At a Ripe Age, Eli Wallach Plays Juicy Jewish Roles

By Aviva Kempner

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
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Round-faced and sunburned, with wild, kinky hair and a Mexican accent, Eli Wallach was in an utter rage at the end of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Clint Eastwood’s character had nearly killed him, and as Eastwood trotted away on a horse, Wallach chased after him, bellowing curses.

It has been 36 years since Wallach co-starred opposite Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s classic Western as a gunslinging bandito, a role that became a cult favorite. Today, Wallach has the look of a man who has mellowed. His mustache has grown white. His face has thinned. But the 87-year-old actor remains robust and busy, performing in stage productions and working on an autobiography about his illustrious stage and screen career.

Now Wallach is appearing in Eastwood’s new drama, “Mystic River,” which opens the New York Film Festival today, the first time the pair has worked together since “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Although his liquor store-owner role is just a cameo, Wallach said that Eastwood told him the scene was “pivotal” to the plot.

“Clint called me to be in the film, and I ask, ‘How many weeks?’” Wallach said. “He answers, ‘It’s only for a day,’ but claims it will be a fun reunion.”

Wallach, a Method actor renowned for the versatility and range he has displayed over his long career, is best known for portraying menacing and shifty toughs from Wild West villains to a candy-addicted Mafia don in “The Godfather, Part III.” A longtime resident of New York’s Upper West Side, Wallach spoke with the Forward about his half-century in show business. As Wallach walked down Broadway with a reporter, adoring fans stopped him to pay compliments.

Wallach, the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland, was born in Brooklyn, where his father owned a candy store. From the youngest age, Wallach wanted to pursue acting. He said, “I used to pretend my bed was the Sahara desert and I was in the Foreign Legion. I would refuse dinner because I was bleeding.”

Wallach’s plans to attend New York’s City College were dashed by poor grades, a disappointment that would prove fortuitous for his acting career. He enrolled instead at the University of Texas in Austin. It was there that he learned to ride horses — a skill he put to good use as a counselor at Jewish summer camps back East and later in Westerns such as “The Magnificent Seven” and “How the West Was Won.”

During World War II Wallach served as a medical administrator in North Africa and France. Upon returning to New York, Wallach pursued acting instead of going into teaching like all of his siblings. He was one of the first members of the famed Actors Studio, along with such noteworthies as Julie Harris, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen, as well as his future wife, actress Anne Jackson, whom he married in 1948. Together the couple has two daughters, both of whom are actresses, and a son, who is a film animator.

Wallach began his career as a theater actor. He performed in a number of Broadway plays, winning a Tony in 1951’s “The Rose Tattoo,” before making his silver screen debut as the unscrupulous seducer in Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll.” Wallach fondly remembers Kazan, who died at the age of 94 on Sunday, as a friend and “one of my favorite directors.”

While Wallach’s roles run the gamut of ethnic backgrounds, he has played a number of explicitly Jewish roles. “I bring to those roles my background and upbringing,” he said.

In 1978 he co-starred with his wife in a stage version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” that played for a year in Toronto. It was a true family affair, with the couple’s two daughters also appearing in the play.

His Jewish roles have ranged from an attorney defending a group of neo-Nazis’ right to march in the 1981 television movie “Skokie,” to a Jewish jeweler in the Warsaw Ghetto who buys his way out and abandons his two children in the 1982 television adaptation of John Hersey’s “The Wall” to the head of the Mossad secret service in the 1997 film “Impossible Spy,” about Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was hanged in Syria.

Also in 1997, he starred in Jeff Baron’s off-Broadway play “Visiting Mr. Green” as a crotchety Jewish widower who becomes friends with a young gay man. The New York Times hailed Wallach, challenging readers: “If someone can point to a more winning performance this season than the one Eli Wallach is supplying nightly… nominations are being accepted.” More recently, Wallach has had a recurring television role as the father of Richard Dreyfuss’s character on the canceled CBS series “The Education of Max Bickford.”

“I started out playing the ethnic arc of Mafioso, half-breeds, Mexicans, Irish, Spaniards and an Okinawan,” he said. “Now finally I am playing juicy Jewish roles in my old age.”

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