One of Hollywood’s finest character / “Method” actors, he was in demand for over 60 years on stage and screen.
Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man
The Poppy Is Also a Flower
How to Steal a Million
The Tiger Makes Out
How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life
A Lovely Way to Die
The Adventures of Gerard
The Angel Levine
The People Next Door
Romance of a Horsethief
Long Live Your Death
Shoot First… Ask Questions Later
L’chaim: To Life
Eye of the Cat
Plot of Fear
The Domino Principle
Circle of Iron
The Two Jakes
The Godfather Part III
Night and the City
Honey Sweet Love…
Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey
Keeping the Faith
Monday Night Mayhem
Advice and Dissent
King of the Corner
A Taste of Jupiter
The Easter Egg Adventure
Pola Negri: Life is a Dream in Cinema
Liszt For President
The Toe Tactic
New York, I Love You
The Ghost Writer
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Eli Wallach was never nominated for a competitive Academy Award. In 2010 he received the AMPAS Governors Awards: Given ‘For a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters’.
I’ve learned that life is very tricky business: Each person needs to find what they want to do in life and not be dissuaded when people question them. ~ Eli Wallach
Eli Wallach was born Eli Herschel Wallach on December 7, 1915 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a son of Jewish immigrants Abraham and Bertha (Schorr) Wallach, both from Poland. He had a brother and two sisters. Wallach graduated in 1936 from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in history. While at the university, he performed in a play with fellow students Ann Sheridan and Walter Cronkite.
Two years later he received a master of arts degree in education from the City College of New York. He gained his first method acting experience at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, where he studied under Sanford Meisner.
Wallach’s education was cut short when he was drafted into the United States Army in January 1941. He served as staff sergeant in a military hospital in Hawaii and later sent to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Abilene, Texas to train as a medical administrative officer. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he was ordered to Casablanca. Later, when he was serving in France, a senior officer noticed his acting career and asked him to create a show for the patients. He and his unit wrote a play called Is This the Army?, which was inspired by Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army. In the comedy, Wallach and the other actors mocked Axis dictators, with Wallach portraying Adolf Hitler.
Wallach took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator. He later became a founding member of the Actors Studio, taught by Lee Strasberg. There, he studied more method acting technique with founding member Robert Lewis, and with other students including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Herbert Berghof, Sidney Lumet, and his soon-to-be wife, Anne Jackson. Wallach became Marilyn Monroe’s first new friend when she became a student at the Actors Studio.
In 1945 Wallach made his Broadway debut and he won a Tony Award in 1951 for his performance alongside Maureen Stapleton in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo.
The stage was where Wallach focused his early career. From 1945 to 1950 he and his wife, Anne Jackson, worked together acting in various plays by Tennessee Williams. The five years following, he continued only working on stage, not becoming involved in film work until 1956. During those years, however, they were generally having a hard time making ends meet. He recalls they were getting along on unemployment insurance and living in a one-room, $35 a month apartment on lower Fifth Avenue in the Village
Wallach’s film debut was in Elia Kazan’s controversial 1956 Baby Doll, for which he won the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) as “Most Promising Newcomer.” Baby Doll was controversial because of its underlying sexual theme. Director Elia Kazan however, set explicit limits on Wallach’s scenes, telling him not to actually seduce Carroll Baker, but instead to create an unfulfilled erotic tension.
In 1961, Wallach co-starred with Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable in The Misfits, Monroe’s and Gable’s last film before their deaths. Wallach never learned why he was cast in the film, although he suspected that Monroe had something to do with it.
Some of his other films included The Lineup (1958), Lord Jim (1965) with Peter O’Toole, a comic role in How to Steal a Million (1966), again with O’Toole, and Audrey Hepburn, and as Tuco (the ‘Ugly’) in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) with Clint Eastwood, followed by other Spaghetti Westerns, such as Ace High. At one point, Henry Fonda had asked Wallach whether he himself should accept a part offered to him to act in a similar Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which would also be directed by Leone.
During the filming of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Wallach nearly died three times. Once, he accidentally drank a bottle of acid which was placed next to his pop bottle; another time was in a scene where he was about to be hanged, someone fired a pistol which caused the horse underneath him to bolt and run a mile while Wallach’s hands were still tied behind his back; in a different scene with him lying on a railroad track, he was close to being decapitated by steps jutting out from the train.
Wallach appeared as DC Comics’ supervillain Mr. Freeze in the 1960s Batman television series. He said that he received more fan mail about his role as Mr. Freeze than about all of his other roles combined. He played Gus Farber in the television miniseries Seventh Avenue in 1977, and 10 years later, at the age of 71, he starred alongside Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven episode ” A Father’s Faith”. Three years later he played aging mob boss Don Altobello in the third episode of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.
On November 13, 2010, at the age of 94, Wallach received an Academy Honorary Award for his contribution to the film industry from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A few years prior to that event, Kate Winslet told another audience that Wallach, with whom she acted in The Holiday in 2006, was one of the “most charismatic men” she’d met, and her “very own sexiest man alive.”
Wallach’s final performance was in the short film The Train (2015). Wallach plays a holocaust survivor, who in a meeting teaches a self-consumed and preoccupied young man that life can change in a moment. The short was shot in early 2014 and premiered on August 6, 2015 at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Eli Wallach was married to stage actress Anne Jackson (1925–2016) for 66 years from March 5, 1948, until his death. They had three children: Peter (born 1951), Roberta (born 1955), and Katherine (born 1958).
Wallach died on June 24, 2014 of natural causes at the age of 98. He was survived by his wife of 66 years, three children, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild. His body was cremated.