Eli Wallach, the veteran actor of screen and stage, died Wednesday at age 98. Best known in the film world for his debut starring role in Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll” and as the sinister villain Tuco in Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Wallach’s career spanned more than 60 years, garnering him a Tony, an Emmy and many adoring fans.
Born in 1915, Wallach was raised in Brooklyn and attended the University of Texas at Austin, later returning to New York for a master’s degree in education so he could become a teacher like his three siblings. Instead, he ended up studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse until he was drafted into the army during World War II. In 1948, after he returned home, he became one of the core 20 members who founded the Actors Studio, where he studied with Lee Strasberg alongside Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Marlon Brando and others.
Wallach made his Broadway debut in 1951 in a play called “Skydrift,” and was then cast opposite Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo.” Both actors won Tony Awards for their roles. A few years later, he got his first screen role in 1956’s “Baby Doll,” also penned by Williams, where he played a lascivious cotton gin owner with eyes for his business rival’s bride.
Theater was Wallach’s great love: he called movies “a means to an end” because they provided him the financial stability to act on stage. His other notable roles included turns in Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which he appeared in with his wife and frequent costar, Anne Jackson.
In addition to his television work, some of Wallach’s most remembered film roles include 1965’s “Lord Jim” opposite Peter O’Toole, a psychiatrist in 1987’s “Nuts,” and a Mafia boss done in by a poisoned dessert in “The Godfather: Part III” (1990). In 2006, he put in a wonderful turn as a disillusioned screenwriter in “The Holiday,” and his last film appearances came in 2010 with Roman Polanski’s “Ghost Writer” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
In 2005, the actor released an autobiography with the pithy title, “The Good, the Bad and Me: In My Anecdotage,” and in 2010, he was honored by the Academy with an honorary Oscar. (He was never nominated over the course of his entire career.) As TOH! wrote from the ceremony, “Wallach himself recalled playing various villains, bandits, thieves, warlords, half-breeds and Italian mafia people through his career. ‘Now I’m in my old Jewish guy phase.’ He added: ‘I don’t act to live. I live to act.’
After the jump, take a look at some clips of Wallach’s most iconic roles.