Eli Wallach dies: 10 memorable movie roles from his long career

Eli Wallach dies: 10 memorable movie roles from his long career
Eli Wallach in a file photo from the 1965 film "Lord Jim." (Ken Danvers / Associated Press)

Eli Wallach, the chameleonic stage and screen actor who died Tuesday at the age of 98, was one of the most prolific and enduring performers of his time.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised by Polish immigrants, Wallach served in World War II and afterward became a charter member of the Actors Studio, along with wife Anne Jackson, director Elia Kazan and fellow thespians Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman and Shelley Winters.


As one of the original Method actors, he would spend a seven-decade career bringing his characters to life and exploring what made them tick, whether they were thugs and criminals or, less frequently, shining heroes.

Here are but 10 of Wallach's memorable movie roles — five from his early years and five from his later years.

"Baby Doll" (1956): Wallach often said his first film was also his favorite. Directed by Kazan and adapted by Tennessee Williams from two of his one-act plays, "Baby Doll" starred Wallach as a sleazy but smooth-talking cotton gin owner who seduces his rival's virgin bride to avenge an act of sabotage.

The film ignited controversy with its racy sexual undertones and was condemned by Cardinal Francis Spellman and the National Legion of Decency. Still, "Baby Doll" performed decently at the box office and earned four Oscar nominations, and Wallach also won a BAFTA prize for most promising newcomer.

"The Magnificent Seven" (1960): The first of Wallach's two famous outlaw roles came in John Sturges' western remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." Wallach didn't play one of the titular heroes — whose ranks included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson — but rather their nemesis, Calvera, the leader of a gang of Mexican bandits.

As usual, Wallach brought nuance to what could have been a one-note role, infusing the silk-shirted, gold-toothed villain with menacing charm.

"The Misfits" (1961): Wallach followed up "Magnificent Seven" with a supporting role in John Huston's drama, which featured a screenplay by Arthur Miller and was notable for being the final film of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Wallach brought an unnerving angst to the ranch hand Guido, who pines for Monroe's beautiful divorcée despite her involvement with Gable's aging cowboy.

"Lord Jim" (1965): Wallach starred opposite another big star, Peter O'Toole, in Richard Brooks' three-hour epic based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. O'Toole played the disgraced English seaman of the title, and Wallach once again portrayed a villain, the warlord known as the General.

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966): Wallach returned to the realm of the western opposite a newcomer named Clint Eastwood, who was just breaking out of his "Rawhide" role on TV. Eastwood was "the good," Lee Van Cleef was "the bad," and Wallach was "the ugly," a.k.a. the grubby, spirited Mexican gunman Tuco.

Wallach was associated with the character so deeply that passersby would whistle the film's musical theme (by Ennio Morricone) in his presence for decades to follow.

"The Hunter" (1980): Wallach reunited with "Magnificent Seven" costar McQueen in what would be the latter's final movie, a thriller based on real-life bounty hunter Ralph "Papa" Thorson. McQueen played Thorson, while Wallach stole scenes and injected some humor as a nearsighted bail bondsman who enlists his services.

"The Godfather Part III" (1990): Wallach joined Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy to play the elderly New York mob boss Don Altobello, a longtime ally of the Corleone crime family. Altobello apparently didn't learn that it's unwise to cross the Corleones — he did so and received his comeuppance in the form of a poisoned cannoli.

"The Two Jakes" (1990): Wallach had another supporting role in the much-delayed sequel to the classic 1975 neo-noir "Chinatown." Jack Nicholson reprised his role as private eye Jake Gittes and directed the film, which unlike its predecessor underperformed at the box office and met with mixed reviews.


Wallach once said in an interview, "The trouble with that movie is that you had to see 'Chinatown' the day before you saw 'The Two Jakes.'"

"The Holiday" (2006): Wallach didn't always play tough guys. In Nancy Meyers' Christmasy romantic comedy, he played a kindly old man who was once a famous screenwriter during Hollywood's Golden Age. Wallach's costar Kate Winslet would later declare Wallach her "very own Sexiest Man Alive" at a gala honoring him.

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010): A working actor to the very end, Wallach made his final screen appearance in Oliver Stone's follow-up to the 1987 financial drama "Wall Street." At age 94, Wallach once again made the most of a supporting role, this time as a wise old banker predicting a financial apocalypse. His most memorable line wasn't even a line, but an ominous whistle that said it all.

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