By Mike Barnes
Eli Wallach, the enduring and artful character actor who starred as weaselly Mexican hombres in the 1960s film classics The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, has died. He was 98.
Wallach, who won a Tony Award in 1951 for playing Alvaro in Tennessee Williams’ original production of The Rose Tattoo, made his movie debut as a cotton-gin owner trying to seduce a virgin in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) and worked steadily well into his nineties, died Tuesday, his daughter Katherine told The New York Times.
No other details of his death were immediately available.
"As an actor I’ve played more bandits, thieves, warlords, molesters and mafioso that you could shake a stick at," Wallach said in November 2010 when he accepted an Honorary Academy Award at the second annual Governors Awards to become the oldest Oscar recipient.
Among his survivors is actress Anne Jackson, his wife of 66 years.
In John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese gem Seven Samurai, Wallach plays the merciless Calvera, a bandit with two gold-capped teeth whose marauders routinely raid a Mexican village for food. The pillaged recruit a veteran gunslinger (Yul Brynner) and six others, including Steve McQueen, to protect them.
Six years later, Wallach starred in his most memorable role, as the fast-talking Tuco (The Ugly) opposite Clint Eastwood (The Good) and Lee Van Cleef (The Bad) in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western set during the American Civil War and centered on a three-way hunt for gold buried in a cemetery.
During shooting in Spain, Wallach was almost killed when a galloping horse carried him for a considerable distance while his hands were tied behind his back. Later, Leone positioned him in the dirt, where a speeding train’s protruding iron steps missed the actor by inches. Wallach refused to do another take, a decision that surely contributed to his longevity.
The Brooklyn native also was memorable as a well-dressed hitman looking to retrieve heroin stuffed in a Japanese doll in Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958); as Guido in John Huston’s The Misfits opposite Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in their final film appearances; as Audrey Hepburn’s suitor in How to Steal a Million (1966); as James Caan’s harsh boot-camp instructor in Cinderella Liberty (1973); and as a mafioso with a sweet tooth in The Godfather: Part III (1990).
The good-natured actor appeared in more than 90 films, including two released in 2010: Oilver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.
On television, Wallach won an Emmy for his role as a former drug merchant who is now in the aspirin business in ABC’s Poppies Are Also Flowers, a 1966 anti-narcotics telefilm produced by the United Nations from a story by Ian Fleming. He also earned noms for his work as a blacklisted writer on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2006 and as an ailing patient on Nurse Jackie three years later.
Plus, he got loads of fan mail for playing Mr. Freeze (the third actor to do so) on TV’s Batman in the 1960s.
Wallach was born on Dec. 7, 1915, the son of Polish immigrants who owned a candy store and lived in the back. He went to Erasmus Hall High School and didn’t have the grades to get into City College in New York, so he wound up at the University of Texas, where he was friends with Zachary Scott and Walter Cronkite. After graduation, he ventured back to the Big Apple and studied method acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, where his fellow students included Tony Randall, Gregory Peck and Efrem Zimbalist.
After serving as a medic in World War II, the 5-foot-7 Wallach returned to New York and landed his first Broadway part in 1945. Within the next few years, he rose to become a fixture on the New York stage and began doing live TV.
Noticing his stirring performance at the Martin Beck Theater in The Rose Tattoo, Kazan cast Wallach in Baby Doll, whose screenplay also was written by Williams.
With Wallach going after the virgin 19-year-old wife (Carroll Baker) of his competitor (Karl Malden), the film was condemned by the Catholic Church for being “grievously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency.”
"They said that anyone who goes to see it is in danger of being excommunicated," Wallach told The New York Times in 2010. “I said, ‘I’m Jewish, what the hell are they going to know about me?’”
In addition to his wife, Wallach is survived by their children Peter, Roberta and Katherine and film critic A.O. Scott, whose grandfather was Wallach’s brother.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.