Eli Wallach is 95 years old today.
His career has spanned 50 years. An inspiration to many young actors (including myself), he continues to work, although more sporadically, and he and his wife, Anne Jackson (they have been married since 1948), also do performances together, of scenes and poems interspersed with their humorous banter (they’re wonderful together – I’ve seen the show): they perform at churches, schools, synagogues, YMCAs, benefits and charity functions … it’s really old-school what they do, almost vaudeville. It’s charming.
Here is one of my favorite Eli Wallach stories. I took an acting workshop with him about 10 years ago and he told us this story:
Francis Ford Coppola came to Eli Wallach to play Don Altobello in the long-anticipated Godfather III. Perhaps trying to sell Wallach, a great American actor, on the importance of the part, Coppola said to Wallach, “You are an old, old, old, OLD friend of the Corleone family.” Wallach thought a bit, and then replied, “Francis, if I’m such an old, old, old, OLD friend of the Corleones …. then why wasn’t I in the other two movies?”
In 2003, Wallach’s agent called him and said that Clint Eastwood (his old colleague) wanted him for a small part in a movie he was directing. Wallach was nervous. He hadn’t been in front of the camera in a while, at least not in a major motion picture, and he was old, and nervous about all sorts of things: remembering the lines, and also the possibility that his one scene would be cut (always a fear of any actor who plays only one scene in a film). I love how he describes his experience on Mystic River in his memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, (published recently).
I flew up to Boston on a Wednesday knowing nothing of the story or the script. I found that I was to play a liquor store owner. I memorized the three pages of dialogue that were given to me and prepared to act in the scene the following day. On Thursday morning I walked out to the set. Clint greeted me warmly. “I’m happy you agreed to do the cameo,” he said, and told me that I’d be playing opposite two wonderful actors – Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne.
Clint waited patiently while the scene was lit, then walked over to me and whispered, “Any time you’re ready, Eli.” Not one word of direction was given. I felt relaxed and happy to be before the camera again. Bacon and Fishburne assured me that my scene would not be deleted in the final cut.
“You give us an important clue to the solution of the crime we’re investigating,” Kevin Bacon said.
One of the deals with this cameo was that Wallach would go uncredited, and that his name would not be used in any of the advertising. I think that was a smart move because I know that for those of us like myself – who love Eli Wallach, and who have been watching his movies since they were in their teens, who have the entire scope of his career locked in their brains forever – to suddenly see his twinkling mischievous face in the middle of that dark movie was a wonderful surprise, like running into an old friend. The audience around me spontaneously responded to him.
And he was terrific in last year’s The Ghost Writer, which I loved in general.
In the old days of the studio system, character actors would work in movie after movie, essentially playing the same part, and it was very smart – because in that way the audience gets to identify with the person. They immediately think, “Oh. I know him. That’s that guy. I love him.” It is not a constantly rotating cast of people you’ve never seen before – there is the familiarity factor. Eli Wallach, in that moment in Mystic River was embodying what that old studio system used to be about. Even if people in the audience didn’t know who exactly he was, they recognized him, they knew they had seen him somewhere before, and because of that – they warmed to him immediately.
Eli Wallach was born and raised in Brooklyn. His family was one of the only Jewish families in a primarily Italian neighborhood. I think it’s interesting that Wallach played so many fiery Italians, onscreen and on Broadway, and if you think about it – even as a young man, he was an unlikely romantic lead. At least as far as his looks go. He was short, stocky, and not classically handsome. But women testify to his sex appeal time and time again in their own memoirs and autobiographies (Carroll Baker’s comes to mind). He smouldered. He was one of those men who treated women with good humor and curiosity – which, naturally, made him a Chick Magnet. He wasn’t cool or aloof, but emotional and impulsive – which really goes a long way to explaining his huge hit in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo (excerpt here) – where he played Alvaro, the hot and fiery truck driver who ends up shacking up with Serafina, the lonely sex-starved mystical widow who speaks mainly in Italian (played by Maureen Stapleton, in the role that made her a star). Talk about unlikely casting!! The story of how Stapleton got that part is one of those situations where an actress, in the audition process, just kept “showing up” – with all her talent and powers at full force – and they really had no choice but to cast her. Even though, on the face of it, she was all wrong. Stapleton had a plain face, a dumpy body, and wasn’t seen as a romantic lead in any way, shape, or form. Stapleton said, in regards to her lack of beauty, “People looked at me on stage and said, ‘Jesus, that broad better be able to act.’”
After Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar for her portrayal of Emma Goldman in Reds (well-deserved), she was asked if it was exciting to be acknowledged for her chops as an actress. She replied, “Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world.” So you can see that Stapleton was perfect for Serafina, even if her looks weren’t! Hilarious!
Wallach went to college in Texas and it was around that time that he started contemplating being an actor. It was really the only thing he wanted to do. He moved back to New York and studied acting at the famous Actors Studio, which helped him make all the contacts which would really matter to him in his career. He was one of those actors where it just as easily couldn’t have happened, as could. He was on the cusp of the change in the acting world. If he had been a studio player in the 30s and 40s, he would have played crotchety small character parts (or, who knows, Bogart – with his shortness and his lisp and his toupee became a leading man – so I suppose anything is possible) … but in the 50s, things were changing. A new style of acting was being practiced, made famous by people like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Wallach was a part of that. Not to mention the fact that very early on, he got himself connected to Tennessee Williams, which was one of the most important relationships in his entire career.
Wallach did a bunch of plays in New York, one of the most formative being Tennessee Williams’ short haunting play called “This Property is Condemned” (excerpt here). A young vivacious funny actress named Anne Jackson played the female lead (there are only two parts in the play). They hit it off. They hit it off so well that they moved in together (quite ahead of their time, in the 1940s!) and were married the following year. They have been married for 60 years. (So much for the old saying, “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free” huh?) Amazing. They are good friends. You can feel their friendship when you see the two of them together now.
Wallach spent his days studying sense memory at the Actors Studio, and his nights playing small parts on Broadway. There are very funny moments in his memoir where he talks about trying to combine what he was learning at the Studio with the more practical concerns of being in a show that played 8 times a week. Once, he was so fired up from his own emotional preparation, that he just couldn’t wait and said his line onstage – cutting 14 lines of his co-stars. He was devastated. How do you combine the two – your own needs and the need of the play? He went to Lee Strasberg, his teacher, upset, and said, “I was ready to say my line THEN … what should I have done?” Strasberg thought a bit and then said, “Wait for your cue.”
Eventually, the big break came, with The Rose Tattoo, and he got spectacular reviews, as well as winning the Tony Award for Best Actor. Eli Wallach, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, was off and running.
He made his screen debut in another one of Tennessee Williams’ projects – the highly controversial (as in condemned by the Catholic Church controversial) Baby Doll. This was a screenplay based on Williams’ one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (excerpt here). I go into the differences between the two in that post, what was changed, altered. The movie is basically a comedy, albeit with its sicker elements (a grown woman lying in a crib sucking her thumb). In the play, she is obviously mentally disturbed, a stunted person who has the bodacious body of a full-grown woman – so she is treated like a sexual object when obviously, inside, she is about 10 years old. It is truly disturbing. In the play, Baby Doll (or “Flora”) is ruined. In the film, she (played by Carroll Baker) is set free. It’s still disturbing – obviously disturbing enough to cause the film to be protested widely upon its release … but to see it now it’s hard to imagine what the fuss was about.
Directed by Elia Kazan, they filmed on location (Kazan always liked to do that, he preferred it to using studio sets) – with locals as extras, which gives the film a true sense of place. Tennessee Williams called 27 Wagons a “Mississippi Delta comedy”, which gives you some sense of where his mind was at – and I do think that Kazan and his cast (Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden) do capture that. Karl Malden is a ridiculous cuckolded figure, Carroll Baker is funny and sweet and unconsciously sexy, and Eli Wallach is manipulative and sexy).
Eli Wallach never stopped going back to Broadway, even though his film career had also taken off. He appeared in premiere productions of Teahouse of the August Moon, Mr. Roberts, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real and others.
He was part of the troubled cast for John Huston’s The Misfits, and he traveled to the desert of Nevada for the shoot, with his family in tow. I think his daughters were just babies. The shoot ended up being long-drawn-out and very problematic – and Clark Gable would die months after completion. The entire production was shut down so that Marilyn Monroe could recover in the hospital from her exhaustion (brought on by insomnia and addiction to sleeping pills) – and everything was insane and chaotic. A wonderful book has been written about that shoot, called The Making of the Misfits (I posted about that here)
I think, though, of all the things Wallach will be remembered for, it will be for his participation in the “spaghetti Western” genre – his roles are beloved, and his characters are quoted wildly. Sergio Leone cast him in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – probably one of his best-known performances. Wallach had already been cast as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, and there are funny stories about Wallach trying to figure out how to ride a horse, and all that, while on location. You’d never know he was a novice. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with those crazy close-ups, is a film fan favorite.
