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Obituary: Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach

Obituary by Jack Foley

ELI Wallach, the star of iconic westerns The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (pictured) has died at the age of 98.

The popular character actor began his film career in 1956 after 10 years on stage and enjoyed a career that spanned six decades.

Although he was never nominated for an Oscar during his 60-year career, the Academy subsequrntly recognised his achievements in 2011 for “effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role”.

Ironically, it was for two of his earliest roles that he will be most fondly remembered – as bandit chief Calvera in The Magnificent Seven alongside Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and as Tuco opposite Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

With regard to the latter, Wallach said strangers would recognise him and start whistling the distinctive theme tune to him in the street.

Born on December 7, 1915 in Brooklyn to Polish Jewish immigrants, Wallach graduated from the University of Texas and initially set out to become a teacher.

But after serving in World War II, his focus shifted to acting and he studied at the Actors’ Studio, where he became a practitioner of method acting.

He made his theatrical debut in New York in 1945 where he subsequently met his wife, Anne Jackson, to whom he was married for 65 years, and then enjoyed a successful London debut in 1954 with The Teahouse of the August Moon.

He went on to make his big screen debut two years later, playing an unscrupulous seducer in Baby Doll alongside Carroll Baker, and earning a best supporting actor nomination at the Golden Globes and a BAFTA award for most promising newcomer.

But despite being a regular screen star, Wallach maintained that his biggest passion remained for the theatre and he regularly revisited the stage whenever opportunity allowed, juggling roles in big films with smaller, more intimate theatre pieces.

In 1973, he underlined this priority when he told The New York Times: “For actors, movies are a means to an end. I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play.”

Nevertheless, it was movies and TV that helped Wallach become a household name and further success came in Poppies Are Also Flowers, for which he earned an Emmy, as well as How The West Was Won, Keeping The Faith, Lord Jim and The Godfather: Part III, playing an ill-fated Mafioso alongside Al Pacino and Andy Garcia.

He was also nominated for an Emmy a further four times – the most recent of which came for his guest turns in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2007 and Nurse Jackie in 2010.

He also enjoyed another reunion with Clint Eastwood in the Oscar-winning crime drama, Mystic River, and stole the show from under Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz in the romantic comedy The Holiday as, ironically, an ageing movie maestro.

He made his last big screen appearance in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in 2010.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Katherine in the New York Times.

Tributes have been paid via Twitter from the many colleagues and filmmakers who either shared the screen with him or were inspired by his roles.

Director Edgar Wright Tweeted: “Farewell, the amazing Eli Wallach. Features in my favourite shot in cinema when he runs round the cemetery in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

While character actor Jeffrey Wright posted: “RIP Eli Wallach – a great actor of the old school.”

Influential US critic Richard Roeper Tweeted: “RIP to Eli Wallach. No matter the role, he came across as the kind of actor that gave it 100% on every take. A real pro.”