R.I.P., Eli Wallach

His career spanned 60 years. An inspiration to many young actors (including myself as a kid), he worked nearly until the very end. He and his wife of 66 years, Anne Jackson (married since 1948), often performed together over the years, and created a small show of scenes and poems interspersed with their humorous banter. They would perform it at churches, schools, synagogues, YMCAs, benefits and charity functions. I saw their show about 10 years ago and was totally charmed by it. They have a son and two daughters, both of whom are members of the Actors Studio as well.

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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 his cameo was that Wallach would go uncredited, and that his name would not be used in any of the advertising. It was a smart move because 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 with warmth, recognition, and approval.

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Eli Wallach was born and raised in Brooklyn. His family was one of the only Jewish families in a primarily Italian neighborhood, perhaps a propos for this actor who would end up playing so many memorable Italians.

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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 Actors Studio, and it was there that he made all the contacts which would end up mattering to him in his career. 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, 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, one of the most important relationships in Wallach’s entire career.

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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”. A young vivacious funny actress named Anne Jackson played the female lead. The two hit it off. They hit it off so well that they moved in together (and this was in the 1940s!) and were married the following year.

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, cutting 14 lines of his co-stars. He was devastated. He went to Lee Strasberg, his teacher, 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.”

As a young man, he was an unlikely romantic lead. 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 treated women with good humor and curiosity; it 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, Wallach’s big break. Wallach played Alvaro, the hot and sexual 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 until they really had no choice but to cast her. Stapleton had a plain face, a dumpy body, and wasn’t seen as a romantic lead in any way, shape, or form. Stapleton said, “People looked at me onstage and said, ‘Jesus, that broad better be able to act.'”

Wallach got spectacular reviews in The Rose Tattoo, and also won 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. It had a screenplay based on Williams’ one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. 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. Baby Doll is treated like a sexual object while obviously, inside, she is about 10 years old. It is 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, and Wallach is great in it as Vacarro, the sexually-charged neighbor. One of the most memorable scenes is a seduction scene on a porch swing between Wallach and Baker.

Directed by Elia Kazan, Baby Doll was filmed on location, with locals as extras. Tennessee Williams called 27 Wagons a “Mississippi Delta comedy”, which gives you some sense of where his mind was at. 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.

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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. His daughters were just babies. The shoot ended up being long-drawn-out and very problematic. Clark Gable would die just 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.

Of all the things Wallach will be remembered for, it will be for his participation in the “spaghetti Western” genre. Sergio Leone cast him in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – probably one of Wallach’s 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.

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Eli Wallach’s memoir, The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage is wonderful. 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 muddled through it, Jackson doing plays, Wallach doing movies, trying to raise a family and keep the household going.

When Baby Doll came out, he and Anne Jackson went to the premiere. Wallach writes in his memoir:

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.”

The book is 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, but he never was in that heady echelon of actors who become symbols or manifestations of a Zeitgeist. 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. One of Williams’ most difficult plays, it predicts the experimental theatre of the 1960s, embodied by the work of Lanford Wilson. It’s surreal, not a strict linear play, it takes place in an imaginary 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 understand why it is difficult to stage, 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, a guy named “Kilroy” (after the grafitti messages of the time). To Wallach, 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, Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke and The Rose Tattoo – all wonderful works, but with a more classical structure – Camino Real was seen as incomprehensible, self-indulgent, a mess. This was the start of the ongoing story where Williams was constantly judged against his earlier work, as though he was supposed to continue repeating himself. The critics were never kind to him after the 50s … everyone 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.”

Time has vindicated Camino Real, but its initial failure frightened Williams. He did “go back” to writing more traditional plays after that, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Night of the Iguana, Sweet Bird of Youth. But Camino Real is one of his best.

Eli Wallach’s section in the book about Camino Real is my favorite part.

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(That’s Wallach and Jackson in a production of Major Barbara).

So today, in honor of this wonderful hard-working beloved American actor, a man I already miss, here is an excerpt from his book about his commitment to Camino Real, a play that was savaged upon its opening

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:

Dear Cheryl,
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.
Cordially,
Tennessee Williams

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.

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2 Responses to R.I.P., Eli Wallach

  1. A rare treasure. Every single movie he was in went up a notch the second he appeared on screen. And there can’t be too many actors who fit in completely effortlessly with Tennessee Williams, Sergio Leone AND Walt Disney!

    • sheila says:

      Definitely. He was amazing – his stage career almost as amazing as his film one! 98 years old. An incredible and full life.

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