While Eli Wallach was blessed with a long and full life and an incredible career, that doesn’t stop us from mourning the loss of a silver screen legend. Thankfully, we have his prolific screen career to look back on, to fondly revisit some of the greatest and often overlooked performances of our time. Wallach was a reliable and talented actor, but was often overshadowed by the big stars he worked with – including Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Clark Gable, Peter O’Toole, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe – who were more publicly visible. Wallach, who was born to Jewish parents, was an unusually diverse and adaptable actor, easily playing anything from Jewish to Italian to Mexican. One characteristic was generally present in his various characters, and that’s a certain manic gleam in the eye, a constantly visible stream of thoughts, and a single minded pursuit of a goal. This is most readily seen in his most famous performance as the Ugly outlaw Tuco in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here is a look at some of his most memorable performances.
6. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
This John Sturges directed western is an American adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samauri (1954), in which Wallach is cast as the Mexican bandit and main villain Calvera. His performance looks a lot like an early rendition of the famous Tuco role some years later, so much so that many people assume that it is the performance that inspired Sergio Leone to cast Wallach as Tuco (it was actually his smaller role in How the West Was Won). Like so many of his characters, Calvera has an obsessive determination, a manic gleam in his eyes, and a radiant yet restrained energy. Like so many of his impressive supporting roles, Wallach is surrounded by big stars whose names alone can overshadow his contribution – that is, until you see what he has to contribute.
5. How to Steal a Million (1966)
This is a funny little crime caper romantic comedy that kind of fell off the face of the earth as soon as it was released. Its certainly not one that you see listed up there among some other Audrey Hepburn romantic comedies, perhaps because it’s a little too madcap and quirky, or because it’s a little oddly paced and offbeat – whatever it is, there’s something a little off about it. The two main stars are Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, which is already more grace, beauty, and class than any single film can properly contain. Into the mix comes eccentric millionaire and art collector Leland Davis (Wallach), who must possess Hepburn (the daughter of an art forger) and/or her family’s priceless Cellini sculpture of Venus (a forgery, obviously). Wallach plays Davis as a typical over-excited, obsessive New York businessman/millionaire, but again with that flash of mania and a chattery, radiant, but awkward personality. He is pushy yet charming, uptight yet impulsive. He really adds something quirky to balance out the poised and aristocratic Hepburn/O’Toole dynamic.
4. Batman (TV Series) – 1966
Wallach said that out of everything he had ever done that he received more fanmail for his single appearance as Mr. Freeze in this classic, campy 1966 Batman TV series than for anything else combined. And it’s no wonder that the series attracted so many big name guest stars when the style of the show allowed for such fun, over-the-top acting. Wallach took full advantage of this, affecting a strong German accent and bringing out that single-minded, maniacal passion into the foreground. While Mr. Freeze’s actual goal is a bit hazy – freezing the world is a priority, as well as making ice puns, and the acquisition of money for no discernible purpose – he still pursues them with complete dedication accompanied with bug-eyed eyebrow wiggling and Germanic yelling. This two part episode is perhaps the most fun I’ve had watching an hour of television in quite a long time.
3. The Misfits (1961)
This movie features Clark Gable playing an aging cowboy and his mustang wrangling friend Wallach who come across the recently divorced Marilyn Monroe, the sad, lost, and complicated girl they both love. Everyone in this movie is fantastic – both beautiful and ugly, joyous and sad, and deeply real. Everyone is lost, even if they don’t quite know it. By the end, Wallach is left behind to rage against the changing of the times as his friends move forward. His performance here is slightly more restrained, much of the loneliness and confusion he feels about life bottled up inside, making him seem both numb and painfully raw. Like many of Wallach’s performances, there is something sneaky about how it affects and infects you without you realizing its happening. This is true in The Misfits perhaps more than anywhere, where the tragedy of Guido’s life is compacted by degrees.
2. Baby Doll (1956)
This is a complicated one. Not only is it a Tennessee Williams script, making it psychologically complex by nature, but it is directed by Elia Kazan, a classically controversial figure in film history. The story centers around a 19 year old virgin who has an agreement with her husband that she will sleep with him starting on her 20th birthday. While the woman feels uneasy about keeping her bargain, the husband finds himself overwhelmed with self-doubt as he slowly loses the ability to provide for his wife. Enter Wallach as the town’s reigning cotton gin king whose gin is burned to the ground by the desperate husband. This starts a twisted cat and mouse game between the three, with Wallach’s motives being the most subtle and complex. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, or why he does some of the things he does, or how many different things he’s after. All you know is that he’s always thinking. And while his character is charming and mysterious, we’re never certain what exactly he’s capable of, which is scary as hell.
1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
There was never any doubt that this performance was going to be top of the list. Perhaps the best movie of the “Dollars Trilogy”, the film boasts amazing performances by Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, but without the deviously charming, deceptively cunning, and destructively selfish Tuco the film would lack one of its most essential elements. Wallach is delightfully funny and twistedly wicked, seemingly one step behind but always one step ahead (of everyone but Eastwood, of course), and more than anything else, single-mindedly, maniacally dedicated to his goals – whatever that may be at the time. More than with any other character, Wallach has that gleam in his eye, full of mischief and knowing, and full of complex puzzles and stratagems. They teach you in acting class that you must always be thinking, that we must be able to see it in your eyes, that train of thought from cause to effect, from idea to realization. I’ve never seen that rule in action so clearly as with Eli Wallach – the eyes that never rest, the brain that never sleeps. Its mesmerizing.
What about Tough Guys? I loved his old, blind trigger man.