One of American cinemas most accomplished performers has passed away in New York City: veteran stage and screen actor Eli Wallach, who will be forever known for his role as Tuco in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, died Tuesday at the age of 98. His daughter Katherine confirmed Wallach’s passing.
Wallach was one of the most respected and prolific character actors of his generation, appearing in such disparate roles as the Mexican bandit opposite Clint Eastwood in Leone’s immortal Western, a meek, confused clerk in Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play “Rhinoceros”, the leader of the band of marauders up against Yul Brynner’s The Magnificent Seven, a mafia don in The Godfather Part III and (believe it or not), as Mr. Freeze in the Batman TV series, a role which Wallach said, “I get more mail for him than anything I’ve ever done.”
Though never nominated for an Oscar, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2010, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences calling him “the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role.”
Born on December 7, 1915 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Eli Herschel Wallach was the son of Jewish immigrants Abraham and Bertha, who moved to the United States from Poland. After Wallach received a degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin, he earned a master’s in education from the City College of New York before his early Method acting experience at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater.
Wallach enlisted in the Army during World War II, becoming first a medical administrative officer and then a second lieutenant. After the war, Wallach returned to New York and was a part of the landmark Actors Studio and studied under founding member Robert Lewis. Along with Wallach, the inaugural class was made up of future legends such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Sidney Lumet and Anne Jackson, who Wallach would later marry.
Wallach’s 1945 Broadway debut was swiftly followed by a Tony award for his 1951 performance in the Tennessee Williams play “The Rose Tattoo”. After a string of other noted stage roles, Wallach made his film debut in director Elia Kazan’s 1956 Baby Doll, a then-controversial Western containing touchy sexual themes.
Wallach went on to amass over 160 credits in films, television shows and on the stage. His most famous performances found him in charismatic supporting roles such as those in the iconic Westerns mentioned above, along with The Misfits with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, How to Steal a Million with Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn, Lord Jim with O’Toole again and in his later years, a role in director Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, and an appearance in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps as an aging financial tycoon.
Wallach never strayed far from theater, and often appeared opposite his wife Anne Jackson, to whom he remained married until his death. The couple appeared together in a 1978 revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank”, (in which their daughters Roberta and Katherine also appeared), as well as the 1984 comedy “Nest of the Woods Grouse”, and played retired comedians in 2000 Off-Broadway play “Off the Garden Path”.
Eli Wallach was simply a masterful actor, and while his lead film roles were few and far between, his classic supporting performances are immortal. Some of his turns were also quietly powerful, such as his gay barber in the 1968 play “Staircase”, as well as the Jewish community leader with questionable advice for his people in the controversial TV movie Skokie. Though known for his movie villains, Wallach once said of those roles, “I always end up being the evil one, and I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Wallach is survived by his wife and their family. All of us here at Screen Rant would like to express our most sincere and deepest condolences to his family, friends and fans around the world.
R.I.P. Eli Herschel Wallach, December 7, 1915 – June 24, 2014.