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Rob Edelman: Eli Wallach: A Class Act

When a celebrity passes away, it is customary to applaud his or her career, to cite all of his or her professional accomplishments.

Such was the case recently with Eli Wallach, the deservedly beloved character actor who passed away on June 24 at age 98.

Regarding Wallach's professional accomplishments, there is much to spotlight. He first appeared on Broadway way back in 1945, and his stage credits are staggering in number and quality. For one thing, in 1951, he earned a Tony Award for playing a truck driver who courts a Sicilian widow in Tennessee Williams' THE ROSE TATTOO. Wallach's TV appearances date from PLAYHOUSE 90 and THE PHILCO-GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE in the 1950s right up through KOJAK, ER, NURSE JACKIE, and MURDER, SHE WROTE. His screen credits only begin with Elia Kazan's BABY DOLL, John Sturges' THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and John Huston's THE MISFITS. Wallach also had a decades-long connection to Clint Eastwood. He co-starred with Eastwood as Tuco, the greedy, disingenuous but nonetheless endearing bandit, in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, the classic 1966 spaghetti western. Thirty-seven years later, in 2003, he appeared unbilled as a liquor store owner in the Eastwood-directed MYSTIC RIVER.

It was for good reason that, in 2011, Wallach earned an Honorary Academy Award "for [creating] a lifetime's worth of indelible screen characters." But he might have picked up a competitive Oscar decades earlier, in 1953, for playing Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. Wallach was up for the role, which would have been his screen debut. Conflicting stories exist regarding how and why the coveted part eventually was played by Frank Sinatra, but the fact is that Sinatra was awarded the role. Not only was playing Maggio a career-reviving gig, but it also earned him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

However, despite all his professional success, what for me most defines Eli Wallach is his 66-year marriage to fellow actor Anne Jackson plus the fact that he seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. So many celebrities become mired in ego and self-absorption. But Eli Wallach was not one of them.

I did not personally know Wallach, but I met him on a couple of occasions and, both times. I came away thinking, "Boy, this is a nice man. And he is not putting on a show, as some celebs are wont to do. Eli Wallach seems like a genuinely nice person."

And he was a wise person. Here are several favorite Eli Wallach quotes, courtesy of the Internet Movie Database:

"I never lost my appetite for acting."

"Everyone thinks acting is easy. It's far from easy, but it's the most gratifying thing I do."

Here is an undated observation that Wallach surely made as he aged:

"Even if I don't want to slow down, I'm slowing down."

And finally: "I've learned that life is a very tricky business: Each person needs to find what they want to do in life-- and not be dissuaded when people question them."

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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