Eli Wallach: the gun beneath the bubbles

Republished to mark Eli Wallach’s death, this interview from 2005 celebrates a veteran performer who often played the heavy against starrier names. His signature role is one of the great western rogues: Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

John Exshaw
Updated:

From our January 2006 issue

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Stepping out of the elevator I find a short corridor with two identical doors at either end. I look left and right; neither is numbered. I continue to look one way then the other, like an idiot at a street crossing. A line spoken by Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly flashes through my mind: “There are two kinds of spurs, my friend. Those that come in by the door, those that come in by the window.” Not very helpful: there aren’t any windows and I’m not wearing spurs… This deranged line of thought is interrupted when the door on the left opens to reveal Wallach himself – Broadway legend, Hollywood character star and Brooklyn’s greatest gift to the Western. We shake hands and he welcomes me in, grinning as if at some shared joke.

This is not our first meeting. In May, at New York’s National Arts Club, I had watched as Wallach, together with his wife of 57 years and frequent co-star Anne Jackson, performed readings of two early one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. In the second – Me, Vashya! (1937) – Wallach played Vashya Shontine, a European arms manufacturer who has been selling munitions to both sides in an ongoing war. Though Me, Vashya! turned out to be poor-man’s Chekhov, it was nonetheless vintage Wallach. Cunning, wheedling, threatening, bombastic and vicious by turn, the actor was in his element, his sly, peasant’s eyes darting about, his right hand clenched, index finger jabbing upwards in a gesture that immediately recalled his gallery of great movie villains: Silva Vacarro, the oily seducer in Baby Doll (1956); Calvera, the rapacious bandit in The Magnificent Seven (1960); and, most memorably, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (“known as the Rat”) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Afterwards he signed copies of his newly published autobiography The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage for an orderly queue of theatre aficionados, each of whom seemed eager to share a special memory of his distinguished Broadway career.

Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll (1956)

This afternoon, in his spacious Riverside Drive apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, he begins by reminiscing about the time he spent in London in 1954 when The Teahouse of the August Moon transferred from Broadway to Her Majesty’s Theatre, with RADA students Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole earning £1 a night as stagehands. Wallach is smaller than I’d expected, maybe 5’6”, and looks fit and compact in a blue shirt and dark slacks, a slightly jerky gait the only evidence of two hip replacements. His white hair is cropped short and his close-cut moustache and goatee give him the air of a well-preserved Spanish don, an appropriate look for an actor whose best-known roles have been Mexican bandits or sinister Italians (think of the doddering but deadly Mafia boss Don Altobello in 1990’s The Godfather Part III), despite his real-life Polish-Jewish background. Or perhaps because of it? The Union Street area of Brooklyn where he grew up was predominantly Italian and he can remember as a child being terrified by a bloodthirsty puppet show, the pupi siciliani that would later influence Sergio Leone’s development of the picaresque Tuco.

Wallach worked as a Broadway actor for a decade before making his movie debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), a film constructed from two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. (The playwright has figured prominently in Wallach’s life: it was during a production of This Property Is Condemned in 1946 that he met Jackson; in 1951 he won a Tony Award for his role in The Rose Tattoo; and he and Jackson continue to stage their show Tennessee Williams Remembered.) Baby Doll, with its hothouse plot of two older men fighting for the attentions of Carroll Baker’s titular nymphet, brought Wallach his only major film-acting award in a career encompassing some 50 feature films. “After Baby Doll I won the British Academy Award for the best entrée into film,” he says. “In America it was condemned by the Church, and Time magazine said it was probably the most pornographic movie ever made, filled with Priapean details that would make even Boccaccio blush. But the British film industry recognised the performance.”

A good actor steals

Wallach’s striking debut came courtesy of ‘the Method’, an acting technique distilled from the psychology-based teaching of Konstantin Stanislavsky which encourages actors to use “emotional memory” to bring their personal experiences to a role. In 1947 Wallach and Jackson had become charter members of the Actors Studio, the famed rehearsal group co-founded by Kazan which embraced the Method with missionary zeal. Among their fellow members were Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Patricia Neal, with later disciples including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Montgomery Clift, Jack Palance and Rod Steiger. Wallach himself remains closely identified with both the Actors Studio (which he describes as “a gym for actors to work out in”) and the Method, which makes his opening remarks on the subject surprising.

The Lineup (1958)

The Lineup (1958)

“There is no ‘the Method’,” he growls, index finger thrusting upwards. “Everyone says, ‘the Method’ – it’s like mumbo-jumbo. Each teacher or director develops their own method.” Having already encountered Stanislavsky’s theories during his studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Lee Strasberg (who would become artistic director of the Actors Studio in 1949), Wallach soon realised that Kazan and his colleagues were putting their own spin on what ‘the Method’ should be. “I wasn’t convinced that this Method knew the answer to it all. A good actor steals. I take from what’s given, the rules of the game, and I sift it through my machine. I take what I need and what I think I can use.”

