December 13, 2006
Wallach: A Legend With Staying Power
At 91 years of age, method actor Eli Wallach has talent and fame, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. He is also quite the raconteur with a treasure chest of stories about working with some of Hollywood's finest.
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Born December 7, 1915 in Brooklyn, Wallach was trained by cultural icons Martha Graham and Lee Strasberg. His unique brand of acting scored him a lifetime of good roles on stage and in film. Audrey Hepburn, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan are just a few of the luminaries he has worked with.
Wallach will give a glimpse into that world of glamour on Friday when he speaks at the Bay Street Theatre following a screening of The Misfits. Film critic Jeffrey Lyons will host the event.
Directed by John Huston, The Misfits (1961) boasted an all-star cast, including Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter and, of course, Wallach.
Legend has it there was no shortage of drama behind the scenes, with excessive drinking and drugs, gambling and a temporary closing of production. "Oh it's all myth," Wallach quickly dismissed, "because they say for example that Clark Gable died because we were dealing with wild horses. That's nonsense."
In fact, Gable died three days after filming ended. Monroe died within a year and a half, making The Misfits the last movie each actor ever did.
Wallach knew them both well, especially Gable.
"The first scene I played with him I was in my truck and he leaned on the window and the director said 'action,' and I kept looking at Clark Gable thinking this is the king of the movies, I wonder if he knows I haven't seen Gone with the Wind. And he kept looking at me thinking, who is this young thing from New York with this mysterious method?" John Huston, the director, called out, 'I said action, why don't you do something?'" Realizing the actors needed an icebreaker, Huston ordered them a drink, "and then we did the scene. And from then on Gable and I were dear friends."
Wallach had met Marilyn Monroe three years earlier in New York City. "Someone brought her to see me on stage in a play called Teahouse of the August Moon . . . and she said, 'how do you do a play, how do you do two hours?' I said, 'I've been doing it for two years.' She asked, 'can I come and watch every night?' I said, 'you have to ask the producers.' I think she had a great influence in getting me the job for The Misfits."
The character actor has made over 70 films and barely stopped to catch his breath since his screen debut in the film production of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll in 1956. He made his debut on Broadway in 1945 and won a Tony Award in 1951 for his performance in The Rose Tattoo. He likes to alternate between stage and film.
"I spent time with all these wonderful talents and they helped me find new colors and how to work in the movies," said Wallach. "Working on stage means you get a chance to improve as you work whereas in the movies you do a scene and it's put in the can as they say. The magic [in plays] is that the audience is different each night and you've got a whole new group of people to convince. But I love them both," he said.
And Love found Wallach while he was performing in a one act play by Tennessee Williams. There he met his wife, the actress Anne Jackson, and it was the first of many projects the couple would do together throughout their marriage of more than 50 years.
From dramas to comedies to spaghetti westerns, Wallach reinvented himself from one performance to the next. Among his most famous roles was Calvera, the Mexican bandit, in The Magnificent Seven (1960). The story is a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
"I said when I was making that movie, with all the bandits, you never saw what they did with the money. They hold up the bank, they steal the jewels. So I decided I was going to do it, but I was going to show what I did with the money, so I had red silk shirts, I put two gold caps on my teeth, I had a beautiful saddle and a great horse and that's the way I showed what I did with the money."
One might expect an air of pomposity from an entertainer of Wallach's caliber, but the actor offers a modest disposition instead. He insists he doesn't select roles to play, "they select me. I never know how I'm going to get a job, but each time I'd get a movie it was a challenge and I accepted the challenge and I enjoyed working."
And he still does. Last year Wallach published his autobiography: The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage. He recently appeared in a poignant cameo — Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" — as a screenwriter from the days of the McCarthy blacklists. He also completed three movies this year alone. The Holiday, starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz premiered last Friday. The Hoax with Richard Gere and Mama's Boy with Diane Keaton are due out next year.
For Wallach, getting into character and telling a convincing story is what acting is all about.
"I work on the character. That's what I do . . . I don't think, is this going to win me an Oscar? None of that stuff. I work on the scenes and what they mean to me."
The Picture Show at Bay Street will screen The Misfits at 8 p.m. followed by a conversation with Eli Wallach. Tickets are $20. Call the box office at 725-9500.