Eli Wallach Knows His Lines


By Masha Leon

Published August 06, 2004, issue of August 06, 2004.
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Bypassing his usually well-researched curriculum vitae of his interview guests, Rabbi William Berkowitz let Eli Wallach explain himself to the July 12 overflow crowd at the Center for Jewish History. “I tell journalists. ‘Please don’t put my age in,’” the 89-year-old Wallach said. “It’s a handicap for directors who think I can’t remember lines.” He need not have worried, for, in a mostly uninterrupted 90-minute “performance,” the actor disgorged a river of anecdotes about plays and films that he was in and actors with whom he’s worked.

“We were the only Jewish family in Red Hook in a sea of Italians,” said Wallach, who was born in New York’s Little Italy. When the director of the [1967 movie] “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” told him to “cross himself,” he was mystified by Wallach’s peculiar arm choreography. Wallach explained that his shorthand execution of this rite (which he demonstrated for the audience) was based on “seeing my Italian neighbors cross themselves in Little Italy in the 1920s.”

Admitting that he did not have the grades for City College, Wallach went to the University of Texas. “Oil rich.… Tuition, $30 a year…. It was like being on another planet. I loved the [Texas] spirit. After four years I developed a Southern accent.… Teachers called on me because they wanted to hear ‘Brooklyn.’” Among his then University of Texas actor-alumni: Zachary Scott, [Texas Gov.] John Connolly and Walter Cronkite, “whom I’ve known since 1934.”

At the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1938, his fellow students were Tony Randall, Gregory Peck and Efrem Zimbalist. During a rehearsal for G.B. Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” Charles Laughton admonished Wallach: “‘No Stanislavsky crap from you!’” Berkowitz asked: “What’s the [Stanislavsky] Method?” Wallach replied: “I wish I knew.” As for his father’s reaction to his becoming an actor, Wallach recalled: “From this you make a living?”

A fan of the Yiddish theater, Wallach remembered seeing Maurice Schwartz and Jacob Adler. (In 1988, Wallach portrayed the character David Cole, based on Adler, in Joseph Papp’s production “Cafe Crown” at the Public Theater.) “Stella Adler refused to see ‘Cafe Crown’ because she felt it makes fun of the Yiddish theater,” Wallach said. He then cited an anecdote about a Yiddish theater-goer who kept returning to see a play “about a boarder” (which I assume was Leon Kobrin’s “The Lady Next Door,” or “Di Next Dorike — which the Folksbiene revived last season). “When the husband leaves, his wife starts up with the boarder. This man sees the play a second time… third time… a sixth time! The seventh time, he stood up in the theater and shouts at the husband: ‘Geyt nit avek! Der border tchepet zikh tzu dayn vayb!’” (Don’t leave! The boarder is hitting on your wife!”)

Wallach and his wife, Anne Jackson, were married in 1948, “when Israel became a state — and we’re still here 56 years later.”

Ruefully he recalled losing out to Frank Sinatra for the role of Mario in “From Here to Eternity” because he opted to appear in a Tennessee Williams play. “Whenever Sinatra (who won an academy award for the role) saw me, he’d say, ‘Hello, you crazy actor!’”

Having just completed writing his biography, Wallach informed: “The first agent said it was… not commercial.… Married to the same lady, no drugs, no scandal. My wife said, ‘Call him up; get the manuscript back! Tell him you’re going to put back all the things your wife made you take out…. Put in all the names of the women you worked with and slept with in the movies — Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeanne Moreau. It’ll help the book.”

* * *

James M. Barrie (1860-1937) — the English playwright best known for “Peter Pan” (his novel “The Little Minister” was required reading when I was a student at Montreal’s Alfred Joyce School) — could not have imagined that a top-notch revival of two of his short “and sweet” one-act plays under the combined title “Echoes of the War,” nearly a century after they were written, would be so skillfully directed by a Yiddish-speaking alumna and former artistic director of the Folksbiene: Eleanor Reissa!

Both plays travel well across time and culture. “The New Word,” set in 1915, about a young man going off to war, focuses on the inability of a father and son to articulate the affection they so keenly feel for each other. In an at-times comedic yet stilted verbal duel, the seemingly gruff Mr. Torrance (Richard Easton) and his son, Roger (Aaron Krohn), thrust, parry, advance and retreat until they break through their estrangement. Still, unwilling to abandon British reserve completely, the two conspire not to reveal their breakthrough relationship to Mrs. Torrance (Anne-Marie Cusson).

In “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” the amazing Frances Sternhagen portrays Mrs. Dowey, a London charwoman who invents a letter-writing son at the front so she can be on a par with her fellow charwomen friends whose sons are away at war. Her bluff is secured when a “son,” Private Dowey (Gareth Saxe), turns up. The heartwarming yet comedic transformation of these unrelated strangers into “family” is farklempt theater at its best. The intimate Mint Theater is a perfect setting for these theater gems. Among the opening-night crowd were Steven Solender, co-chairman of the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and his wife, Elsa Solender, a Mint board member. Only playing through August 29, “Echoes of the War” is a do-not-miss experience.

It occurred to me that a Yiddish version of “The Old Lady,” translated as “Mayn Yidishe Mame” or “A Brivele der Mamen” (a letter to my mother), would be a perfect vehicle starring Mina Bern in the Sternhagen role. Directed by Reissa, of course…. Just a thought!

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