and Zero Mostel.
By the time “Rhinoceros” came along, Jackson and Wallach had been married for 13 years. They met in 1946 in an Equity Library Theatre production of Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned” and were married two years later. A list of survivors was incomplete.
Eli Wallach was born on Dec. 7, 1915, the son of Abraham Wallach and the former Bertha Schorr. He graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and attended the University of Texas at Austin (“because the tuition was $30 a year,” he once said), where he also learned to ride horses — a skill he would put to good use in Westerns. After graduation he returned to New York and earned a master’s degree in education at City College, with the intention of becoming a teacher like his brother and two sisters.
Instead, he studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse until World War II put him in the Army. He served five years in the Medical Corps, rising to captain. After the war he became a founding member of the Actors Studio and studied method acting with Lee Strasberg. Ahead lay his Broadway debut in “Skydrift,” which had a one-week run in 1945, and his fateful meeting with an actress named Anne Jackson.
The Wallachs went on to become stalwarts of the American stage, evoking memories of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, thanks to their work in comedies like “The Typists” and “The Tiger,” a 1963 double bill by Murray Schisgal, and a revival of Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors” (1973).
In a joint interview in The Hartford Courant in 2000, Wallach and Jackson said they had sought out opportunities to work together.
“But we’re not the couple we play onstage,” Jackson said. “For us, it’s fun to separate the two.”
The couple appeared in a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1978, in a production that also featured their daughters Roberta as Anne Frank and Katherine as her onstage sister. In 1984, they presided over a chaotic Moscow household in a Russian comedy, Viktor Rozov’s “Nest of the Wood Grouse,” directed by Joseph Papp at the Public Theater. Four years later, they returned to the Public as a flamboyant acting couple in a revival of Hy Kraft’s “Cafe Crown,” a portrait of the Yiddish theater scene in its heyday.
In 1993, they presented a theatrical reminiscence, “In Persons.” The next year, they played a biblical husband and wife in a revival of Clifford Odets’ “Flowering Peach” by the National Actors Theater, and in 2000 they were a pair of retired comedians in Anne Meara’s off-Broadway play “Down the Garden Paths.”
In between appearances with Jackson, Wallach played, among other roles, an aging gay barber in Charles Dyer’s “Staircase” (1968), a political dissident consigned to an asylum in Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” (1979), an aged but mentally spry furniture dealer in a 1992 revival of Arthur Miller’s play “The Price” and a Jewish widower in Jeff Baron’s “Visiting Mr. Green” (1997).
Wallach’s many television credits included a 1974 production of Odets’ “Paradise Lost” on public television; “Skokie,” a 1981 CBS movie about a march planned by neo-Nazis in a Chicago suburb, in which he played a lawyer representing Holocaust survivors; a 1982 NBC dramatization of Norman Mailer’s “Executioner’s Song,” in which he appeared with Tommy Lee Jones; and frequent roles on “Studio One,” “Playhouse 90,” “General Electric Theater.”
And then there were films, dozens of them. In addition to his parts in “Baby Doll” and “The Magnificent Seven,” he played the mechanic pal of Clark Gable’s aging cowboy in “The Misfits” (1961), the story of a wild-horse roundup in Nevada, written by Miller and directed by John Huston, with a cast that also included Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
Wallach was also a lawless jungle tyrant subdued by the title character (Peter O’Toole) in “Lord Jim” (1965); a rapacious Mexican pitted against Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966); a psychiatrist assigned to evaluate the sanity of a call girl (Barbra Streisand) on trial for killing a client in “Nuts” (1987); and Don Altobello, a Mafia boss who succumbs to a poisoned dessert, in “The Godfather: Part III” (1990).
He continued his film work well into his 90s. He was a disillusioned screenwriter in “The Holiday” (2006). In “Tickling Leo” (2009), he played the guilt-ridden patriarch of a Jewish family still haunted by the Holocaust. In Roman Polanski’s “Ghost Writer” (2010), Wallach played a mysterious old man living on fog-shrouded Martha’s Vineyard. And in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010), which marked the return of Michael Douglas as the greed-stoked investor Gordon Gekko, Wallach hovered at the edge of the action like Poe’s sinister raven.
More often than not, his film roles required him to play mustachioed characters who were lawless, evil or just plain nasty, which puzzled and challenged him.
“Actually I lead a dual life,” he once said. “In the theater, I’m the little man, or the irritated man, the misunderstood man,” whereas in films “I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.”
His villain roles, he said, tended to be “more complex” than some of his stage roles.
Even so, the theater remained his home base, and he said that he could never imagine leaving it.
“What else am I going to do?” he asked in an interview with The Times in 1997. “I love to act.”