Obituary: Eli Wallach / Actor best known for two classic westerns

Dec. 7, 1915 - June 24, 2014

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Eli Wallach, a veteran stage, screen and television actor who was closely identified with Tennessee Williams’ plays on the New York City stage but gained fame in Hollywood for a string of films in which he specialized in playing bandits, thieves, mafia dons and other criminals, has died. He was 98.

Mr. Wallach, who received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, died Tuesday in the family’s home in New York City, according to his daughter Katherine.

Mr. Wallach won a Tony award in 1951 for his performance opposite Maureen Stapleton in Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” and also starred on Broadway in the playwright’s “Camino Real” and off Broadway in Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned.”

But, though Mr. Wallach returned to the stage all of his long professional life, he was more widely known for his films. Among his better-known roles were Carroll Baker’s sleazy lover in Williams’ “Baby Doll” (1956), directed by Elia Kazan; the roustabout Guido in John Huston’s “The Misfits” (1961), and art collector Davis Leland in 1966’s “How to Steal a Million,” in which he starred with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.

But he was probably most famous for his roles in two westerns: “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), the classic John Sturges film in which he played not one of the seven gunfighters holding off a gang of thieves but Calvera, the head of a Mexican gang; and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Sergio Leone’s 1966 film in which Clint Eastwood was “the good,” Lee Van Cleef was “the bad” and Mr. Wallach was “the ugly” Tuco.

Set during the American Civil War, Mr. Wallach plays a Mexican gunman who partners up with Mr. Eastwood’s amoral “Man With No Name” to con towns out of the bounties that are on Mr. Wallach’s head. Just as Mr. Wallach is about to be hanged, Mr. Eastwood shoots the rope tied to his neck, and the two escape to repeat their scheme.

The film’s haunting musical theme by Ennio Morricone became an instant classic, one that, even decades after the film was made, was not infrequently whistled in Mr. Wallach’s direction as he walked down a Manhattan street in New York City.

So identified was Mr. Wallach with his role as Tuco that he puckishly named his 2005 memoir “The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage.”

As one of the original “Method” actors, Mr. Wallach did not stereotype his bandits and other lowlifes and always tried to see what made them tick. He also appeared as mobster Don Altobello, who suffers death by poisoned cannoli in “The Godfather Part III” (1990).

Mr. Wallach was born in New York City on Dec. 7, 1915, the son of immigrants from Poland who wanted him to be a teacher.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1936 from the University of Texas at Austin and his master’s in education at City College of New York in 1938.


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