Monday, December 22, 2014

Eli Wallach, 98, formidable actor of stage, screen

Eli Wallach in 1987.
Eli Wallach in 1987.

Eli Wallach, 98, 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 bandit in the classic Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, has died. The actor's son, Peter, confirmed that his father died Tuesday evening in New York from natural causes.

"I've played more bandits, thieves, killers, warlords, molesters, and Mafiosi than you could shake a stick at," Mr. Wallach once said. "I don't act to live. I live to act."

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

He may be best remembered for his role as Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western with Clint Eastwood. Mr. Wallach played a menacing yet lovable outlaw who had committed every crime in the book.

"Everywhere I go, someone will recognize me from [that film] and start whistling the theme song," he said in 2003. "I smile and wave."

Mr. Wallach, an eager storyteller, titled his 2005 memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage.

His other screen credits include the steamy Baby Doll (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Misfits (1961), Lord Jim (1964), and The Godfather Part III (1990), in which he played a mobster who dies after eating poisoned cannoli.

He and 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 hailed them as "the proletarian Lunts," a reference to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, at the time the most famous couple in American theater.

"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," Mr. Wallach said in his memoir. "I feel I can play a 16-year-old if the author calls for that. . . . I come alive with the lights."

Eli H. Wallach was born Dec. 7, 1915, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of an immigrant candy-store owner. He dabbled in high school dramatics while becoming a table-tennis champion, and then elected to study acting.

His drama training was interrupted by service in the Army Medical Corps in World War II. From 1945 to 1948, he appeared in several Broadway plays, but had to work as a swimming instructor and camp counselor to make ends meet.

His stage career eventually took off, thanks in large part to his success in Williams productions. In addition to The Rose Tattoo, he appeared in Camino Real. He later had a long run in Teahouse of the August Moon. His debut film was Baby Doll, directed by Elia Kazan and based on the Williams play.

He met Jackson when they appeared off-Broadway in Williams' This Property Is Condemned. They married in 1948 and had three children.

He became a charter member of the Actors Studio, along with such up-and-coming performers as Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, and was one of the early students of Method Acting.

Mr. Wallach did not slow down even into his early 90s. He played a store owner in 2003's Mystic River, directed by Eastwood, and had a part in the romantic comedy The Holiday in 2006.

He was a guest star on TV's Nurse Jackie in 2009. His final role came in 2010, when he played an old financial hand in Oliver Stone's Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street.

Jake Coyle Associated Press
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