Rest In Peace Eli Wallach
Hey, guys. Quint here with a little something to mark the passing of Mr. Eli Wallach. I'm no expert on Wallach's career. Sometimes with actors you love you'll find yourself digging through every single movie they appear in and while I did love Eli Wallach's work I never did that.
That makes writing an obituary a bit tough. I feel like a phony trying to take on an air of authority when talking about a career as vast as Wallach's. Obituaries are rough anyway because even if you know the career of the deceased inside and out there's also the weight of doing right by their work in some small way. We caught a lot of flak from many international readers for not memorializing Rik Mayall and I understand the frustration, but being an ignorant American I knew him almost solely from Drop Dead Fred, so I shied away from writing about his passing. I respected the impact he had on many people, but I wouldn't have done a tiny bit of justice to his passing.
When it comes to Mr. Wallach, I was first introduced to his onscreen persona like almost everyone reading this. My stepdad's favorite movie was The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, so I not only watched that movie a few hundred times growing up, I also had to endure my stepdad's neverending quoting of the film. I've known the character of Tuco almost as long as I have actual formed memories.
Wallach will go down in cinema history for that performance and that's great because it's a perfect example of what he brought to the movies. He was so invested, so full of energy, so likeable in his dickishness that you couldn't help but to root for him. Wallach always, always, always brought his A Game. Every single time you see him on screen you believe he's having the best time of his life. Every new day seemed to be joyous for him.
Back almost 10 years ago I had the great fortune of seeing a screening of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at the Alamo Drafthouse with Eli Wallach in attendance. He was selling his (very good) autobiography THE GOOD, THE BAD and ME and did a signing before the screening. The Q&A was joyful to watch. Wallach was on fire telling stories about Leone with such detail and humor that you'd think they had just shot the movie. His memory then was better than mine now!
I remember he told a story about how Leone really wanted Tuco to not have a traditional gunslinger's belt, but rather have his gun tied to a rope around his neck. It's more in Tuco's character... it's poor, but efficient. Blondie is all about being cool, Angel Eyes is all about intimidation and Tuco's the scrappy guy that gets things done.
So, Sergio told Eli that he wanted Tuco to be able to pull his gun into his hand by shrugging his body a certain way and using the force of motion to swing the gun on the string, like a pendulum, up into his hand. Wallach tried it and on the first attempt the shoulder shrugged, the gun swung up and he missed the grab. That by itself isn't problematic. What was is that the heavy gun swung back down smacking him square in the balls.
Apparently this happened every time and Wallach said you've never seen anyone more tickled with delight every single time it happened all throughout shooting than Sergio Leone.
Tuco is Wallach's most famous role, but he's not just that guy from GBU. The man has worked in hundreds of films and TV shows. The farthest back I can go with a personal recommendation is Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), a knockout film based on a Tennessee Williams story starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and young Mr. Wallach, who is the real standout of the movie. You could tell he was going to be a movie star with this one.
Wallach fit together with the western so perfectly that it's no shock his most famous roles come from that genre. We've already talked about Tuco, but there's also Calvera, the bad guy of The Magnificent Seven. He's not the same character, but Wallach gives him the same extravagant panache that makes him a joy to watch every single second he's on screen.
He made his mark in the western, the drama, the heist comedy (see How To Steal A Million), the horror film (The Sentinel) and even TV. Not only was he a cinematic legend, he also terrorized Batman as Mr. Freeze during the insane '60s TV show (one of three actors to play that part for the show, the others being Otto Preminger and George Sanders).
I remember being overjoyed seeing him pop up in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River in 2003 and thinking that was probably the last time we'd see him working. Boy was I wrong. The man racked up another dozen or so credits since. Some was voiceover work, but he appeared in The Hoax, The Holiday and the very pleasant New York, I Love You. The dude worked more in his 90s than a lot of actors do in their 20s.
Eli Wallach made his mark and did so with so much personality that he enriched the lives of generations of movie fans and will continue to do so for many generations to come. Thanks, Eli.
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