Eli Wallach dead: Tribute to actor who 'enjoyed a great life with his brilliant talent'

The Spaghetti Western star will be remembered for his many iconic film roles

Murder. Armed robbery of citizens, state banks and post offices.The theft of sacred objects. Arson in a state prison. Perjury, bigamy, deserting his wife and children, selling prostitution, kidnapping, extortion, receiving stolen goods, selling stolen goods, passing counterfeit money – oh, and using marked cards too.

It’s worth remembering the comically long list of crimes read to Eli Wallach’s Tuco Ramirez in the opening scene of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, as he stands with a rope around his neck waiting to be hanged. Although Wallach took on the role in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western without knowing that he would be named as the Ugly in the title, that cavalcade of misdemeanours left the movie audiences of 1966 in no doubt just how cut-throat this character really was.

By then Wallach had already made his name six years earlier, playing another of cinema’s most villainous baddies: Calvera, the bandit facing off against The Magnificent Seven. Thanks to those two parts, his face will forever be the epitome of the violence, the drama and the endearing comedy that defines the best of the silver screen’s Wild West.

Wallach’s brilliance was in not only convincing moviegoers that his characters would kill without hesitation, but that they also had a sense of humour and were more than one-dimensional caricatures. You can’t help rooting for The Ugly - he’s far more sympathetic than The Bad, played by the great Lee Van Cleef with real sinister effect right until that final, epic, three-way shootout.

 

Wallach himself - who has died aged 98 - was known as one of the most gracious figures in Hollywood and Broadway. His personal as well as physical vitality was surely a key reason why he maintained one of the longest of all acting careers - even appearing, aged 94, in both The Ghost and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in 2010.

Wallach’s kindness of character shone through above all else when I spoke to him four years ago, in one of his last interviews. Rather hard of hearing, he did not get frustrated when struggling to understand me. He knew what reporters are looking for (perhaps due to his longstanding friendship with the revered broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, a college classmate), and if he couldn’t hear my question properly, he would simply reel off another of his many anecdotes at random, dotted with famous names or amusing incidents, knowing that would keep me happy all the same.

The pan-European cast and production team made The Good, The Bad and The Ugly a tricky film to work on, he explained. “The actors in the movie always spoke their own language on camera. I spoke in English, they spoke in Italian or French or Spanish or whatever. The man playing my brother was an Italian and there’s a wonderful scene between us, but I don’t speak Italian and he didn’t speak English, so it was a bit bizarre.”

Not only that, but the movie was dangerous; during a scene in which Wallach's Tuco cuts the chain linking him to a dead prison warden by placing it on a railway track so the locomotive wheels can slice through it, a piece of low-hanging metal on the train passed at speed just inches from his head. He was warned of his horse-riding by his co-star too. “Clint Eastwood was my coach in a way. He said: ‘I’m warning you that it’s very dangerous, the way you ride your horse,’ But I’d been riding horses in Texas since the ‘30s so I knew how to ride. Clint is a wonderful horseman and we got along.”

Eli Wallach in 1960's The Magnificent Seven Eli Wallach in 1960's The Magnificent Seven

For all the fame he achieved in those two legendary westerns, his favourite work was with Tennessee Williams on both stage and screen - including the film that brought him the most pride, 1956’s Baby Doll. Wallach had starred in several of the playwright’s Broadway productions before his cinema career began; this not only allowed him to win a Tony award for The Rose Tattoo but also to meet his wife, the actress Anne Jackson. Wallach even sacrificed a part in From Here To Eternity for the to continue his stage work with Williams. Frank Sinatra took the role instead – and won an Oscar with it.

"I had promised to do Tennessee's play, Camino Real, but they couldn't get the money together," Wallach told me. "So I auditioned for From Here to Eternity and I got the job, but then they found the money for the play, so I pulled out. Whenever I met Frank Sinatra afterwards, he'd always say to me: 'Hello, you crazy actor.'"

The story of Wallach’s acting career included plenty of stories like these involving Hollywood’s most famous names. He happily reminisced training in The Method alongside Marlon Brando, travelling to Angkor Wat with Peter O’Toole for Lord Jim, and working with Kate Winslet in The Holiday. But perhaps it was Marilyn Monroe, who often babysat his children, who brought back some of his happiest memories.

“Marilyn and I danced a lot together, we were friends,” he told me. “She came from Hollywood to New York once and Cheryl Crawford found out she had never seen a play, so she took her to see the play I did on Broadway. She came backstage and she said: ‘Can I come again?’ And I said: ‘If they say you can, of course you can.’ So she bought a ticket and she saw it again half a dozen times. We got to know each other, and my wife and the children and all – she loved to see my children – and then when the movie came up, she said: ‘I want you to be in it’.”

Actor Eli Wallach has died aged 98 Actor Eli Wallach has died aged 98

That movie was The Misfits. Unfortunately it was not a happy a production, for it was to be the last film either Monroe or fellow co-star Clark Gable completed. The leading man died of a heart attack just ten days after the film was finished, while Monroe’s abuse of sleeping pills and the decline of her marriage to the movie’s writer, Arthur Miller, were well underway.

“It was very difficult,” Wallach recalled. “Marilyn had an acting coach who would stand behind the director, John Sturges, and she would look over his shoulder to get ideas off her. Sturges said to all the people working around him: ‘You can make fun of this lady who’s coaching, but we couldn’t do this movie with Marilyn unless she helped’.”

It seems incredible now that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was not even nominated for an Oscar, but Wallach finally received an Honorary Academy Award decades later. Although he was also humbled to be awarded a Bafta in 1957, he was not able to attend the ceremony – and by 2010 he no longer knew where his trophy had gone. However, he remembered England fondly:

“I loved working in England. Anne and I did many plays there, I spent a year in The Teahouse of the August Moon. I met Laurence Olivier, and John Gielgud directed Anne and I in several plays.”

The news of his death is sad, but in recalling names like these, Wallach knew he had enjoyed a great life with his brilliant talent.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor