Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Eli Wallach, seen here in this Jan. 2, 1997 file photo, appeared in several plays dating back to the 1940s and won a Tony Award for his supporting role in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo in 1951. (JIM COOPER/AP)
Eli Wallach, seen here in this Jan. 2, 1997 file photo, appeared in several plays dating back to the 1940s and won a Tony Award for his supporting role in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo in 1951. (JIM COOPER/AP)

obituary

Old age didn’t slow down Eli Wallach Add to ...

Eli Wallach, the raspy-voiced character actor who starred in dozens of movies and Broadway plays over a remarkable and enduring career and earned film immortality as a conniving, quick-on-the-draw bandit in the classic Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has died. He was 98.

The actor’s son, Peter Wallach, confirmed that his father passed away June 24 in New York from natural causes.

“The best way to honour him is to put on one of his movies,” he said. “Put on Baby Doll or Magnificent Seven. Those live forever.”

Mr. Wallach and his wife, Anne Jackson, were a formidable duo on the stage, appearing in several plays dating back to the 1940s. He won a Tony Award for his supporting role in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo in 1951, was an original member of the Actors Studio, and was still starring in films well into his 90s.

But Mr. Wallach may be best remembered for his role as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, Clint Eastwood (The Good), Lee Van Cleef (The Bad) and Wallach (The Ugly) attempt to outwit and outshoot each other in pursuit of a trove of gold coins buried in a Civil War cemetery.

Mr. Wallach played a menacing, yet lovable, outlaw who had committed every crime in the book: “Murder, armed robbery … inciting prostitution, kidnapping, extortion … rape” as the executioner intoned in one famous scene before Tuco escaped a hanging.

The movie – with a haunting score by Ennio Morricone – was the third film in a trilogy that included Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, and influenced a generation of filmmakers. Mr. Wallach’s character had several memorable lines, including, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” after being confronted by a rival gunslinger.

“Everywhere I go, someone will recognize me from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and start whistling the theme song,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I can feel when it’s going to happen. I smile and wave, and they wave back.”

Mr. Wallach also starred in the steamy Baby Doll (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Misfits (1961), an Arthur Miller-written film that starred Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, Lord Jim (1964) with Peter O’Toole and The Godfather III (1990), in which he played a murderous mobster who dies after eating poisoned cannoli.

He and Ms. Jackson starred in a series of plays, including George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara in 1956 and a hugely successful run of Luv in the mid-1960s. A critic once hailed them as “the proletarian Lunts,” a reference to Alfred Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, who at the time were the most famous couple in the American theatre.

“Although I limp in life as a result of my two hip operations, whenever I go onstage with Anne, the lights give my body a lift and I prance onto the stage and dance off,” Wallach said in The Good, the Bad, and Me,” his 2003 memoir. “I feel I can play a 16-year-old if the author calls for that. Which is why I prefer live acting to film – I come alive with the lights.”

Mr. Wallach was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 7, 1915, to an immigrant candy store owner. He dabbled in dramatics in high school, while becoming a table-tennis champion.

His brother and two sisters had become teachers, and other family members were doctors and lawyers. Mr. Wallach, who had appeared in plays as far back as grade school, elected to study acting.

Acting definitely did not run in his family, Mr. Wallach once said, “Being an actor to them is like joining the Foreign Legion.”

His drama training was interrupted by service in the U.S. Army medical corps during the Second World War, in which he earned the rank of captain. From 1945 to 1948, he appeared in several Broadway plays but had to work as a swimming instructor and camp counsellor to make ends meet.

His stage career eventually took off, thanks in large part to his success in Tennessee Williams productions. He appeared in The Rose Tattoo, then Camino Real and later had a long run in Teahouse of the August Moon.

His debut film, directed by Elia Kazan, was Baby Doll, based on the Williams play. It was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for what was termed its “carnal suggestiveness.”

He became a charter member of the Actors Studio, along with up-and-coming performers such as Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Ms. Jackson. He was one of the nation’s early students of method acting, where actors draw upon their own memories and emotions to replicate the emotional conditions under which the character operates.

After The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, his relationship with Mr. Leone soured. The director had promised him a role in the Western Duck, You Sucker, but the studio wanted Rod Steiger. Mr. Wallach had already cancelled another project to take on the role in Duck, You Sucker, and was angered by losing the part.

Mr. Wallach did not slow down in his later years. He played a store owner in 2003’s Mystic River, directed by Mr. Eastwood, and had a part in the romantic comedy The Holiday in 2006. In 2010, he was featured as an old financial hand in Oliver Stone’s Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street.

Mr. Wallach met Ms. Jackson while they were appearing off-Broadway in the Tennessee Williams play This Property Is Condemned. They married in 1948 and had three children: Peter, who became a film animator, and two daughters, Roberta and Katherine, both of whom followed their parents into acting.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeArts

 

Topics:

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular