NEW YORK — Eli Wallach, the raspy-voiced character actor who starred in dozens of movies and Broadway plays over a remarkable and enduring career and earned film immortality as a conniving, quick-on-the-draw bandit in the classic Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” has died. He was 98.
The actor’s son, Peter Wallach, confirmed Wednesday that his father passed away Tuesday evening in New York from natural causes.
“The best way to honour him is to put on one of his movies,” he said. “Put on ‘Baby Doll’ or ‘Magnificent Seven.’ Those live forever.”
Wallach and his wife, Anne Jackson, were a formidable duo on the stage, appearing in several plays dating back to the 1940s. He won a Tony Award for his supporting role in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” in 1951, was an original member of the Actors Studio, and was still starring in films well into his 90s.
“He was as wonderful a person as he was an actor,” said Robert De Niro. “He will be missed.”
Wallach may be best remembered for his role as Tuco in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” In the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, Clint Eastwood (The Good), Lee Van Cleef (The Bad) and Wallach (The Ugly) attempt to outwit and out shoot each other in pursuit of a trove of gold coins buried in a Civil War cemetery.
Wallach played a menacing, yet lovable, outlaw who had committed every crime in the book: “murder, armed robbery … inciting prostitution, kidnapping, extortion … rape” as the executioner intoned in one famous scene before Tuco escaped a hanging.
The movie — with a haunting score by Ennio Morricone — was the third film in a trilogy that included “Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” and influenced a generation of filmmakers. Wallach’s character had several memorable lines, including, “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk,” after being confronted by a rival gunslinger.
“Everywhere I go, someone will recognize me from ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and start whistling the theme song,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I can feel when it’s going to happen. I smile and wave, and they wave back.”
Wallach, an eager storyteller, even titled his 2005 memoir “The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage.”
Wallach also starred in the steamy “Baby Doll” (1956), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “The Misfits” (1961), an Arthur Miller-written film that starred Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, “Lord Jim” (1964) with Peter O’Toole and “The Godfather III” (1990), in which he played a murderous mobster who dies after eating poisoned cannoli.
He and Jackson starred in a series of plays, including George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” in 1956 and a hugely successful run of “Luv” in the mid-1960s. A critic once hailed them as “the proletarian Lunts,” a reference to Alfred Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, who at the time were the most famous couple in the American theatre.
“Although I limp in life as a result of my two hip operations, whenever I go onstage with Anne, the lights give my body a lift and I prance onto the stage and dance off,” Wallach said in his 2006 memoir. “I feel I can play a 16-year-old if the author calls for that. Which is why I prefer live acting to film — I come alive with the lights.”
Wallach was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 7, 1915, the son of an immigrant candy store owner. He dabbled in dramatics in high school, while becoming a table-tennis champion.
His brother and two sisters had become teachers, and other family members were doctors and lawyers. Wallach, who had appeared in plays as far back as grade school, elected to study acting.
Acting definitely did not run in his family, Wallach once said, “Being an actor to them is like joining the Foreign Legion.”
His drama training was interrupted by World War II service in the Army medical corps, in which he earned the rank of captain. From 1945 to 1948, he appeared in several Broadway plays but had to work as a swimming instructor and camp counsellor to make ends meet.
His stage career eventually took off, thanks in large part to his success in Tennessee Williams productions. He appeared in “The Rose Tattoo,” then “Camino Real” and later had a long run in “Teahouse of the August Moon.”
His debut film, directed by Elia Kazan, was “Baby Doll,” based on the Williams’ play. It was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for what was termed its “carnal suggestiveness.”
He became a charter member of the Actors Studio, along with up-and-coming performers such as Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Jackson. He was one of the nation’s early students of Method acting, where actors draw upon their own memories and emotions to replicate the emotional conditions under which the character operates.
After “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” his relationship with Leone soured. Leone had promised him a role in the Western “Duck, You Sucker,” but the studio wanted Rod Steiger. Wallach had already cancelled another project to take on the role in “Duck, You Sucker,” and was angered by losing the part.
Wallach did not slow down in his later years. He played a store owner in 2003’s “Mystic River,” directed by Eastwood, and had a part in the romantic comedy “The Holiday” in 2006. In 2010, he was featured as an old financial hand in Oliver Stone’s “Money Never Sleeps,” the sequel to “Wall Street.”
Wallach met Jackson while they were appearing off-Broadway in Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned.” They married in 1948 and had three children, Peter, who became a film animator, and two daughters, Roberta and Katherine, both of whom followed their parents into acting.
Wallach’s nephew is New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. The actor once said: “Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”
Though he never won an Oscar, Wallach was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2010, hailing him as “the quintessential chameleon.” Eastwood presented the award, calling him “a great performer and a great friend.”
“I’ve played more bandits, thieves, killers, war lords, molesters and Mafiosi that you could shake a stick at,” said Wallach. “As a civilian, I collect antique clocks, tell endless stories of my days as a medic in World War II, watch every tennis match, live for my family, daily mail, run the dishwasher, take pictures of faces in the bark of trees.”
“I don’t act to live,” he said. “I live to act.”