When Eli Wallach strolled down the mean streets of Manhattan, the tune followed him everywhere.
People saw him coming and they started whistling the ominous opening bars of Ennio Morricone’s theme to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” They didn’t see the masterful stage actor, the acclaimed interpreter of Tennessee Williams, the versatile performer who poured himself into roles as diverse as a doomed mafioso in “The Godfather: Part III” to the diabolical Mr. Freeze on TV’s “Batman” series.
Even decades after the classic 1966 western, they saw Tuco, the “ugly” in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the Mexican bandit whose every line is a veiled threat: “Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco,” he tells fellow bandit Clint Eastwood.
“I was hanged four times in that movie!” Wallach later boasted — a reflection of his impish humor and a reminder of a lengthy and distinguished acting career that just kept going.
Wallach, who received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, died Tuesday at his home in New York City, his daughter Katherine said. He was 98 and is survived by his wife of 66 years, actress Anne Jackson.
Wallach also was well-known for John Sturges’ 1960 western, “The Magnificent Seven,” in which he played Calvera, a Mexican outlaw in control of a besieged village.
As a boy in Brooklyn, the only horses Wallach knew were the ones in his immigrant parents’ stories about marauding Cossacks.
But in the movies, he was the one in the saddle.
“I used to arrive on the set early in the morning, put on my outfit, get on my horse with my 35 bandits and we’d go for an hour’s ride through the brush in Tepotzotlan, in Mexico,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1990. “I loved it — I loved it.”
Wallach’s earliest roles were on the stage. He won a Tony award in 1951 for his performance opposite Maureen Stapleton in Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” and also starred on Broadway in the playwright’s “Camino Real” and off Broadway in Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned.”
Although he frequently returned to the stage, Wallach was better known for his films. He was Carroll Baker’s sleazy lover in Williams’ “Baby Doll” (1956), directed by Elia Kazan; the roustabout Guido in John Huston’s “The Misfits” (1961), which was based on Arthur Miller’s screenplay and notable for being the last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe; and art collector Davis Leland in “How to Steal a Million,” a 1966 film in which he starred with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.
But it was the westerns that made Wallach famous. As Time magazine wrote in 1968, director Sergio Leone “went out and hired his first big-time actor” for the part of Tuco in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”; at the time, Eastwood was just breaking out of his “Rawhide” role on TV. In the film, set during the Civil War, Wallach plays a Mexican gunman who partners with Eastwood’s amoral “Man With No Name” to con towns out of the bounties that are on Wallach’s head. Just as Wallach is about to be hanged, Eastwood shoots the rope tied to his neck, and the two escape to repeat their scheme.
Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington, writing about the film nearly 40 years after its release, said that Wallach “burns up the screen as scruffy, insanely energetic Tuco, forever popping up like a berserk, evil toy.”
In one scene, Tuco is in a bathtub when a pursuer confronts him with all the reasons he will be glad to kill him. Tuco pulls out a gun, shoots the man in the head and says: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!”
Wallach was so identified with his role as Tuco that he puckishly named his 2005 memoir “The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage.”
As one of the original Method actors, Wallach did not stereotype his bandits and other lowlifes but instead tried to see what made them tick and what brought them to life. For example, he said he realized that Calvera, a successful bandit, would have something to show for it, so he talked Sturges into letting him wear a silk shirt and put gold caps on his teeth.
“For me it was a way of defining the character’s objective and giving him reality,” he told the Guardian newspaper in 2000.
He said he regretted not having heard Elmer Bernstein’s memorable theme for “Magnificent Seven” while the film was being shot.
“If I had, I would have sat upright in my saddle, ridden with authority, and felt like the head of my gang,” he said.
Wallach often said that his favorite film was his first — “Baby Doll,” in which he seduces the title character into betraying her husband. He said people seemed shocked by a scene in which he and Baker are on a porch swing and his hands, slightly off-screen, appear to stroke her legs — which so excites Baby Doll that she ends by walking off and saying, “I can’t breathe!”
Wallach said he was actually reaching out to a radiator at their feet because it was “late November and it was cold as hell.”
A raucous storyteller, he liked to recount his give-and-take with director Francis Ford Coppola about playing mobster Don Altobello, who suffers death by poisoned cannoli in “The Godfather: Part III” (1990).
“Francis said, ‘I want you to play this old, old, old, old, marvelous old friend of the family,’ “ Wallach told the Denver Post in 1991. “I said, ‘Listen, if I was such an old, old, old friend of the family, why wasn’t I in ‘Godfather I’ or ‘Godfather II’?”
“He said, ‘Well, you were in Sicily.’ “
In his final film role, Wallach had a key supporting part in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010).
Wallach was born Dec. 7, 1915, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of immigrants from Poland who wanted him to be a teacher. Wallach grew up in a mostly Italian-American neighborhood still lighted by gas lamps. He saw his first movies at the Rialto — “The Perils of Pauline” and westerns starring Tom Mix or William S. Hart. At home, he would act out scenes from “Beau Geste” or other films.
After his family moved to Flatbush, he joined the drama club in high school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1936 from the University of Texas at Austin — he was drawn there by cheap tuition — and his master’s in education at City College of New York in 1938. When he still insisted on being an actor, his father asked: “From this you make a living?”
After he failed a test for his education credential, Wallach began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Gregory Peck were his classmates and Martha Graham was a mentor.
During World War II, he served in the Army Medical Corps. When he returned to New York, he got a part in “Skydrift,” which ran for less than a week but also marked the Broadway debut of Rita Moreno.
His next role was in “This Property Is Condemned,” in which he was cast opposite a young redheaded actress named Anne Jackson. They married in 1948.
Wallach and Jackson were both accepted into the American Repertory Theatre, but though ART presented several plays on Broadway (Wallach played the duck in “Alice in Wonderland”), it lasted only for a year. The couple then became charter members of the newly formed Actors Studio launched by Kazan and others. Other charter members included Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Shelley Winters and Kim Stanley.
Wallach called the Actors Studio “a workplace, almost a gym for professional actors” where they would meet twice a week to work on scenes, employing the approach pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavsky.
In 1948, Wallach got a major break in being cast as a replacement as Stefanowski in the Broadway cast of “Mister Roberts,” which starred Henry Fonda.
In 1953, he agreed to do “The Rose Tattoo,” an obligation that prevented him from taking the role of Pvt. Maggio in Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity.” Frank Sinatra went on to win an Oscar for the role, renewing his career.
In what Wallach considered a sort of consolation prize, Williams incorporated into “Camino Real” a line that Wallach had used with the playwright in trying to persuade him to release the actor from the obligation: “I want to level with you — can I level with you?”
Wallach and Jackson frequently appeared together on stage, including several Murray Schisgal plays, including “The Typists,” “The Tiger” and “Luv,” which had a long run on Broadway in the mid-1960s.
Wallach appeared on many television programs and series, including “Our Family Honor,” in which he played the head of a New York crime syndicate. He won an Emmy in 1966 for “The Poppy Is Also a Flower.” In the late 1960s, he played “Mr Freeze” in an episode of “Batman.”
“But you know, I still get more mail for that one episode of ‘Batman’ than just about anything else,” Wallach said 30 years later.
Besides his wife, his survivors include his son, Peter; daughters, Roberta and Katherine; and three grandchildren.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.