Eli Wallach’s memoir, The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage is wonderful. He knows the power of the ba-dum-ching anecdote (I still remember how he lingered over the four “olds” in his story of Francis Coppola trying to sell him on doing the part in Godfather III. He MILKED it). It’s a great mix of the personal and the professional – how he and Anne Jackson, who both had careers, made it work – or, let’s say, just endured through it … Jackson doing plays, Wallach doing movies, trying to raise a family and keep the household going. You really get a sense of the two of them. Funny story: When Baby Doll came out, he and Anne Jackson went to the premiere. Afterwards, he wondered what she thought.
As for my wife’s review of the film, Anne sat next to me at the premiere. The moment I played my first scene with Karl Malden, she observed, “Never have two noses filled the screen so completely.”
It’s a real actor’s book, because, in the end, Eli Wallach – with his diverse and sometimes bizarre career – was always all about the acting. He was not a huge star. Not like Brando or McQueen. He had leading roles, and was a “playah”, as they say … but he never was in that heady echelon of actors who become symbols or manifestations of a Zeitgeist, or what have you. So Wallach was always focusing, pretty much, on the job at hand. Each job has its challenges. It is the actor’s job to make all of that comprehensible, to face each day with a problem-solving attitude, to look at a scene that might not be working and think to himself, “What can I do to make this happen?” Wallach’s book is all about moments like that.
Tennessee Williams had written a new play in the early 1950s. It was called Camino Real (excerpt here). One of Williams’ most difficult plays, it predicts the experimental theatre of the 1960s, embodied by the work of Lanford Wilson (especially in his Balm in Gilead – excerpt here). It’s surreal, not a strict linear play – it takes place in an imaginary place, an end of the road kind of place, and the stage is filled with people at all times: the misfits, the beggars and whores of the fringe … not to mention cameos by fictional characters like Casanova and Lord Byron. These people all hover on “the Camino Real”, a way-station for the lost of the world, the lonely … I love the play. I understand why it is difficult to stage, and difficult for an audience to relate to … and I actually have never seen it done, more’s the pity. But I love it. It also has, in it, my favorite lines that Williams ever wrote:
Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.
Wallach was passionate about Camino Real. He was cast as the lead – “Kilroy” (as in the grafitti messages of the time). To him, it was the most important project he had ever done, the one he was most passionate about. He turned down the role that Frank Sinatra ended up playing in From Here to Eternity (and won an Oscar for) in order to do Camino Real.
One of the reasons I love the following excerpt is because: Camino Real was not a hit. As a matter of fact, it was a flop. After the great run of hits Williams had written – Glass Menagerie (excerpt here), Streetcar Named Desire (excerpt here), Summer and Smoke (excerpt here) and The Rose Tattoo – all wonderful works, but with a more classical structure – Camino Real was seen as incomprehensible, self-indulgent, whatever. This was the typical story of Williams constantly being judged against his earlier work, as though he was supposed to just continue repeating himself. Williams was too good an artist for that. He is quite eloquent on that point. The critics were never kind to him after the 50s … everything was like, “Well, this is no Streetcar Named Desire …” and Williams would respond, “Of course it isn’t. I was a younger man when I wrote Streetcar. I’m older now, I have different concerns and interests.” God forbid he should try to stretch and grow as an artist. I think time has vindicated Camino Real. It is one of those plays that was ahead of its time. Its failure frightened Williams. He did “go back” to writing more traditional plays after that – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (excerpt here), Orpheus Descending (excerpt here), Suddenly Last Summer (excerpt here), Night of the Iguana (excerpt here), Sweet Bird of Youth (excerpt here) (I mean, honestly – even just writing all of that out right now gives me goosebumps) … but I seriously think Camino Real is one of his best. That play haunts me. This past summer the director of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festiva contacted me to write something about Camino Real for their catalog (Camino Real was one of the productions they were doing that summer). It was a thrilling opportunity for me, to write about that play for such an esteemed theatre festival!
Eli Wallach’s section in the book about Camino Real is my favorite part of all.
(That’s Wallach and Jackson in a production of Major Barbara).