I ask if the technique, combined with his family background, were of help when he made Romance of a Horse Thief (1971), the only film I can think of in which he plays a Polish-Jewish character. “No,” he says after a pause. “I played a horse thief. I didn’t think in terms of playing a Pole.” He then goes on to describe The Wall (1982), about “the uprising of the Poles in Warsaw, which we shot near Krakow, near Auschwitz. There I had the experience of thinking what would have happened. My father’s and mother’s families were wiped out. It’s a part of history that you think could never have happened, and yet it’s repeatedly done. To quote Yip Harburg, who wrote Finian’s Rainbow: ‘We learn this after every war/That life is not worth dying for.’”

Wallach has frequently been cast as a spokesman for the Method, on one occasion participating in a ‘Method versus Classical Acting’ debate in London organised by Kenneth Tynan in which Wallach and Kim Stanley were pitted against Rex Harrison, Wendy Hiller and Robert Morley. “We were insufferable,” he recalls. “We had found the key to great acting and we were a pain in the ass.” After the debate a furious Rex Harrison rounded on Tynan, accusing him of trying to destroy the British acting system, while Wallach was taken aside by Harrison’s wife Kay Kendall, who said: “Eli, don’t mind Rex. We English are so square we have to smuggle our tits past customs.” Wallach throws up his hands, still delighted by the memory. “What a sentence! What a thought!”

Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach, John Huston, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift on location for The Misfits (1961)

Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach, John Huston, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift on location for The Misfits (1961)

The most famous proponent of the Method was, of course, Marlon Brando, for whom Wallach acted as both rent collector – when Jackson sublet her apartment to him – and sparring partner at the Actors Studio. He was also to encourage Marilyn Monroe to attend the Studio and she soon became a family friend and occasional babysitter. Wallach first met her during the New York run of The Teahouse of the August Moon, when she visited his dressing-room and asked, “How do you do a whole play?” She was subsequently his co-star in John Huston’s troubled production of The Misfits (1961) alongside Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. The film was an adaptation by Monroe’s then-husband Arthur Miller of one of his own short stories, but by the time of filming in 1960 the marriage was in crisis. As Wallach recalls, “What was happening in that movie was the undercurrent of what was happening in real life. Her marriage was dissolving. She felt that the cameras were like X-ray machines, and they’d go right through her eyes into her brain so they’d know what she was thinking. It made it terribly difficult.”

Monroe’s problems increased as filming progressed: her reliance on sedatives resulted in her forgetting her lines, turning up late on set and causing production to be halted. The arrival of Montgomery Clift, himself reliant on painkillers and suffering from depression after being disfigured in a car crash in 1957, briefly lifted Monroe’s spirits – she described Clift to Wallach as “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than me” – but the effect was short-lived. Wallach, who was committed to begin a play in New York and had become friendly with the beleaguered Miller, got increasingly irritated and by the time production ended (at a cost of $4 million, making it the most expensive black-and-white film since the silent era) he and Monroe were no longer speaking.

Sweaty and in character

He has happier memories of working with Clark Gable, whose character in The Misfits competes with Wallach’s Guido for the affections of Monroe’s Roslyn. “The first day I worked with Clark he had sent his assistant to come and talk to me, to read the scene we were going to do. Evidently he’d heard about this Method, and these strange black-haired guys from Brooklyn who were doing it. So on the first day of shooting I’m in my truck, he leans over the window, and John Huston says ‘Action!’ And Clark is looking at me, thinking ‘Who the hell is this guy with his Method?’ And I’m looking at him, thinking ‘This is the King of the Movies! I hope he doesn’t know I haven’t seen Gone with the Wind.’ Both of us are mesmerised, like animals checking one another out. And Huston said, ‘Cut! What’s the matter? I said action!’ Then, ‘Props, bring on the drinks.’ We each had a shot of Jack Daniels and then we went into the scene and for the rest of the movie we bonded.”

The Misfits (1961)

The Misfits (1961)

New York actors are not usually noted for their contributions to the Western. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart provoked universal mirth when asked to saddle up for The Oklahoma Kid (1939) and Bogart compounded the error with a distinctly embarrassed turn as a Mexican heavy in Virginia City the following year. Certainly most stage actors of Wallach’s calibre would have rejected out of hand the role of a Mexican bandit who appears mainly in the first and final scenes of a big-budget Hollywood Western, and indeed that was Wallach’s initial reaction on reading the part of Calvera, the flamboyant predator he played with such relish in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. Yet Wallach could see that the role was short on screen time but long on impact; throughout the film, the audience keeps wondering, ‘When’s he coming back?’

