Remembering Eli Wallach: “Indelible”

30 Jun

It’s been quite a week…

Eli Wallach National Board of Review

Eli Wallach never earned an Oscar nod in a career that spanned 60+ years and well over 100 credits. Theoretically, he came close via his turn as an aging screenwriter in 2006’s The Holiday starring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, and Jude Law. Wallach earned great notices for the holiday release. and was profiled as a likely candidate in top newspaper and magazine Oscar preview features. Despite a bit of buzz, awards consideration was slim, meaning nothing from the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Screen Actors Guild, or any of the critics’ societies. That noted, during the same season Wallach received a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review.

Eli Wallach was never a star on the order of say, Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen, with whom he co-starred in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven respectively, but he achieved greatness nonetheless, forging a stellar career as one of America’s most prolific character actors with more than 160 film and TV credits, per the IMDb, going as far back as 1951’s Lights Out up through Ghost Writer and the Wall Street sequel, both in 2010. Did I happen to mention, by the way, that when he died last week he’d reached the ripe old age of 98? Incredible. Still working all the way up through his mid 90s.

Born in Brooklyn, Wallach claimed the University of Texas as his alma mater. Indeed, he famously attended classes in Austin, and acted in theatre productions, alongside no less than legendary Walter Cronkite, the newcaster once famously hailed as the most trusted man in America. Besides being a UT grad, Wallach studied “The Method” at the Actors Studio in New York under the direction of Lee Strasberg.

Wallach won a Tony for Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. His other stage credits include Camino Real, also by Williams, along with Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, Teahouse of the August MoonLuv, and Rhinoceros among many, many others.

the-uglyArguably, however, he made his greatest impression in such Sergio Leone films as the aforementioned The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Still, he scored many other impressive credits, including How the West was Won, The Misfits (top-lined by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift), How to Steal a Million, Cinderella Liberty, Nasty Habits (which co-starred his wife of 60+ years, Anne Jackson), Girlfriends, The Two Jakes (1990’s underrated yet also unnecessary sequel to Chinatown), and The Godfather Part III. His versatility was legendary, no accent seemingly beyond his talents,witness his role as a Central American dictator in 1964’s odd Kisses for My President, a strangely sexist comedy starring Polly Bergen as the first female President of the United States of America. Too bad the movie seems more fixated on the challenges faced by Madame President’s husband, good ole Fred MacMurray, than those faced by the Chief Executive herself. Still, Wallach was, to quote the New York Times, “droll” in a role that didn’t offer much.

On TV, he appeared on the likes of Kojak, The Young Lawyers, L.A. Law, Law and Order and Murder, She Wrote (of course). He was one of three actors to step into the role of Mr Freeze on the campy Batman TV series (the other two being George Sanders and director Otto Preminger).  He lent his voice to the docudrama Houston, We Have a Problem, twenty years before Ron Howard tackled the same material in 1995’s Oscar nominated Apollo 13; he also appeared in the acclaimed mini-series The Executioner’s Song, starring Texan Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore.


Four years after being honored by the National Board of Review, Wallach was singled out for career longevity honors by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the annual Governors awards. He is seen here with actress Anne Jackson, his wife of 66 years. Their successful marriage serves a powerful rebuttal to the claim that showbiz marriages buckle under the pressures of such a demanding profession.

Wallach’s long and varied career represents the best and worst of the peculiar profession known as acting. Because he was never a big-name star, he enjoyed career longevity; after all, being a star is a fickle thing. We want our stars to be beautiful, fit, sexy, and young, or at least youngish. Once stars start losing their luster,  aging like the rest of us, there are fewer choices: reinvent themselves as character actors, try fiendishly to keep up with the youngsters in a youngster’s game, or, well, retire (that or get the boot by failing miserably at that youngster thing). Wallach endured because he was first and foremost,  an actor–a gifted, rigorous actor who knew how to deliver a solid performance regardless of how big or small the role. Oh, and actors like Wallach work for much less than their bigger name counterparts, always a plus in the ledgers. On the other hand, because he knew how to disappear into a role, the audience almost never caught him “acting,” which means he seldom earned special recognition from peers and critics for even some of his more high profile work. Not a single Oscar nod, per se, in spite of some huge hits and major awards contenders though the Academy ultimately honored him with a 2010 Governors Award for “a lifetime of indelible screen characters.” [Italics added for emphasis.] He earned a Golden Globe nod for portraying a shady Sicilian in Baby Doll (1956) in addition to British Academy honors for the same film. He found greater favor with Emmy voters, snagging five nominations with one win, for 1966’s Poppies are Also Flowers (a TV movie about heroine smuggling starring Yul Brynner, Omar Shariff, and a host of others). His last Emmy race was for an appearance on Nurse Jackie back in 2010.

Turner Classic Movies will honor Eli Wallach on Monday, June 30, with a marathon that includes Baby Doll, How the West Was Won, The Misfits, and, yes, Kisses for My President.

Additionally, Wallach’s films have been written about in the following posts:

  • “The Ghost Writer or the Riddle of  ‘How Many Best Picture Nominees Does It Take…?’ Part Two” (August 1, 2011)
  • “The Movie Bucket List” (January 1, 2013)
  • “Girlfriends All Over Again” (June 2, 2013)
  • “Myth and Music in the Majestic Old West” (June 22, 2013)

Thanks, Eli…

Wallach at the Internet Movie Database:

Wallach at the Internet Broadway Database:

TCM Marathon

Wallach’s obituary in UT’s The Daily Texan:

Bosley Crowther on Kiss for My President in the New York Times:


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