Reporting from New York — — Eli Wallach may always be best remembered as the "ugly" in the 1966 film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," but at nearly 95, he's really a not-so-secret charmer who signs autographs "Tuco" (after his character in the film). With more than 60 years in the business, he's earned the respect and praise of his peers: A letter from Tennessee Williams he keeps in a plastic frame in the dining room of his Upper West Side apartment praises Wallach and his wife, Anne, who met while doing "This Property Is Condemned," and ends: "Eli has discovered the secret to pissing everyone off: He is happy." Happy, yes, but virtually ignored by the academy — until now. On Saturday, Wallach will receive an honorary Oscar — his first — and come February, he might earn another thanks to his much buzzed-about role in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Nine and a half decades in, life — and Wallach — are definitely "good."
How do you feel about getting your first Oscar, even if it is an honorary one?
I never joined the academy. New York is my home. I never settled in California — and when I heard they were offering me this thing, I thought, "That's very interesting." But I would never allow my name to be on the floor.
You mean the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
Right. You have to pay money to do that!
I heard you did some improvising in "Wall Street."
Yes, [director Oliver Stone] said, "Action!" and I couldn't remember the line. So I just said, "It's the end of the world," and he said, "Forget the other line, say what you just did."
You lost out on an early opportunity for an Oscar-winning role, didn't you?
I was trying to get into a play that Tennessee Williams wrote that I wanted to do. But they couldn't get the money to stage it. So I auditioned for "From Here to Eternity," and I got the job. But then the money came in for the play — "Camino Real," it was called — so I quit [the movie]. They gave the role to Frank Sinatra, and he won the Academy Award. Every time he saw me he'd say, "Hello, you crazy actor!"
Some of your earliest acting was done with your college buddy Walter Cronkite, correct?
Exactly. I went to school in Texas, and we joined the Curtain Club. He played a doctor, and I fell out of a closet — I was the body. No lines! We had a wonderful time. He was a brain. He was a man who understood what was happening in the economy and the state.
Does it surprise you that after all the work you've done, people still first think of you in "Ugly"?
Here's a story from that movie. We get to [Almeria, Spain, for the shoot] and Clint Eastwood says, "Sorry, all the hotels are occupied." But this guy has a room and so we'll stay there, but the bed is half the size of a table and Clint says, "What side of the bed do you want to sleep on?" and I said, "Clint, I'm an old radical, I'll sleep on the left." He was very helpful to me.
You've been married more than 60 years to Anne Jackson. How do you keep the relationship working?
I was in the hospital for a hip operation once. And the nurse comes in after and says, "Eli, I want you to wheel this over to that door." And I said, "I'm not going to do that! I have 36 stitches in my leg!" But I get up and go to the door and the woman says, "OK, turn around and come back." And I said, "I am not going back." So Anne whispers to her, "Tell him you're a camera." So she does. And I spun around. Anne says things like, "I taught him everything he knows."
You never take a break or go on hiatus. Have you ever thought of retiring?
When I die. I never know where I'm going to do something and with whom I'm going to do something, but each time I work with a director it's like being born again into what I want to do.