Eli Wallach Was a Maestro, If Not a Movie Star

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Eli Wallach wasn’t a movie star.

He was an actor. There’s a difference.

Nobody bought a ticket because Wallach was in a movie. But once in their seats, audiences frequently found that Wallach stole the show. He was the sort of supporting actor who made everything more interesting.

The Tony, Emmy, and honorary Academy Award-winning Wallach this week died at age 98.

He began his career as a New York stage performer — one of Lee Strasberg’s celebrated “method” actors — and spent much of the 1950s doing live TV drama: Armstrong Circle Theatre, Goodyear Playhouse, and other examples of that so-called Golden Era.

His first big movie role was in Elia Kazan’s controversial black comedy Baby Doll (1956), playing the Sicilian owner of a cotton gin who becomes obsessed with another man’s virginal young wife (Carroll Baker). It was a typical Wallach performance for both its sly humor and its ethnicity – Wallach was a Brooklyn-born Jew, but spent most of his career playing a wide variety of nationalities.

He truly established himself playing the Mexican bandit leader in the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven (which of course was an Americanized version of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic, The Seven Samurai).

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In a film and TV career that spanned more than half a century, Wallach seemed always to have a job. When movie work got slow, he kept busy guest starring on television, racking up credits in series as diverse as ER, L.A. Law, Nurse Jackie, Highway to Heaven, Law & Order, and Murder, She Wrote.

Wallach appeared in more than 50 feature films and nearly as many made-for-TV movies. Here are just a few of the titles — available for checkout from the Library — to which he lent his talents.

Baby Doll (1958)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Misfits (1961): In this modern Western, Wallach got third billing behind Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Directed by John Huston, the film is remembered today as the last film appearances by those two great stars before their deaths.

How the West Was Won (1962): Another Western, this time a Cinerama extravaganza with dozens of A-list stars. Wallach played a train robber in the final storyline, opposite good guy George Peppard.

Lord Jim (1965): Peter O’Toole played the title character in this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel. Wallach, true to form, played an Asian war lord.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): Wallach was Tuco, the “ugly” bandito, in this, the greatest of all spaghetti Westerns. His co-stars, of course, were Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. But Wallach’s comic performance ran circles around his two squinty-eyed colleagues.

The Executioner’s Song (1984): Though he excelled at eccentric characters, Wallach could play down to earth. In this excellent TV adaptation of Norman Mailer’s book, Wallach played the uncle of Gary Gilmore (Tommy Lee Jones), a Utah man whose 1977 execution by firing squad led to the reinstatement of the death penalty throughout much of the U.S.

The Two Jakes (1990): The Jack Nicholson-directed sequel to Chinatown.

The Godfather: Part III (1990): Wallach plays an aging Mafia don who pretends to befriend Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone but actually is scheming against him.

Article 99 (1992): This Kansas City-filmed black comedy about conscientious physicians fighting the corrupt bureaucracy at a veterans’ hospital (a very timely watch right now) featured Wallach as a dying patient.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010): In this sequel to the Oliver Stone hit of the 1990s, Wallach plays the patriarch of an investment firm who fears a new stock market crash is imminent.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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