Eli Wallach, who was one of his generation’s most prominent and prolific character actors in film, onstage and on television for more than 60 years, died Tuesday. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Katherine.
A self-styled journeyman actor, the versatile Wallach appeared in scores of roles, often with his wife, Anne Jackson. No matter the part, he always seemed at ease and in control.
Despite his many years of film work, some of it critically acclaimed, Wallach was never nominated for an Academy Award. But in November 2010, less than a month before his 95th birthday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar.
His first love was the stage. Wallach and Jackson became one of the best-known acting couples in the American theater. But films, even less-than-stellar ones, helped pay the bills.
Wallach’s many television credits included a 1974 production of Odets’ “Paradise Lost” on public television; “Skokie,” a 1981 CBS movie about a march planned by neo-Nazis in a Chicago suburb, in which he played a lawyer representing Holocaust survivors; a 1982 NBC dramatization of Norman Mailer’s “Executioner’s Song,” in which he appeared with Tommy Lee Jones; and frequent roles on “Studio One,” “Playhouse 90” and “General Electric Theater.”
And then there were films, dozens of them. In addition to his parts in “Baby Doll” (1956) and “The Magnificent Seven,” (1960) he played the mechanic pal of Clark Gable’s aging cowboy in “The Misfits” (1961), the story of a wild-horse roundup in Nevada, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, with a cast that also included Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
Wallach was also a lawless jungle tyrant subdued by the title character (Peter O’Toole) in “Lord Jim” (1965); a rapacious Mexican pitted against Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966); a psychiatrist assigned to evaluate the sanity of a call girl (Barbra Streisand) on trial for killing a client in “Nuts” (1987); and Don Altobello, a Mafia boss who succumbs to a poisoned dessert, in “The Godfather: Part III” (1990).
He continued his film work well into his 90s. He was a disillusioned screenwriter in “The Holiday” (2006). In “Tickling Leo” (2009), he played the guilt-ridden patriarch of a Jewish family still haunted by the Holocaust. In Roman Polanski’s “Ghost Writer” (2010), Wallach played a mysterious old man living on fog-shrouded Martha’s Vineyard. And in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010), which marked the return of Michael Douglas as the greed-stoked investor Gordon Gekko, Wallach hovered at the edge of the action like Poe’s sinister raven.
More often than not, his film roles required him to play mustachioed characters who were lawless, evil or just plain nasty, which puzzled and challenged him.
“Actually, I lead a dual life,” he once said. “In the theater, I’m the little man, or the irritated man, the misunderstood man,” whereas in films “I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.”