Critic’s Notebook: The Actor’s Craft: The Eli Wallach method

Veteran actor Eli Wallach in New York.
Veteran actor Eli Wallach in New York.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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The moment one enters the gracious Upper West Side apartment of Eli Wallach, the home he has shared for decades with his wife and fellow actor, Anne Jackson, there is an unmistakable sense of life being well lived. Smiling and curious about his guest, he sits down for the scheduled chat about himself, but he’d much rather offer a tour of the place, pointing out the photos of his daughters, the artworks of his son, the stage and screen memorabilia extending back more than half a century, and — oh, what’s this? — a framed marriage certificate from 1948.

In the dining room is a picture of Joseph Stein, book writer of “Fiddler on the Roof,” who recently died. Wallach is pretty broken up about the loss. (“It’s awful. That’s his wife. That’s Annie. We were the closest of friends.”) Pressed into my hand are some photos he’s taken of trees that appear to have faces in their trunks. And on a side table is a card that he can’t wait to show Clint Eastwood — open it up and it plays the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Wallach may get the chance to see his costar from the popular Sergio Leone spaghetti western when he heads to L.A. for Saturday’s 2nd Annual Governors Awards banquet, in which he and historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow will be presented with honorary Oscars and Francis Ford Coppola will receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. (Director Jean-Luc Godard, who isn’t scheduled to attend, will also be getting an honorary Oscar.)

This salute to Wallach’s film career is in recognition of a body of work that has been remarkably diverse for a New York Method actor, whose status as an Actors Studio standard-bearer might suggest a finickier sensibility than this ace utility player has shown. But Wallach’s ambition since growing up in the tough Red Hook section of Brooklyn has always been simply to act. Stepping into other skins is what he was destined to do, and whether it’s a bang-bang western (“The Magnificent Seven”), a film noir thriller (“The Lineup”), an upmarket Marilyn Monroe vehicle (“The Misfits”), a glittering romantic caper (“How to Steal a Million”) or a Tennessee Williams psychosexual melodrama (“Baby Doll”), his attitude remains that of a city boy eager for another game of ring-a-levio.

Wallach turns 95 on Pearl Harbor Day, which is how this World War II veteran refers to his birthday, and he’s still stealing movies with supporting performances that swell their miniature bounds with a density of actual life. His ability to chisel human instincts into striking dramatic portraits is on magnificent display in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Just listen to the apocalyptic whistle he deploys as his character, the ancient banker Jules Steinhardt, ominously sounds the alarms that the Great Depression is about to calamitously repeat itself. Another performer might think of something similar, but few could generate the same nuclear effect while sneaking in a subtle exhalation of disgust.

Does acting get any easier when you’re deep into your seniority? Wallach won’t say, but he does admit the first question he asks when offered a film role these days is, “How many weeks?” (This is true even when the asker is Eastwood and the film is “Mystic River.”) Wallach’s memory for names may be spotty, but don’t underestimate his energy — or his worry over whether his scene survives the editing room.

For a long time now, I’ve held that Eli Wallach is the finest stage actor I’ve ever seen. I missed his Broadway heyday, having been born too late to have caught him in Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” the play that brought him and his cherished costar, the late Maureen Stapleton, Tony Award renown. Nor was I around for the Charles Laughton production of “Major Barbara” or Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” with Zero Mostel or “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” which he eventually did in New York after scoring a success with the play in London.

Sadly, Wallach hasn’t been that active in the theater scene in my era, though I did review him and Jackson in “Tennessee Williams Remembered,” an endearing low-key stage tribute to the playwright whose one-act “This Property Is Condemned” brought the actors together. And I was glad not to have passed up “Visiting Mr. Green,” a rudimentary young man-old man drama that his naturalism and dramatic cunning elevated into something unexpectedly compelling.

But seared in my memory is a reading he participated in of a play that playwright-director Emily Mann had adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “Meshugah” in 1998. I had admired others in the part in the course of the work’s development, but I was blown away by Wallach’s capacity to infuse so much color, intelligence and meaning into his lines, just sitting around a table with a group of actors whose respect for him was palpable. Wallach doesn’t appear to relish the dissection of his craft, but his blend of artlessness and calibration have made him a master teacher by example.

Wallach was educated at the University of Texas in Austin, which was one of the few universities he could afford to attend during the Depression. The expectation was for him to become a teacher and he pursued graduate studies at City College in New York, but when he froze up during the teacher’s exam, he was given the chance to pursue his passion for acting.

He studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham. After graduating, he was drafted into the Army, sent to officer school shortly after and served as a medical administrator, setting up hospitals in North Africa and Europe. When he returned, he found a playwright (Williams), a fellow traveler (Jackson) and eventually a place to keep his acting muscles limber (the Actors Studio).