Wallach had certain advantages over Cagney and Bogart when it came to riding the range. A photograph of him aged eight shows him seated on a pony pretending to be William S. Hart or Tom Mix, the leading cowboys of the silent era. After completing high school in 1932 he was dispatched to the University of Texas at Austin, where he learned to chew tobacco and ride polo ponies and wrote Western sketches when he worked as a summer-camp counsellor. Once cast, he proceeded to bring the Method to bear on the role: what, he wondered, would a bandido jefe do with his ill-gotten gains? Conspicuous consumption seemed the likely answer, and so Calvera was fitted out with silk shirts, gold teeth and a silver saddle. Every morning of the shoot Wallach led his gang of 35 muchachos on long rides through the Mexican countryside, arriving on set sweaty and in character to menace the hapless peóns with lines like, “If God did not want them sheared, He would not have made them sheep.” His only regret is that he didn’t hear Elmer Bernstein’s score before playing Calvera: “Otherwise I would have ridden my horse with more authority.”

A great clown

A one-armed gunslinger bursts through a door and begins to gloat over a grime-streaked figure in a bath. Four bullets erupt from the bubbly water. Tuco Ramirez stands up, covered in suds, and dispatches the gunslinger with a final shot. Wagging his pistol reprovingly, he says: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk!”

It’s a line Eli Wallach has had to say only twice – once on set in 1966 and once in the dubbing studio a year later – but he’s had it quoted back to him a thousand times by fans of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach had assumed it was his performance as Calvera that had caught the attention of director Sergio Leone; in fact it was a moment in Henry Hathaway’s 1963 film How the West Was Won. As Charley Gant, Wallach mimes the shooting of George Peppard and his two children before exiting cackling. Leone recalled: “People said to me, ‘Keep away from him – he comes from the Actors Studio,’ but I knew he would be a great clown.”

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

In a Hollywood Western Tuco would have been a villain of the darkest hue, his list of transgressions enough to make even Calvera blanch, but in Leone’s vision and Wallach’s playing there’s something heroic and moving in his raging against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Leone encouraged Wallach to develop the role: Tuco’s frantic crossing of himself was an exaggerated version of a gesture Wallach had seen among Italians back in Union Street, while the lines – ”You are the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you! And your mother it is better not to talk of her!” – were often ad-libbed. Wallach particularly enjoyed the scene where Tuco bursts into a store and begins to assemble a gun to his own specifications: “Leone said, ‘Well, go in and put the gun together,’ and I didn’t know how. But he left the camera on and let me toy with it and imagine what it would be like.” When it came to the bathroom scene, Wallach recalls, “I said to Leone, ‘I’m in the bathtub, in the nude, and this man is going to shoot me and I shoot him. Isn’t the water going to get in the gun?’ He says, ‘Eli, it’s only a movie. Shoot him.’”

At one point in the film Tuco says to Clint Eastwood’s character Joe, “Blondie, you realise we might be risking our lives?” And indeed Wallach remains grateful to Eastwood for warning him, “Don’t be daring. Don’t be brave with stunts.” For instance, it was at Eastwood’s insistence that he and Wallach moved to a position of greater safety during the set-piece dynamiting of Langstone Bridge; after it was blown up they realised that their initial position, chosen by Leone, was deluged with falling rocks and debris.

The Godfather Part III (1990)

The Godfather Part III (1990)

Wallach seems both surprised and pleased by Tuco’s lasting impact: “Even today I sometimes park in a garage where every time I approach the owner whistles the music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and then offers me a special price. I don’t get residuals for Italian movies, but this man who runs that garage gives me a break!”

Unlike Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson, who all became major stars as a result of their collaboration with Leone, Wallach peaked as a film actor with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. When I ask him if he regrets that Tuco didn’t lead to bigger things, he replies: “No, I never thought of it in those terms. I used to go into agents’ offices and they’d have pictures of these handsome movie men and I knew I’d never be up there. I’m a journeyman actor. I didn’t think about stardom.” So Wallach returned to the stage and television, occasionally enlivening otherwise dire Hollywood films with sharply etched character studies.

As the end of our two-hour session approaches, the 90-year-old actor seems as full of energy as he was at the beginning. Looking back on his long career, he says: “See how lucky I am? As a little boy I used to see these movies where the villain would always heat the sword and he was going to puncture the hero. And here I am in Cambodia [for Lord Jim, 1964], in Angkor Wat, heating a sword and I’m going to puncture Peter O’Toole. I mean, how can you have a better life?”

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