Eli Wallach was first and foremost a theatre brat. In fact, that’s most certainly what he was all his life. Such was his love of the craft of acting that he tried to fill as much of his time with it as possible. This led him to being part of all kinds of projects, being friends with all kinds of people. These credentials show themselves very well with his first foray into film acting, the big screen adaptation of Baby Doll, written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan. Here, Wallach instantly struck fire as Vacarro, business rival to Karl Malden’s bigoted Archie Lee, and earned a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer in the process. And Wallach went on to fill that promise with gusto over a long career.
Arguably his two most high profile films came in the form of Westerns. The first was playing vicious bandit Calvera in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven in 1960, opposite the likes of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and James Coburn. The second film was the third of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, opposite Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. In that film, Wallach’s Tuco is a hell of a character: a vulgar, big-mouthed bandit who knows when to talk and when to shoot. It’s a film that has so damn much to offer, and began a friendship between Wallach and Eastwood that would last them the rest of their lives (personally, my heart leapt when he briefly showed up in Eastwood’s 2003 drama Mystic River). Wallach would also make a damn fine turn as Don Altobello in The Godfather Part III, a film that has more quality in it than is generally regarded as having.
It’s a shame to lose Eli Wallach, but his was a life and career that should be envied by all. As much as he played a villain in the movies (and a damn good one, too), there’s always something to him that meant we couldn’t entirely stay mad at him. That wry smile of his just wouldn’t let you.