I first met Eli Wallach one evening in a restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel. He was almost 90 then, and he needed someone to edit the autobiography he was writing. We sipped chamomile tea and he told me some of his stories — how he had gone out dancing with Marilyn Monroe; how he had passed up the Frank Sinatra role in “From Here to Eternity” so that he could star on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real”; how he and Tony Randall had performed in a student production based on Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” He told me about the time he had invited Sir Laurence Olivier to a class at the Actor’s Studio where he had studied and Olivier had mocked the proceedings — “Why don’t we start a school for f–cking, Eli?” Olivier reportedly told him. He told me about his conversation he had with Francis Ford Coppola who wanted to cast him as a great friend of the Corleones in “Godfather III.” “If I’m such a great friend, why wasn’t I in ‘Godfather I and II’,” Eli asked. And he told me about arguments his brother had had with their father when they were living on Union Street in Brooklyn.
“You should read this,” his father told Eli’s brother, waving a newspaper at him. “It speaks the truth. It’s called the Jewish Daily Forward.”
“They should call it the Jewish Daily Backward,” the brother replied.
I don’t recall saying much during that evening, which, in retrospect, was probably why I got the gig. Sometimes the best thing an editor can do is to keep his mouth shut and stay out of the way of the story.
It sounded like a ghostwriting gig, but it turned out to be both less and more than that. Eli didn’t really need anyone to write his memoirs for him; his memory was razor sharp and his energy was daunting. The only evidence that he was approaching 90 was his somewhat convoluted working style. He would write his memoirs longhand, then dictate them into a cassette recorder. He would give the cassette to a good friend of his, Gregory J. Catsos — a celebrity interviewer who was also working as a security guard at the time in a building in Midtown Manhattan — who would transcribe the tapes and save them on floppy disks, which were then passed along to me.
When I came along, I streamlined this process a bit; and, once a week, on Thursdays, I would come over to the apartment Eli shared with his wife of 66 years, actress Anne Jackson and the two of them would banter back and forth. Once Eli and I sat down in his living room, I would make suggestions for the text and ask him to flesh out some portions — did he remember the name of the ships that had brought his parents to Ellis Island? Since he had remained friends both with blacklisted artists and with the director Elia Kazan, might he want to add a little bit more about the McCarthy period? Sometimes, as homework assignments, he’d give me VHS copies of his movies to watch — Don Siegel’s “The Lineup”; Kazan and Tennessee Williams’s “Baby Doll.” I suppose I didn’t need to watch the scene of Eli running through a graveyard while playing Tuco in Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” over and over, but I wanted to and I could call it work.
On those Thursdays, during breaks, Eli would make smoothies or tea. He would turn on the kitchen TV and watch members of the Bush administration testifying about the war in Iraq. “Wolfowitz,” he would snarl. “What a perfect name.”
During our time together, I learned a lot about New York during the Depression, a lot about the Actor’s Studio and the life of a Broadway and Hollywood actor, but the true lessons that Eli Wallach imparted to me were more profound. While he and I were working on the autobiography that would eventually be titled “The Good, The Bad and Me,” my father, who was ten years younger than Eli, fell ill. And I guess, subconsciously, I was looking for role models for gracefully aging. And what impressed me most about Eli was not his immense talent or even his memory but his empathy, commitment and apparent indefatigability.
When we working on the book, he was still taking public transportation; still driving his car out to the Hamptons; still calling up old friends and colleagues, like Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando, trying to get them to write blurbs for his book. Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” could have been the man’s mantra. While most of his contemporaries had retired or gone into that night (sometimes gently, sometimes not), he was still hungry for work. Arthur Miller was working on what would be his last play, “Finishing The Picture” and Eli wanted to play the role based on his old acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Sitting in the living room, I would listen to Eli argue with Miller who said he was too old for the role. “What do you mean ‘too old?’ I’ll dye my hair,” Eli said. He consented to undergo a physical examination to appear in Nancy Meyers’s film “The Holiday,” and as many critics pointed out, wound up having better onscreen chemistry with Kate Winslet than her co-stars did. When my first novel, “Crossing California” came out, he often asked me to let him know when someone would make a movie of it; he wanted to play the rabbi who, he said, reminded him of a rabbi he’d known as a boy. “He smelled of garlic,” Eli said.
My dad died in 2005, the same year Eli’s autobiography came out, and I didn’t see him much after that. But whenever I did, he was still working or seeking more work. He’d be reading at the National Arts Club near Gramercy Park; performing in a play out near his house in the Hamptons; meeting and greeting investors who were trying to produce a film version of the play “Visiting Mr. Green,” in which Eli had started in 1997. Sometimes he’d talk about writing another memoir; there were still stories he had left to tell, but he was too busy to do it. In 2010, when he was 95, he appeared in both Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps.” The same year, he won an honorary Academy Award.
The Academy honored him for all the roles he had played, but I’ll remember him more for the person he was — a gentleman, a husband, a storyteller, and a man who truly loved his work and his life until the very end.
Adam Langer is the arts and culture editor of the Forward.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in New York. He has written plays, films, criticism and a memoir, but most of the time, he writes novels.
He is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.”