Veteran actor Eli Wallach in New York. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from New York — — The moment one enters the gracious Upper West Side apartment of Eli Wallach, the home he has shared for decades with his wife and fellow actress, Anne Jackson, there is an unmistakable sense of life being well lived. Smiling and curious about his guest, he sits down for the scheduled chat about himself, but he'd much rather offer a tour of the place, pointing out the photos of his daughters, the artworks of his son, the stage and screen memorabilia extending back more than half a century, and — oh, what's this? — a framed marriage certificate from 1948.
In the dining room is a picture of Joseph Stein, book writer of "Fiddler on the Roof," who recently died. Wallach is pretty broken up about the loss. ("It's awful. That's his wife. That's Annie. We were the closest of friends.") Pressed into my hand are some photos he's taken of trees that appear to have faces in their trunks. And on a side table is a card that he can't wait to show Clint Eastwood — open it up and it plays the theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
Wallach may get the chance to see his costar from the popular Sergio Leone spaghetti western when he heads to L.A. for Saturday's 2nd Annual Governors Awards banquet, in which he and historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow will be presented with honorary Oscars and Francis Ford Coppola will receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. (Director Jean-Luc Godard, who isn't scheduled to attend, will also be getting an honorary Oscar.)
This salute to Wallach's film career is in recognition of a body of work that has been remarkably diverse for a New York Method actor, whose status as an Actors Studio standard-bearer might suggest a finickier sensibility than this ace utility player has shown. But Wallach's ambition since growing up in the tough Red Hook section of Brooklyn has always been simply to act. Stepping into other skins is what he was destined to do, and whether it's a bang-bang western ("The Magnificent Seven"), a film noir thriller ("The Lineup"), an upmarket Marilyn Monroe vehicle ("The Misfits"), a glittering romantic caper ("How to Steal a Million") or a Tennessee Williams psychosexual melodrama ("Baby Doll"), his attitude remains that of a city boy eager for another game of ring-a-levio.
Wallach turns 95 on Pearl Harbor Day, which is how this World War II veteran refers to his birthday, and he's still stealing movies with supporting performances that swell their miniature bounds with a density of actual life. His ability to chisel human instincts into striking dramatic portraits is on magnificent display in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Just listen to the apocalyptic whistle he deploys as his character, the ancient banker Jules Steinhardt, ominously sounds the alarms that the Great Depression is about to calamitously repeat itself. Another performer might think of something similar, but few could generate the same nuclear effect while sneaking in a subtle exhalation of disgust.
Does acting get any easier when you're deep into your seniority? Wallach won't say, but he does admit the first question he asks when offered a film role these days is, "How many weeks?" (This is true even when the asker is Eastwood and the film is "Mystic River.") Wallach's memory for names may be spotty, but don't underestimate his energy — or his worry over whether his scene survives the editing room.
For a long time now, I've held that Eli Wallach is the finest stage actor I've ever seen. I missed his Broadway heyday, having been born too late to have caught him in Williams' "The Rose Tattoo," the play that brought him and his cherished costar, the late Maureen Stapleton, Tony Award renown. Nor was I around for the Charles Laughton production of "Major Barbara" or Eugène Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" with Zero Mostel or "The Teahouse of the August Moon," which he eventually did in New York after scoring a success with the play in London.
Sadly, Wallach hasn't been that active in the theater scene in my era, though I did review him and Jackson in "Tennessee Williams Remembered," an endearing low-key stage tribute to the playwright whose one-act "This Property Is Condemned" brought the actors together. And I was glad not to have passed up "Visiting Mr. Green," a rudimentary young man-old man drama that his naturalism and dramatic cunning elevated into something unexpectedly compelling.