A fixture of stage and screen for decades, veteran character actor Eli Wallach has died. He was 98. Born in Brooklyn during World War I to a Jewish family living in an Italian neighborhood, Wallach attended the University of Texas. While there he appeared in a stage play with fellow Longhorns Walter Cronkite and Ann Sheridan.
He enlisted in the Army during World War II and it was there a senior officer noticed his talent for acting and encouraged him to stage a show for the troops. This led to his making his stage debut on Broadway after the war. He would go on to win a Tony Award in 1951 and made his major motion picture debut in 1956 in Baby Doll. He earned a BAFTA for Best Newcomer for his performance and would go on to make 150 movies, although rarely as a lead actor.
Frank Sinatra owed the rebirth of his career to Wallach, for it was Wallach who was the first choice to play ‘Maggio’ in From Here to Eternity. However, Wallach had been offered a lead role in a Broadway play already and he turned down the movie to go back to Broadway. Sinatra would refer to him from then on as that “crazy actor.”
While he played iconic characters in The Magnificent Seven, the Good, The Bad and the Ugly and How to Steal a Million, Eli Wallach once said that he received more fan mail about his appearance as “Mr. Freeze” on the TV series Batman than all of his other works combined. Later in life he portrayed a Rabbi in Keeping the Faith and gave a strong performance as an aging, Academy Award winning screenwriter in the 2006 rom-com The Holiday.
He was never nominated for an Oscar, but received an honorary one in 2011. He was a Golden Globe nominee and also won a Primetime Emmy. Director Stan Dragoti (Mr. Mom, Love at First Bite) tells Tail Slate that Wallach “could make exposition sound like music,” citing his performance as “Calvera” in the Magnificent Seven.
Eli Wallach is survived by his wife of 66 years, Anne Jackson, their three children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.