With his tough mug and distinctive, whistling voice, Eli Wallach was one of film’s quintessential character actors. His name was synonymous with dogged villainy, and he prided himself on having played “more bandits, thieves, warlords, molesters, and Mafiosi than you could shake a stick at.” He was a totemic presence who came to film after establishing himself on stage—where he was one of the definitive interpreters of Tennessee Williams’ work—and on TV, and continued stealing scenes well into his 90s. Wallach died on Tuesday. He was 98.
Wallach was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn in 1915, into a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland. After studying history at the University of Texas, where he befriended fellow student Walter Cronkite, Wallach returned to New York to complete a master’s degree in education. Though he originally intended to become a teacher, Wallach had always been interested in theater, and began studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the late 1930s. He served in the Medical Corps during World War II, and resumed his acting studies after the war, first at the New School, then at the newly-founded Actors Studio. In 1946, while acting in Tennessee Williams’ This Property Is Condemned, Wallach met actress Anne Jackson. They married two years later, and would appear in countless stage productions over the following decades.
In 1951, Wallach won a Tony Award for his performance in Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. The same year, he made his TV debut. It was the golden age of the teleplay, when New York’s pool of up-and-coming actors and directors—many of whom would eventually migrate to Hollywood—were honing their craft on the airwaves. If a show had Playhouse or Theater in the title, chances were that Wallach was on it.
Though most widely known for his film roles, Wallach always considered himself a stage actor who earned his living in movies. (“I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play,” he would say later in his career.) It was through the relationships that he had established in the New York theater scene in 1940s that Wallach ended up in Hollywood. His film debut came in Baby Doll (1956), a Williams adaptation directed by Wallach’s Actors Studio teacher, Elia Kazan.
Wallach’s role as Silva Vaccaro won his the BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer. Two years later, he played his first lead role in a movie, starring as a psychopathic killer in The Lineup, a San Francisco-set crime flick directed by one of the period’s genre masters, Don Siegel.
His big Hollywood breakthrough came in 1960, playing the bandit leader Calvera in The Magnificent Seven. The role—along with his later performance as Tuco, the “Ugly” from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly—helped make Wallach into an unlikely Western icon, the erudite New York stage actor best known for playing Mexican bandits.
In the 1970s, he appeared would appear in as many as five movies a year, lending his colorful presence to projects that ranged from the generic to the eccentric. He did everything from auteur passion projects—like Abraham Polonsky’s Romance Of A Horsethief, which also starred Yul Brynner and, improbably, Serge Gainsbourg—to scuzzy Italian crime films.
Wallach remained a prolific film and TV actor until he was in his 90s. His last two roles came in 2010, in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. That year, he received an honorary Academy Award for “effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role.”
Before the ceremony, Wallach was visited by his great-nephew, film critic A.O. Scott, for a segment produced for the New York Times’ website. It’s a tribute not only to Wallach’s career, but to his warmth and personality, which stood in sharp contrast to the roles he often played on screen.