Thursday, 3 July 2014


It's ironic that Eli Wallach's most obvious legacy is his role as Tuco, the Ugly part of Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad and The Ugly. But it's a legacy he embraced, playing with the title in his autobiography, and it also makes sense because Wallach, who thought of himself as a stage actor keeping busy and making money in movies, became the kind of character actor who can carry a film.

You can see the better part of his movie career reflected from his first two films, Baby Doll (1956) and The Lineup (1958). Baby Doll was adapted from a Tennessee Williams one-act play (Elia Kazan claimed he, not Williams, wrote most of the screenplay, but then, he would). Wallach was a favourite actor of Williams'; he'd madehis name on Broadway in The Rose Tattoo, did This Property Is Condemned with his wife Anne Jackson (they had one of the great marriages of American theatre) and Camino Real.

The way the story goes, in 1953 Wallach nailed the screen test for the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity, but passed on the film to do Camino Real on stage. Of course the way the other story goes is that someone made someone an offer they couldn't refuse to cast Frank. He and Jackson also played, with Zero Mostel, in the 1961 Broadway production of Rhinocerus; he'd already done Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson in 1958. I think he's perfect for Theatre of the Absurd. He, Jackson, and Alan Arkin were in Mike Nichol's production of Murray Schisgal's Luv, and around the time he did Rhinoceros Wallach and Mostel appeared off-Broadway in a version of Ulysses directed by Burgess Meredith. It's a same he never appeared in any of the American Film Theatre productions; it would be wonderful to have a record of some of his theatre at his very peak.

In Baby Doll, Wallach plays Silva Vaccaro, who owns a cotton gin which his rival Karl Malden burns down, and he retaliates by seducing Malden's wife, Carroll Baker, who's still a virgin due to a promise Malden made her father, and who parades infantilized self around in what we now call baby doll nighties. This is Tennessee Williams at his best. It was the first of his great sleazy ethnic roles; he's ruthless, he's charming, and, as when he played Tuco, he can physically express something rat like in Vaccaro's character. In contrast, for Don Siegel's The Lineup, based on a popular TV show, he's Dancer, a psychopathic but stylish professional killer, rounding up heroin stashed in tourists' souvenirs. It's a slick procedural which Siegel turns thrilling as Wallach is eventually cornered.

These characteristics of charm, violence, ethnic grease and style came together in Calvera, the leader of the bandits who comes face to face with The Magnificent Seven defending a poor Mexican village. Of course Wallach was coming off playing a cowboy role in The Misfits. There's little doubt Leone had Calvera in mind when he cast Wallach as Tuco, though Leone himself always said it was Wallach's playing a bandit in How The West Was Won that convinced him. Leone liked to cast method (or method-style) actors against 'natural' actors to great effect: Volonte/Van Cleef/Wallach against Eastwood; Jason Robards opposite Charles Bronson; Rod Steiger and James Coburn. In Wallach, he certainly got more than he bargained for. Compare Wallach's Tuco with Gian Maria Volonte's Indio from For A Few Dollars More; Volonte is all inward chaos and explosive violence; Tuco is all outward chaos hiding almost as explosive, if slightly less sociopathic, violence.

Wallach made three other spaghetti westerns, the best of which is probably Ducio Tessari's Don't Turn The Other Cheek, set against a Mexican Reviolution, in which he plays alongside Franco Nero and Lynn Redgrave (!). The others are Corbucci's late (1975) 'comedy' The White, The Yellow And The Black and Ace High (1968) with Terrence Hill (playing a character called Cat Stevens!) and Bud Spenser. Leone wanted to reunite Wallach, Clint Eastwood, and Lee Van Cleef; they were going to be killed off at the start of Once Upon A Time In The West. Wallach and Van Cleef had agreed, but by then Clint was feuding with Leone over both creative and financial issues, and it didn't happen. Luckily, the two reconciled, leading to Clint's touching dedication of The Unforgiven 'to Sergio and Don (Siegel)', both directors who got the best out of Eli Wallach.

Eastwood would bring him back in one of his best later roles; he absolutely kills the part of a liquor store owner telling the cops about an old robbery; Larry Fishburne and Kevin Bacon just stand there and admire him.

I'd like to mention a few other hidden gems from Wallach's career: everyone mentions his role in Godfather III, but he also played Don Vittorio in the much-neglected Crazy Joe, one of the best of the spaghetti crime films. He played ABC television's corporate boss Leonard Goldenson, the capo di tutto capi when I worked there, in the TV movie Monday Night Mayhem, about the creation of Monday Night Football. There's a 1992 episode of Law & Order, Working Stiff, in which he's hugely touching as a bitter old union man. He had a nice cameo in The Ghost, as a conspiracy-believing recluse on Martha's Vineyard. Ewan MacGregor can only look on in awe.

There's an interesting little bit of trivia I came across when I thought I might write Wallach's obit: his daughter Roberta played opposite Paul Newman's daughter Nell Potts (and Joanne Woodward) in the film Newman directed of Paul Zindel's The Effects Of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It was sort of a like one of those neighbourhood projects, but I remember seeing it when it was released, and liked it then, and wonder if the kids' performances would hold up now. Nell Potts now runs 'Newman's Own'.

As I said, I was hoping to write Eli Wallach's obit for one of the papers. But when you're that talented and you reach 98 years old, your obituary had better be ready to print. As it happened, I couldn't resist writing my appreciation anyway. What I admire most about him is the way he always seems to be enjoying what he is doing; like many of the greatest actors, he doesn't seem to be taking it seriously, even though he is.

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