As a charter member of the Studio, Wallach was part of a distinguished group that was led by Robert Lewis, one of the founders of the Group Theater, and he collaborated regularly with director Elia Kazan. The actors who were there with him fomented a revolution in style, but Wallach’s eyes danced with excitement when he talked about the radical influence of Marlon Brando.

“When Kazan worked with him, he realized he had a genius,” he said. “Marlon was extraordinary. His parents … it was a difficult life he was having. But he was unbelievably sharp. When he came on in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ people in the theater were shocked by this new talent.”

I had hoped to draw out Wallach’s philosophy of acting, but he was too busy inhabiting Eli Wallach to explain how he operates. Ideas are fine, but he’d rather be with you than bandy abstractions. “I never understood the Method,” he said. “I don’t know if there is any such thing as the Method.” (It’s “the” that perturbs him, and the idea of there being a “secret” or a single way of proceeding.) And yet the rootedness of his presence, the way he’s able to respond from an authentic core and his pleasure in connection are exactly what the Method is aiming for onstage.

Wallach wasn’t able to recall any Freudian pearls of wisdom from Studio ringleader Lee Strasberg. (Whether by accident or on purpose in his memoir, “The Good, the Bad, and Me,” Wallach refers to “effective memory,” a revision of Strasberg’s Stanislavski-based “affective memory,” which tells you all you need to know about the difference between them.) But it’s not that he’s ungrateful. Once, after he had run into a spot of trouble during a scene with the heralded actress Katharine Cornell, Wallach asked Strasberg for some help, and the advice he received has proved indispensible: “Wait for your cue.”

That kind of pragmatism, built atop a solid foundation of training, has given Wallach a flexibility that has served him well in the movies. “Baby Doll” was his first film, and it’s his personal favorite, a work that represents the fruit of his theatrical experience. He acknowledged that the transition from stage to screen was made easier by Kazan, who encouraged him to take as much time as he needed to prepare for crucial moments. But the military had readied him for challenges: “I never said, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this?’ I was in the Army for five years in World War II.” Plus he had been taking mental notes on all the great French actors — Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet, Jean Louis-Barrault — and was determined to copy how they shrugged their shoulders and outwardly seemed to think as their characters.

He was supposed to have done “From Here to Eternity” before “Baby Doll,” but “Camino Real,” a daring expressionistic play by Williams, intervened. Frank Sinatra wound up getting Wallach’s role and receiving an Oscar for his performance, while “Camino” flopped on Broadway. Is he bitter? Not in the least. The experience bonded them, and he wanted on the record that all those stories about Sinatra working in an underhanded manner to get the part are false.

“Whenever I’d see Sinatra after that — we were good friends — he’d say to me, ‘You crazy actor!’” Wallach recalled. “I was pleased that he made a great success out of it. And I felt that I was in a tremendous play.”

There’s a purity to the sentiment that speaks to a talent for friendship. When he asked if I knew “Baby Doll,” and I replied, “Of course, Tennessee Williams, Carroll Baker,” he immediately added, “And Karl Malden!” — as though how could I possibly leave out his buddy and costar. An ensemble player, he’s not scheming for the spotlight. When he recollects the period in which he and his wife got to know Monroe, there’s no bragging, only a melancholy look and the remark, “I danced with her a lot in ‘The Misfits’ and in real life.”

Stardom has a way of isolating actors, but Wallach has been blessed with having had just enough success not to be cut off from the relationships that nourish him. His ethnic looks got him typecast as a screen villain early on — sometimes Mexican (the vicious Calvera in the “The Magnificent Seven,” Tuco in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) and sometimes Italian (his Emmy-winning performance as “Happy” Locarno in the TV film “The Poppy Is Also a Flower”). But there’s a gentleness to his demeanor, and it’s still possible to glimpse the amiable Jewish kid who survived the mean streets of Red Hook’s “Little Italy.”

Before saying goodbye, he wanted to share with me one of his prized possessions: a trove of black-and white photographs he obtained when he was in Berlin not long after Hitler killed himself. They were of Nazis and prisoners of war, all normal-looking young men. He showed me about 10 of them and then, before putting them away, whispered, “This is how I learned.”

Circling the living room, he pointed out a hardcover copy of his memoir and playfully mentioned that Bill Clinton told him that he wished he had thought of its witty subtitle, “In My Anecdotage.” Wallach then picked up a copy of Jackson’s memoir, “Early Stages,” and his face flooded instantly with sadness. He turned to the last page and read about having to tell his wife that her father died. He closed the book, still in the grip of an old grief, and praised the beauty of her writing.

But the words that shed the most light on Wallach’s joyful gift as an actor are the ones that he read from a letter written by Williams. The subject was the place that Wallach and Jackson occupied in the playwright’s heart: “My strongest thoughts on these people, who created a family before my eyes as they became a part of my own, is that Anne has a cauterizing instinct that cannot allow a faltering standard or an unexamined emotion, and Eli has discovered the secret to pissing everyone off: He is happy.”