Actor Eli Wallach, an exceptional actor whose work in motion pictures, stage and television spans decades, has died. He was 98 years old. From his role as a sexually predatory cotton gin owner in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) to his performance as an embittered writer in The Holiday (2006), the Brooklyn-born Army veteran Wallach was electrifying on screen.
You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. I’d just watched him the other night as Guido on Turner Classic Movies dancing with Marilyn Monroe in her last movie, The Misfits (1961), another fine film. It’s a haunting Western co-starring Thelma Ritter and Clark Gable in his last movie, too, and Wallach depicts a sidekick to Gable’s cowboy. But he makes the character into so much more than that. Wallach’s Guido is an automotive mechanic in Reno who up and quits his job to chase wild Mustangs as part of this strange, lonely and unlikely quartet. His character starts as a regular fellow who spots Monroe’s newly divorced bombshell in an upstairs window and he unfolds as a widower with a past worth knowing about, and letting go of, in an unforgettable scene in which he dances, really dances, with the bombshell who is suddenly a human not merely an object. Her tender yet biting insights revive his lust for life but it’s Wallach’s eyes that transmit everything essential about his character’s story.
Small, important roles were masterfully rendered through his artistry. He was excellent in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax (2007), memorable in NBC’s ER (2003) and as a judge in LA Law (1991), and he added to Godfather, Wall Street and Chinatown sequels. He could play hard or soft, gay or straight, monsignor or rabbi and he played them all. He was featured or co-starred in pictures with Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif. His 1960s work in such influential films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), How the West Was Won (1962) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) stayed true to his abilities and his dedication to his work continued in exemplary performances in The Deep (1977) and Skokie (1981) and until a few years ago. Eli Wallach ended his career as he had started it in his film debut as the villain in Baby Doll, pictured here, with his form fitting each role flawlessly and with his character as the highest purpose of each performance.