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When Jim Met Eli: My 20 Minutes With The Late, Great Eli Wallach

When Jim Met Eli: My 20 Minutes With The Late, Great Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach passed away at the age of 98 yesterday.  He was a veteran of over 160 films and TV shows, including “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “Godfather III” and “The Hunter”.   I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wallach at a film convention several years ago and there wasn’t a sharper, funnier, more interesting gentlemen in the business.

Back in the early 2000’s at the movie industry’s Showeast convention in Florida I was running late for a meeting with an exhibitor who appeared to believe that paying his film rental was somewhere on his priority list below “rearranging sock draw” and above “having sharp implements stuck in one’s eye”, so I hopped into an elevator and, as we are all want to do, started pushing the L button repeatedly, hoping that if I smacked the thing 20 times it would get me to the lobby faster. I suddenly noticed an older gentleman in the corner of the elevator and realized immediately it was Mr. Wallach,  Summoning up all of my courage I told him that I was a huge fan (not in a Kathy Bates “Misery” way but still a fan) and told him I had just seen him in a rerun of “The Two Jakes” and thought he was terrific.  

Much to my surprise, Mr. Wallach launched into a hilarious story about working with Jack Nicholson (who starred in and directed the movie) in that movie and then as the elevator reached the lobby began a fairly comprehensive recap of the brilliant actors and directors he had worked with over the years. Remembrances of Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, a rather bawdy story about Clark Gable that might have made Howard Stern blush, Sean Penn and Peter O’Toole (there were others, but at that point I had a hard time getting past “wow, I’m carrying on a conversation with the guy from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly””) came cascading out of the man’s memory bank.  One thing was clear, Eli Wallach loved acting, he loved the medium and he loved to work.  How do I know that?  Because he probably said “I just love to work, John” (ok, close enough) about 20 times in the 15 minutes we were together.  

It was an elevator ride I’ll never forget and I was saddened by his passing yesterday.    

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