“If you’re gonna shoot – shoot. Don’t talk”
Remembering Eli Wallach
On my dining room table is a letter that will never be mailed. I wrote it late Saturday night —four days ago as I write this — and planned take it to the Post Office on Monday. I didn’t make the Post Office on Monday and, on Tuesday the addressee passed away.
Now the odds are that the mailman would not have beaten the reaper to his Riverside Drive door, but I am sad that I did not have one final opportunity to tell Eli Wallach how much his work is cherished by me and countless other fans of film, stage and ultra-fine acting.
The unmailed letter was prompted by a photo I just saw of Eli and Clint Eastwood at the Museum of Tolerance Award ceremony back in 2010. The image is of two grizzled, old pros clearly enjoying the get together and the caption that immediately came to mind was the “The Good, The Bad and the Elderly.”
Eli Wallach was 98 years old when he passed last night. I was first introduced to him by my father who was an early and ardent fan of great acting and hence, Eli’s work. No matter who the top line star of a picture might have been, my Dad would say, “Eli Wallach has a new movie out,” and off to the movies we went…a guys night out sometimes accompanied by my Uncle Abe and cousin Harvey. My Dad’s rationale was simple and as it turns out, quite correct: “If Eli Wallach is in it, then it’s worth the price of admission.”
Self-Captioned: Eli Wallach as Calvera, in the classic
western “The Magnificent 7” (1960)
So it was that we watched “The Magnificent Seven” on TV back when I was in short pants and so it remained when we went to see that other iconic portrayal of a Mexican bandito by a Brooklyn Jew…”The Good The Bad and The Ugly.” It was as fine an acting performance as one will see and it was largely dismissed because the film was only a “Spaghetti Western.”
I say again… It was as fine an acting performance as one will see; at once daring and nuanced, subtle and over-the-top and always spot-on and in character. There is nary a false breath taken in Eli Wallach’s portrayal of Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez…”alias the Rat,” as Clint Eastwood’s character tells us. And that rat characterization truly fits, as Eli’s beady eyes and rodent like teeth reveal moments of barely pent up avarice, anticipation and lust, followed by frustration, fear, unbridled anger and a string of epithets so vile and insulting that we can best recall them here with his rhetorical catch phrase:
“Blon-deeeeee…you know what you are…”
I only met Eli Wallach once and that was in the very early 1980s at a pro-celebrity tennis match to benefit some no doubt worthy but now forgotten (by me at least) charity.
I recounted the scene at the tennis match to him in a letter I sent back in December 2008. “After all the roles I had seen you in, I confess that seeing a tanned Eli Wallach in tennis whites seemed oddly out of context. I shook your hand, told you I was a big fan and asked if you ever considered playing a Mexican. You laughed as if it was the first time anyone had ever said something like that to you…”
That 2008 letter to Eli went on for three typed pages, as I could not miss the opportunity to offer another standing ovation from a grateful fan. I recalled his performance in “Baby Doll,” and “The Misfits,” and of course, Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” and Tuco in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”
So many other roles could have been and could still be recited, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally figured out in 2010, when they gave him a life achievement Oscar for his brilliant body of work.
About a month after I sent my letter I received a handwritten reply from Eli. In it he first acknowledged my father’s influence and for his “his love of westerns and his comments about my work in them—I even enjoyed his repeating my line from the good, bad ugly…’if you’re gonna shoot – shoot – don’t talk.’”
Eli’s “salute” to my Dad in his return letter to me evoked a broad smile from Dad, as if he had co-written the original letter, which in a real sense he did.
He concluded telling me. “I have a collection of letters from people that I keep—Your letter goes in there—I’m very happy with what you’ve written. Best wishes –Eli. Into the hand-addressed envelope he placed a color 4×6 photo of himself as “Tuco,” inscribed to me.
There are some well-meaning clichés people use when praising an actor (of either gender). “An actor’s actor” means of course that it takes one to know a really great one. The other is to say that one is a “character actor” which clearly all actors should be. Still it is used most often to describe an exceptional performer who is not considered “a leading actor.”
Language is funny that way.
Eli Wallach was certainly among our leading actors and an extraordinary talent. If he were an English actor Eli Wallach would no doubt be a “Sir” or even a “Lord” as Olivier was. They were certainly peers.
But Eli Wallach was an American actor, a character actor, an actor’s actor, a director’s actor, a writer’s actor and most importantly, an audience’s actor. His directors span a hefty history of cinema including Kazan and Sturges, Huston and Coppola and yes, Leone. His lines have been scripted by the likes of Eugene Ionesco, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Murray Schisgal… along with Shaw and Shakespeare and so many others.
The Misfits (1961) L-R: The film’s author/screenwriter (and Marilyn’s husband) Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach, Director John Huston, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe
On stage or on screen, Eli Wallach’s presence is always strongly felt. He was never over-shadowed but never intrusive either. His power and perception as an actor were always in the fore, whether he was playing across from Maureen Stapleton, or Anne Jackson (his wife of 66 years), or co-stars such as Carroll Baker and Karl Malden; Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe; Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef; Al Pacino and Talia Shire or that “magnificent” assemblage of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buckholz and Brad Dexter.
Eli Wallach and Marilyn Monroe on the set of “The Misfits” (1961).
In the six years between my first correspondence with Eli Wallach and the letter that lies unsent on my dining room table, much has happened. My Dad passed away in 2012 (three weeks shy of his 92nd birthday), but he lived to see Eli take a bow for that lifetime Oscar.
I had some other words to share with Eli and alas, I waited too long and missed my opportunity for one final kudo. (Note to self re procrastination: “If you’re gonna shoot – shoot. Don’t talk”). I hope he would have liked this last letter too and perhaps even added it to that file of saved fan mail.
Eli Wallach was 98 years old when he died yesterday, and gone too soon from the world stage. I can only imagine the magnitude of loss that his wife, family and close friends are feeling at this very moment. My condolences – heartfelt but inadequate – are sent their way.
I’m guessing that the Broadway Theater marquis will dim tonight as they traditionally do at the passing of a giant of the craft. As for me, I will celebrate his career with a tribute of my own tonight: a mini-Eli Wallach film festival . And I will raise a glass to his memory. A good single malt I think. My Dad would approve.
Rest in Peace Eli.
December 7, 1915 – June 24, 2014