Actor Eli Wallach dies at 98

Hollywood star and early practitioner of 'method' acting enjoyed a career spanning six decades

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 12:44am

Eli Wallach, an early practitioner of method acting who made a lasting impression as the scuzzy bandit Tuco in
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has died. He was 98.

Wallach's career as an actor spanned six decades.

He made his Broadway debut in 1945 and in his 90s was still acting in movies, including
The Holiday (2006) and
The Ghost Writer (2010).

"It's what I wanted to do all my life," Wallach said of his work in 2010, the year in which he received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement as an actor.

Having grown up the son of Polish Jewish immigrants in an Italian-dominated neighbourhood in New York, Wallach might have seemed an unlikely cowboy, but some of his best work was in westerns.

Many critics thought his definitive role was Calvera, the flamboyant, sinister bandit chief in
The Magnificent Seven. Others preferred him in
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as Tuco, who was "the ugly", opposite Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western.

Years later, Wallach said that strangers would recognise him and start whistling the distinctive theme from the film. After seeing the finished version of
The Magnificent Seven, Wallach wished he could have heard the music that was added after the film was shot. "I would have ridden the horse differently," he declared.

After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1932, he attended the University of Texas. Adapting to Texas, Wallach sported a silver belt buckle and groomed polo ponies, experience that proved so useful to his film career. He joined a university drama club and was in a play with Walter Cronkite, a fellow student who later became a household name as CBS News anchor.

After graduating, he studied acting at the Neighbourhood Playhouse Actors Studio before the second world war broke out.

After serving as an army hospital administrator during the war, he found work on the New York stage and took classes at the Actor's Studio, which used method acting in which actors draw on personal memories and emotions to flesh out a role.

In his memoir,
The Good, the Bad and Me: In My Anecdotage, he recalled the "evangelical" fervour he shared with the other "method" actors. "We must have seemed rather smug and difficult at the time," he wrote.

He appeared in
This Property Is Condemned and ended up marrying the show's leading lady, Anne Jackson - a marriage that also led to several stage and screen collaborations. They starred in a Broadway revival of
The Flowering Peach in 1994, almost 50 years after they met for the Tennessee Williams play.

Five years after his Tony-winning role in another Williams play,
The Rose Tattoo (1951), he made a splashy arrival in Hollywood.

He was cast as a Sicilian cotton-gin owner in
Baby Doll (1956). Wallach's portrayal earned him the British Academy of Film & Television Arts award as "most promising newcomer".

"I found it difficult to escape the lure of fame that film offered," he said. Over the years, the money proved equally irresistible.

Despite the notable movies, Wallach said it was his portrayal of the villain Mr Freeze on the
Batman television show of the 1960s that generated the most fan mail.

He and his wife lived in New York and had three children.

Reuters, Bloomberg