Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This Character Actor Got The Girl - Eli Wallach

"...the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role."
-From The Academy of Motion Picture Arts when he won the Governors' Award in 2010

The first two times I spoke to Eli Wallach were on the phone.

In the 1980s, I had written a screenplay and wanted to attach him for one of the parts. Actors' Equity had a membership department that had contact numbers for its members. Usually, it was a manager or agent. I assumed that would be the case with film legend Eli Wallach.


Hmm, I know that voice.

"Yes, I'm calling about Eli Wallach."

"That's me. What can I do for you?"

I hadn't prepared for this. After stumbling a little, I said. "I'm sorry. I got this number from Actors' Equity. I didn't mean to bother you at home. I thought....."

"Good. They got the right number. What did you want to know?"

"Well, actually, I was calling about a part in a movie."

"That's great. Tell me a little about it."

I proceeded, in bumbling fashion, to pitch the role to Eli Wallach over the phone. It had never occurred to me that I would actually be talking with him on this call, so I'm not sure how impressive the pitch was. At the end, he said it sounded interesting, and to call his agent about the details.

"Oh," I said. "Yes. Sure. I meant to call your agent to begin with."

That's all right," he said. "I like to always talk to people about the role first, see what it's about. You tell him I said it was okay."

We never did get the funding for that film, so the negotiations didn't get too far. However, years later, when I was line producer on Man of The Century, there was another call. Sorry, but this time re-telling a story I told before>

Anne Jackson, Eli's long-time wife and partner, was in our film, She was getting on in years, and we wanted her to be as comfortable as possible. Most (if not all) of her scenes were at a mansion out on Long Island, with a large spiral staircase. Anne had recently been ill, and, unfortunately, every time we had to do another take, it meant Anne going up and down that staircase in a long period dress from the Turn of the 20th (not 21st) Century.

Worse still was our luck in getting her there. Our regular cast vans had no problem getting there, but we wanted private transport for Anne. This was before everyone had a cell phone and there was no GPS in cars. Still, we carefully mapped out the route, faxed it to a private car service that came highly recommended, and arranged for them to pick her up.

The first day, they got lost with her. Got her to set very late and a little shaken.

After a similar bit of bad experience with another car service - they were late picking her up - we sent our 2nd AD - a very reliable guy - to pick her up personally in one of the 7-pass vans.

He got there on time. Knew the route. Got a flat.

It was somewhere around that time that my production coordinator got a call. She looked a little concerned as she handed me the phone without telling me who it was.

"Are you JB?"


"You're the guy who is in charge?"

That's always a debatable point, but since I had been handed the phone, assumed it was true in this case.

"Yes. Can I help you?"

"What are you trying to do? Kill my wife?"

In what was, admittedly, an odd reaction, I was at first impressed with talking to this acting legend (I wasn't thinking about the first call more than ten years earlier), and only a little later into the conversation did I delve into assuring him that we were doing everything we could to insure his wife's safety and that things would, definitely, get better."

Eli Wallach died yesterday at the age of 98.

I had not planned on a mid-week post, but I wanted to add personal notes here. I will refer you to the NY Times for a full and wonderful obituary that details this versatile actor's expansive career. 

It is a little ironic that only days ago I put up a post about Walter Brennan, another character actor, though I don't think of both of them the same way. Brennan was one of those wonderfully quirky character actors from the Studio days, who mostly developed their trade on their own or learning from fellow bit players.

Wallach, on the other hand, was from that generation of actors who came out of the Neighborhood Playhouse and later, Actors' Studio, where he was a founding member along with Lee Stasberg. Like Brando, they were that early generation of Method actors that Hollywood quickly realized could bring a level of risk and realism to the screen that it had not seen before.

In many studio films, they were used as to play different - see "ethnic" - characters, and in many cases, that meant a mustache. It may seem silly now, but they were still dealing with Hollywood conventions. 

The one that most people know, of course, is the Mexican bandit Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, and later Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, mustached both. 

Then, there were the Italians, Guido in The Misfits and Silva in Baby Doll. Although he did not get the girl in either of those, he got to take his shot at bombshells Carroll Baker and Marilyn Monroe. Watch the subtle way he goes from sympathetic to cold as ice in one scene, and holds his own in a scene with one of the hottest actresses of her time.

Later, there would, of course, be other Italians and Mafioso, as well as Jewish characters. Given his age, many of the latter were Holocoust survivors, or later, little Jewish New Yorkers, which he was.

In between, there was, well, every imaginable role in between. Like many actors, he did movies and television to pay the bills, and theater because he loved it, often with his lovely wife Anne. In 2000, friend and comedienne Anne Meara wrote a play they did together about two retired comedians, "Down the Garden Path."

He did many episodes of a personal favorite of mine, the anthology series on early television like Playhouse 90. He plays an aide to Russian dictator Stalin here.

There is one similarity to Brennan. Because he lived up until 98, to many, especially younger viewers, he was always old. That's why I chose a picture at the top of the post that showed him when he was young.

The quote from Brennan, oft referred to by other character actors as well, was that they never get the girl. While that might have often been true on screen, he did get the girl he really wanted, his adoring wife Anne. Here, again, I offer this cool  and funny tribute she offered to him in 2010. (Yes, I have used before as well - but then to show Anne - good enough to share again)

My heart goes out to Anne now. I used to see them often at West Bank Cafe on Theater Row, and when Anne once called me over to their table, Eli had fun sharing with his dinner guests the adventures Anne went through on our film. I wanted to  dig a hole and hide, but that impish smile said that it was all in jest - maybe.


Michael Taylor said...

Great stories about a great guy and one hell of an actor. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him at some point, but that was not to be. An entire generation of Great Ones is slipping away...

JB Bruno said...


What you said about losing a generation of Great Ones is true,
and we are not just losing their mortal presence, but even sadder, their memory. Too many of the young filmmakers I meet don't know these hugely influential actors, which is why any chance I get to tell a little about these folks, I try to do so, hoping that maybe they will look up a movie or two.

Kangas said...

It's funny, I still associate him most strongly with Tough Guys, as that's the first time I saw his name and associated the face with him. (when I saw his other films I was too young to even care about anybody other than Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson or Steve McQueen)

Later on got more acquainted, but Tough Guys is the one I sort of associate with him first in my mind.