So today, in honor of this wonderful hard-working beloved American actor, here is an excerpt from his book, about his commitment to Camino Real, a play that was savaged upon its opening, but was groundbreaking in so many ways. Wallach was there.
EXCERPT FROM The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach
Cheryl Crawford had fallen in love with Camino and was determined to bring it to Broadway, even though it seemed like quite a gamble. Camino was unlike any of Williams’s other work. It was a fantasy set in a dirty plaza somewhere below the border. It was filled with gypsies, pimps, panderers, fascist police, and a host of legendary characters: Lord Byron. Margerite Gautier from Camille, the Baron de Charlus, Don Quixote. I was to play the role of Kilroy, an ex-boxer and ex-sailor who first appears at the top of a flight of stairs. On a crumbling wall, there is a message scrawled in chalk: “Kilroy is coming.” Kilroy crosses out the word coming and replaces it with here.
I enjoyed working with Kazan; he often used sly means to build tension during rehearsal. One time during a rehearsal, he took me aside and told me to approach a group of strangers onstage. “You’re alone and you’re scared,” he said, “so go on and make friends.” Meanwhile, he told the actors playing a motley crowd of peasants, “Ignore this stranger; he’s a gringo, and he has bad breath.”
Kazan worked long and hard shaping Tennessee’s play into a bold and startling fantastic extravaganza. Rehearsals were long and exhausting and yet strangely exhilarating. All of us in the cast felt we were embarking on a trip to a world we had never encountered before. Even though Camino was a fantasy, Kazan told us that the play would be stronger if each role was performed with a sense of truth.
For me, the play was very physically demanding. At one point, I had to jump offstage while police chased me, then run through the audience screaming, “Where the hell is the Greyhound bus depot?” I’d run up one aisle, then down another. People would have to stand to allow me to pass. Then I’d run up to the balcony, enter the box seats, climb over the rail, and jump directly onstage, just like John Wilkes Booth did after he’d shot President Lincoln. Once I was caught by the police, I was ordered to kneel onstage and a clown’s hat was clapped over my head. Fastened to the hat were eyeglasses with long string attached to them; the nose was a red Ping-Pong-ball-shaped bulb.
“Light your nose,” the policeman would say, and I would press the button to light my nose, which kept blinking on and off as the theater lights went down.
Audiences were puzzled by some of the scenes. And in early previews, many walked out. The play was savagely attacked by the critics. Leading the charge was Walter Kerr, critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who ended his review with a terse sentence: “Williams is our greatest playwright. And this is his worst play.”
After the reviews had come out, Tennessee sat down and wrote a letter to Cheryl Crawford, the producer:
Whenever I talk about you I say, “Cheryl is a great fighter. She’s always there when you need her.” In China, in the old days, they used to give an old man an opium pipe. I suppose now they just shoot him. I think we should show fight in this situation. I’m enclosing a letter I just wrote to that critic Walter Kerr.
Dear Mr. Kerr,
I’m feeling a little punch drunk from the feared, but not fully anticipated attack at your hands and a quorum of your colleagues. But I would like to attempt to get a few things off my chest in reply. What I would like to know is, don’t you see that “Camino” is a concentrate, a distillation of the world and the time we live in?
Mr. Kerr, I believe in your honesty. I believe you said what you honestly think and feel about this play. And I wouldn’t have the nerve to question your verdict. But silence is only golden when you have nothing to say. And I still think I have a great deal to say.
I don’t believe Kerr ever answered Tennessee’s letter. But there’s one line in the play that affected Anne and myself so greatly that we decided to adopt it as our motto. “Lately,” Lord Byron says, “I’ve been listening to hired musicians behind a row of artificial palm trees instead of the single pure stringed instrument of my heart. For what is the heart, but a sort of instrument that translates noise into music, chaos into order. Make voyages, attempt them, there’s nothing else.” Anne and I decided that we would always make voyages and attempt them.
Camino‘s end came quickly, with a crisp closing notice posted on the backstage bulletin board. We had just completed our fifty-sixth performance. The closing of a play is like a death in the family, and it leaves a deep scar on an actor’s ego. I remember packing up all my belongings in the dressing room, then walking out into the rainy night. “Why me?” I thought. I loved the cast, the writing, the direction, but thankfully Camino didn’t die. Over the years, many regional theaters have given Williams’s fantasy a second chance.
I’ve never regretted the choice of doing Camino Real instead of From Here to Eternity. To me, Camino was the greatest experience I had in the theater.