By now you’ve gotten the word that Eli Wallach (1915-2014) has passed away. He was 98. This would make him about 17 when the Palace presented its last two-a-day. I am often given to saying there’s nobody around who still remembers vaudeville. But that’s wrong — if you are in your late nineties, you are old enough to remember vaudeville.
One observation I have about Wallach is that he was apparently never young. In his most famous role, the one that sort of put him on the map, Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, he was 51 years old. And if you go backwards, say to The Misfits (1960), or Baby Doll (1956), you still find him playing dumpy middle-aged men. That’s what his character niche was. As far as the public is concerned he has been old for over a half century. So it’s amazing to have him go at this late date. Yet it’s not the surprise we sometimes get when long-retired actors pass away. It’s not a “He was still alive?” moment, because Wallach never retired. He was in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel just four years ago!
The nettlesome aspect of his career was that he was forever “typecast” as Italians and Mexicans (and sometimes Greeks). I put “typecast” in quotes because that wasn’t actually his type! He was a Polish Jew from Red Hook! And to my mind, he was never convincing as an Italian and especially unconvincing as a Mexican. Yet, starting with the 1951 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, he began a long association with such roles. He was a serious Method actor but the film industry usually gave him what was essentially Minstrel work.
I got to meet him once! Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson attended Theater for the New City’s annual benefit many times, and when I was working there once I had the honor of escorting the elderly star to the W.C. In gratitude, he gave me a squooshy-booby face (that affectionate grandmotherly thing where an old person grabs your cheeks with one hand). By then he was looking more like this:
At any rate, the co-star of 1968’s A Lovely Way To Die, finally has. Somewhere on the other side the ghost of Lee Van Cleef is cocking his pistol.
I saw him just last week in KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT, in which he played a charmingly wacky but corrupt Latin dictator. He was funny, if not terribly believable, in the role. I like that he remained so committed to doing live theatre over the course of his career.