(*This was originally published in White Cover Magazine…)
Eli Wallach was a familiar face. He was the sort of actor, where you knew who he was if you cared to know who he was. And if you didn’t – if you were too young to know him from his heyday or if you just didn’t give a damn for celebrities or movies in general, but watched enough of them – you still recognized him.
He was unmissable. Can you think of a higher status for an actor to achieve? At the end of my career, I want to be unmissable. Sounds like a decent goal.
And Eli Wallach was that. He’s known as Tuco to most – or as ‘The Ugly’ in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. That’s the sort of movie title that would no doubt be banned today, in a world where everyone has to be called beautiful, where everyone has to be beautiful, even if they’re not to everyone. He rocked that film. Clint Eastwood (The Good) and Lee Van Cleef (The Bad) rocked it, too. Ennio Morricone set the standard for what a soundtrack should be, and Sergio Leone’s cinematography and direction on that film had more influence on how films are shot, made, and scripted today than any other in Hollywood’s history.
Truly, I mean that last sentence. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is the kind of film you see for the first time and you think to yourself, “Okay, I expect more from movies now.” It’s no surprise it’s Quentin Tarantino’s favourite film, because I think the same thing when I see Pulp Fiction, too.
A few films have that element, but in scenes and fragments most of the time, not their final product. The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan changed how war was filmed, forever. Jurassic Park and Star Wars laid the floor for special effects, in their own way and in their own time. Jaws redefined horror movies. Alfred Hitchcock brought the ‘suspense’ genre to new heights, and no director since him has been able to match him.
And even though he was basically a career supporting player – his most famous character is known as ‘The Ugly’ after all – Eli Wallach had the same effect on acting.
He owned every scene he was ever in, to the point that you would leave an awful film and remember his performance above the rest, like you were watching Henrik Lundvqvist play goal or seeing the Acropolis above the rubble of Athens.
Early on, he played villains. He was the chief antagonist in The Magnificent Seven, standing across from Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. Six years later, he’d become Tuco – and that character laid the groundwork for all those snivelling, quasi-villains you’ve seen since. They’re not really bad guys. But they’re cowardly and they’re selfish and they have a knack for survival. Think of Beni in The Mummy or Johnny in Gangs of New York or Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park. They’re never the real villain, any of those guys. In The Mummy, the bad guy was the Mummy. In Gangs, it was Daniel Day Lewis, or America in general. In Jurassic Park, it was the T-Rex and the Velociraptors.
(Writing this, I realized that you could probably trace the existence of a character like Tuco back to Captain Louis from Casablanca, but he saved the day in the end, so it doesn’t count.)
Wallach made a career out of being Eli Wallach.
In The Godfather: Part III, he stole the show as rent-a-villain Don Altobello, acting naive and silly in a Columbo sort of way, never letting on just how evil he was or what he really intended. Of all the antagonists in that all-time great trilogy – think Sollozzo or Don Barzini or Tessio in Part I, or Hyman Roth or Frank Pentangeli or Fredo in Part II – Wallach’s character was the only one who ever really threatened to invade Michael’s one motto: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
That’s actually when I first saw Wallach, if I try to remember. And I still think of that scene where he was on the porch in Sicily, leaning back in the sun and saying, “OLIO!” as he poured some extra virgin onto the plate. And he kept acting until his late 90’s, still stealing scenes in romantic comedies like The Holiday and big-budgeted shows like the sequel to Wall Street.
And I still remember his lines in each of those.
“It’s gonna be the end of the world, Bill,” he says in Wall Street, before doing a weird whistle thing with his hand. “ZZZZ-ZZ. ZZZZ-ZZ.”
In The Holiday, Wallach basically plays another version of himself, an introverted but friendly old guy from the golden days of Hollywood, who at the end gives a speech to his modern day peers after he was recognized with a lifetime achievement award. The whole part’s a conscious – and well-written – play on Wallach’s own past, obviously, as a guy who lived and worked during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and came out the other side, still intact and still able to do his job better than almost anyone else 50 years later.
In 2010, Wallach then got to do the thing for real – himself – when the received a lifetime achievement Oscar in Los Angeles.
“As an actor, I’ve played more bandits, thieves, killers, warlords, molesters, and mafioso than you could shake a stick at,” he said. “I’m coming.
“As a civilian, I collect antique clocks, tell endless stories of my days as a medic in World War II. Watch every tennis match, live for my family… take pictures of faces in the bark of trees.”
Wallach was funny. Those opening lines should tell you that. And then he continued his speech, talking about how he has received mail from nearly every kind of person he could think of, from random Englishmen looking for help or advice to Pope Benedict, who told Wallach his favourite film was The Magnificent Seven.
“I didn’t realize I had friends in such high places. I didn’t even know I was joining the Academy, for Christ’s sake. On a more serious note, I’m deeply moved by this honour. Your recognition of my artistry makes something very dear to me.
“I don’t act to live. I live to act.”
He then told a joke about a hooker and a 90-year-old man, and the joke ends with the punchline, “All right, I’ll take the soup.”
Eli Wallach passed away at the age of 98 last night, on June 24, 2014. RIP.