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LOS ANGELES—Some actors are too good for stardom.
Eli Wallach, who died Tuesday at 98 after a long and distinguished career on stage and screen, was at the top of my list of the best actors I’ve encountered in the theater — a striking fact given that I was born too late to have seen him in his heyday.
But his intelligence as a dramatic player — his power to illuminate a character at the service of a script — was radioactive even in work that was inferior to his prodigious talent. His brilliance as a widower in Visiting Mr. Green elevated a lightweight off-Broadway drama to something unforgettably moving.
Wallach received many awards, including a Tony for his 1951 performance in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo and an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. But the mark of his greatness as an actor for me was his ability to transmute his own distinctive characteristics into the manner and mannerisms of whatever role he happened to be playing.
From his 1956 film debut in Baby Doll to his small, scene-stealing performance in 2010 as an elderly banker with a long memory of financial doom in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the character he was building wasn’t Eli Wallach on the public stage. He was too absorbed in the project of animating a part to concern himself with his own celebrity standing.
To casting directors with limited imagination, he might have appeared a bit too short and a little too New York to serve as an everyman. But he carried every man in his soul.
Mexican villains were an early specialty. It might seem strange that this sweet-natured Brooklyn-born Jewish actor was cast as the vicious Calvera in the The Magnificent Seven or the bandit Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But having spent his early years on the mean streets of the Italian American neighborhood of Red Hook, he had a melting-pot sensibility that made ethnic divides, for all the hue and cry of their defenders, utterly superfluous.
His college days at the University of Texas had opened his vistas to a wider America and his experience as a veteran of World War II gave him the knowledge of the evil humanity is capable of.
At the end of a 2010 interview I did with Wallach at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on the occasion of his honorary Oscar, he pressed some photos of his days in the military into my hand. They were of German soldiers and prisoners of war. What struck him was the difficulty in telling the two sides apart. They were all human beings. Their faces bore no visible signs of innocence or guilt.
“This is how I learned,” he said to me softly.
Yes, even for this charter member of the Actors Studio and standard bearer of the Method school, life was the ultimate teacher.
Wallach came of age in a period of great ferment for the America drama, learning from and inspiring Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan after studying with Sanford Meisner of the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan. Wallach kept his talent sharp in the workshop chrysalis led by Robert Lewis and Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. And his memories of Marlon Brando and the revolution that this “genius” fomented had him beaming with enthusiasm more than 50 years later.
Williams played an especially important role in his professional and personal life. It was while working on Williams’ This Property Is Condemned that Wallach fell in love with actor Anne Jackson, whom he married in 1948. After the Lunts, the far more accessible Wallach and Jackson had a claim to being the first couple of the American theater. (They were certainly the most beloved.)
Wallach said Baby Doll, written by Williams, was his personal favorite film and that working on Williams’ highly experimental Camino Real was a career high point. What’s interesting about his fervor for Camino Real is that the play cost him the role in From Here to Eternity that earned Frank Sinatra an Oscar while Camino more or less bombed on Broadway.
But Wallach always took the long view of his career. He celebrated the friendship he made with Sinatra (who affectionately referred to him as “You crazy actor!”) and was proud to have worked with Williams and Kazan on what he called a “tremendous play.”
The theater was his true home, because it was where his talents were allowed to flourish most freely. He could be articulate in his defense of the Method approach to acting, which he saw as a war against cliche while being mindful of the way an antidote can morph into the disease. Perhaps this is why he resisted the notion of “the” Method — as though there was only one road to truthful acting.
Pragmatism, common sense, and an inexhaustible interest in other people are what guided his quest for excellence, which he saw as synonymous with simplicity.
“Only as you mature as an artist do you leave out all the curlicues,” he said in an interview published in The Player: A Profile of an Art by Lillian Ross and Helen Ross. “You become less ornate and more perceptive. The zenith of the acting craft is when you can leave yourself alone.”
Acting for Wallach was a game of pretend, a serious endeavor to be sure, but one that he described as “the most alive thing I can do, and the most joyous.” That joyful vitality is preserved in memories of his magisterial stage performances and the incredibly diverse film and television work he left behind with characteristic modesty, geniality and generous wisdom.