98 years old.
Remarkable. I can't imagine making it to 98. I can't imagine the breadth of life experience you could have in that amount of time. Eli Wallach leaves behind a truly great filmography and a family life that is enviable, having been married to the same woman, Anne Jackson, since 1948. She had a hell of a filmography herself, and they had three children together. I am in awe of anyone who can build a life that solid for that long, never mind someone who works in the film industry, where relationships are, at best, impermanent, and at worst, inconsequential.
Wallach will leave an amazing legacy onscreen, but he was part of something larger, a total shift in the way acting was approached, and telling his story is telling the story of that paradigm change. He was part of that first wave of Method actors who made the jump from their work at the Actors Studio to starring in films. Many of them worked on Broadway as well, and before he ever made a single movie, Wallach was a Tony winner for what was described as a “searing” performance in the Tennessee Williams play “The Rose Tattoo.”
When another Williams play made the jump to the big-screen, Wallach was there, and “Baby Doll” won him strong reviews for his first movie. He's fantastic in a grimy little Don Siegel film called “The Lineup,” and in less than four years, he was already booking significant roles in some of Hollywood's biggest films. He's a bad guy in “The Magnificent Seven,” he's one of the strangers who Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) encounters on the road in “The Misfits,” and he spent most of the '60s giving one great supporting performance after another in movies like “The Victors,” “How To Steal A Million,” “Lord Jim,” “The Moon-Spinners,” and “How The West Was Won.”
1966 saw the release of one of the most important films of the decade, and one of the most important roles that Wallach every played. When Sergio Leone made “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” he was at the height of his considerable creative powers, and I would argue that the film he made is one of the truly great Westerns of all time, a movie that seems mythic, larger than life, bigger than anything any one artist could have possibly created.
Much has been written over the last thirty or forty years about the Joseph Campbell model of storytelling, but I have an even deeper love for the archetypical creation of this film, using a “Good,” a “Bad,” and an “Ugly” as three points on a storytelling compass. Good and bad are easy enough to interpret, and they seem like broad enough ideas that they can bend to fit quite a few difference shapes. It's the ugly that I adore, the notion of a character who is neither good nor bad, but is instead deeply, agonizingly human, flawed and imperfect and given to weakness.
If I were an actor, those are the characters I would want to play. See, for example, any character ever played by John Cazale. I think he made his whole career out of playing the ugly, and he was brilliant at it. I get why people aspire to be good, or they love to hiss the bad, but the ugly is what we have to confront in ourselves. It is who we often are instead of who we wish he were. The Hero's Journey model is deeply broken because that's not who most people are. Most people find themselves constantly struggling to be better than they are. It is our nature, and that's exactly what makes it ugly. And no one ever played it quite the way Wallach did in the role that defined the archetype.
He did a ton of television work, like almost all of the Method actors, and as the '70s kicked in, he was still working non-stop. He's in so many movies, both good and bad, big and small, and he was always interesting, always committed. I honestly can't name a time he failed to make a film better simply by showing up. The roles I remember him for are all from the films my dad loved. I remember seeing “The Hunter” about eleven times thanks to my dad's undying fondness for anything involving Steve McQueen. That was one of the movies we had on VHS that we watched over and over. Michael Winner's “Firepower” is another movie that I have burned into my brain from one theatrical screening. Same with “Mackenna's Gold.”
He transitioned easily into each new stage of his career, always happy to create vivid characters, no matter how brief the screen time. I feel like he was literally always popping up in things, never absent for long. TV and movies remained both equally important to his schedule. I thought he did memorable work in “Tough Guys” and “The Godfather Part III” and “Nuts” and “Mistress,” as well as a wicked little episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” His last great role, where he was displayed to full advantage, was in “The Holiday,” where he had a truly charming relationship with the Kate Winslet character, a sort of living embodiment of old Hollywood. He was also in the “Wall Street” sequel four years ago, his last time onscreen.
It is not shocking to lose a man at 98 years old. He has lived longer than most. He leaves behind a body of work so robust that even his most ardent fans will no doubt have plenty to discover in years ahead. But it is always a shame when one of the lights that shone as brightly as Wallach is finally dimmed, and as long as people are watching movies, Tuco will be struggling to find a way to beat Blondie and Angel Eyes, and people will be recognizing themselves in the soul of this remarkable performer.
Eli Wallach was born in December of 1915. He passed away Tuesday, and he will be missed.