UPDATE: Broadway to dim the lights: Theater District marquees will go dark for one minute at 7:45 PM Friday as Broadway marks the passing of Eli Wallach, who died June 24 at age 98. TCM has also set a five-film tribute marathon on June 30 starting at 9 AM ET. The character actor likely was best known as Tuco opposite Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
A lifelong theater actor and all but accidental movie and TV star, Wallach and his wife, Anne Jackson (who survives him), were fixtures of the Broadway and off-Broadway stages, often together and always happy to put their skill and fame in the service of liberal social causes. In 1951 he was cast opposite Maureen Stapleton in the leading roles of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, as Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a truck driver who woos and wins Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian widow living on the Gulf Coast. Both won Tony Awards.
Wallach and Jackson were equally devoted to the classics and to promoting challenging, off-beat new work. In 1958, he appeared with Joan Plowright in Eugène Ionesco’s farcical look at old age, The Chairs. Three years later, he and his wife appeared with Zero Mostel in a now legendary production of Ionesco’s ultra-modernist parable Rhinoceros, in which Wallach played a milquetoast functionary as people all around him are turning into the creatures of the title, Mostel most unforgettably. The Brooklyn native’s last Broadway appearance was as Noah in a 1994 revival of Clifford Odets’ The Flowering Peach.
“Actually I lead a dual life,” he once said, as quoted in the Times. “In the theater, I’m the little man, or the irritated man, the misunderstood man,” whereas in films “I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.” His villain roles, he said, tended to be “more complex” than some of his stage roles. But onstage, he conveyed an easygoing gruffness and accessibility that made confidantes and accomplices of theatergoers — a quality also of his screen persona.
Wallach appeared in scores of films and TV shows during a 60-year career and received an Honorary Oscar in 2011. After years of working in the nascent television medium, he starred on the big screen with Karl Malden and Carroll Baker in Williams’s Baby Doll (1956), earning a Golden Globe nom for Best Supporting Actor and BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer; toplined The Lineup (1958); and appeared with Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves (1960).
He broke out as Calvera in the 1960 John Sturges classic The Magnificent Seven, starring with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, et al. In another memorable performance, he played leading man Clark Gable’s friend in “The Misfits” (1961), written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, with a cast that included Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
Wallach won an Emmy in 1967 for his supporting turn in the drama Poppies Are Also Flowers and scored four other nominations during the next four-plus decades, most recently for guest stints on Nurse Jackie (2010) and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2007). He played Mr. Freeze on the 1960s Batman series and appeared in near-countless other TV shows including Playhouse 90, Kojak, Highway To Heaven, Murder, She Wrote, L.A. Law, Law & Order and ER — working steadily well into the 2000s.
In 1990, he died a sweet death as Don Altobello, a Mafia boss dispatched by a poisoned dessert, in The Godfather: Part III. But he likely is best remembered as the dirty “Ugly” scoundrel who teamed with — and went up against — Eastwood in 1966′s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. He all but stole the film, which also starred Lee Van Cleef. In one memorable scene, a gunman seems to get the drop on Wallach’s Tuco when the latter is enjoying a rare relaxing bubble bath. As the one-armed cowboy lectures him about how he has been tracking the bandit for months, Tuco blasts him with a pistol hidden under the water and suds. Says Wallach: “When you have to shoot, shoot — don’t talk.” His many other film roles included Aces High (1968), The People Next Door (1970), The Deep (1977), The Two Jakes (1990), and McQueen’s final film The Hunter (1980).
Robert DeNiro paid tribute to Wallach this morning in a statement. “He was as wonderful a person as he was an actor. He will be missed.”