“It Took Me 20 Years to Become an Actor”: A Conversation with the Late, Great Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach is revered as one of the greatest character actors in cinema history. With a film, television and stage career spanning several decades, through roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Misfits and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, until as late as 2010 in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Ghost Writer, this one-off in the showbusiness world still offers inspiration to today’s storytellers.

On January 4, 2007, just a few days before he received his National Board of Review Career Achievement Award, I visited Eli at the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife of four decades, the great actress Anne Jackson. I brought along the young actress Lauren Waisbren, a recent graduate of The Neighborhood Playhouse where I taught acting for the camera for six years and which was the alma mater of both Eli and Anne. It was only fitting that, as a tribute to Eli at the NBR Awards Gala, the entire graduating Class of 2007 was on hand to cheer him as yet another NeighPlay graduate, Marian Seldes, presented him with his award.

During our conversation that morning, Eli was a most gracious host to Lauren and me, sitting at the dining room table surrounded by his family’s paintings and drawings.

John Gallagher, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Italian jewelers Bulgari is sponsoring the National Board of Review awards. You’ve done a lot of work in Italy, besides the Leone classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Eli Wallach (EW): I love working in Italy. I’ve worked with some wonderful Italian actors. Nino Manfredi, Claudia Cardinale… a girl named Mariangela Melato…

MM: From Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away.

EW: That’s right. The Italians are very kind to American actors.

MM: Ben Gazzara’s made a lot of pictures there, in fact he lives there part time. He’s a good friend, I directed him in a movie.

EW: Oh, I love Ben. He had that terrible throat cancer yet we went to speak somewhere and he did the Gettysburg Address and he was just wonderful.

MM: He was outstanding on Broadway last year in Awake and Sing!

EW: Yes, he played the old man. Anne did it.

MM: You did a lot of theatre before you did film.

EW: I did theatre for ten years before movies.

MM: Did you find it difficult to adjust?

EW: No, I just didn’t want to do movies. I just wanted to act on the stage. Annie and I were members of the American Repertory Theatre. We did Shakespeare—six productions in the first year.

Lauren Waisbren (LW): What Shakespearean productions did you do?

EW: The first one was Henry VIII, and the second one was Antony and Cleopatra with Katharine Cornell. Do you like Shakespeare?

LW: Yes, I love it.

EW: Good! Good for you!

MM: Could you share some of your memories of the Neighborhood Playhouse? It was at a different location when you trained there.

EW: When I first went there it was off Broadway on 46th Street. Sandy [Sanford] Meisner was the acting teacher, Martha Graham was the dance teacher and Laura Elliott was the voice coach. Gregory Peck and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. were students when I was there. You see, all my family were teachers and I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be an actor.  They said, “No, you can’t, you gotta go get a job, become a teacher!” So I went to City College after I graduated from the University of Texas, class of 1936.

Eli Wallach. Courtesy of Pixabay

MM: In Austin?

EW: In Austin. And in my class at UT was John Conally, who became Governor and was shot in the car with JFK, and Zachary Scott the actor, his wife Elaine who later married John Steinbeck, and Walter Cronkite. In my first play at the Curtain Club, something called The Ninth Guest, Walter played a doctor who came in with his little black medical bag and said, “Where’s the body?” The girl playing his wife said, “He’s in the closet.” Walter opened the closet door and I fell out! And that was my baptism.

MM: How did you end up at the Neighborhood Playhouse?

EW: I failed the teacher’s exam at City College. I got an audition at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Mr. [Sanford] Meisner. He was very stylish, wearing a beautiful suit, smoking a cigarette and he said, “OK, let’s hear your audition.” I did a piece of poetry about guys dying in the war and he said, “Alright, we’ll take you in, we’ll give you a scholarship… but it’s gonna take you 20 years.” I thought, “Does he know who I am?” I said to him, “I did Liliom at the University of Texas.” He said, “I don’t care, it’s gonna take you 20 years.” And he was right, took me 20 years to become an actor.

MM: There’s a wonderful photo when you walk in the Playhouse today of you and Tony Randall in Martha Graham’s dance class in 1939.

EW: Tony was marvelous. Tony was always gallant and wonderful. He would memorize all of Thomas Wolfe’s books. I had a five-dollar-a-week scholarship, that took care of the subway back and forth to Brooklyn, my lunches and my cigarettes.

MM: Today’s Neighborhood Playhouse is a two-year program, classes five days a week, and only a portion of the first year class is invited back for the second year…

EW: It was the same thing then, exactly. Five days a week, two year program—acting, voice, dance.

MM: What was it like at the Actors Studio after being at the Playhouse?

EW: You know, everybody thinks Lee Strasberg was part of the Actors Studio at the beginning. He wasn’t. Annie and I were in the first class in 1947, and it was Bobby Lewis, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. The three of them founded it, and they were Group Theatre people. The best thing at the Studio was you could do scenes with Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, the women in there, Annie, and it was a way to grow. It was like a gymnasium. But don’t forget, I had been working at a method school at the Neighborhood Playhouse.

Meisner didn’t like Strasberg. Meisner was very very clever in his teaching. The first year I kept thinking, “What’s this?”  You’d walk into the classroom and Meisner would be sitting there and suddenly he’d bang on the table to see how we’d react. I kept thinking, “This is a school for learning how to hold up banks,” because there was always robbery involved. The second year I did some wonderful pieces. I said to Martha Graham, there was the painter, oh what was his name, he painted his mother…

LW: Edgar Lee Masters?

EW: Edgar Lee Masters. I said to Martha Graham, “They wouldn’t buy any of Edgar Lee Masters paintings cause he wrote his name across the top.” No one wanted to buy his paintings. He said, “I’ll never paint again,” then he said, “No, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I will put a butterfly somewhere in my painting and you won’t know where it is.” It’s like Al Hirschfeld, he hid his daughter’s name ‘Nina’ in every one of his drawings.

So when I left the Neighborhood Playhouse I said to Martha, “Every piece I do there’s going to be one pure Martha Graham movement.” So I go to London to do The Teahouse of the August Moon, I played a Japanese [person], and I’m rehearsing. There’s a big sign that says Martha Graham in concert, I go back to see the doorman, he lets me go back to see her and she said to me, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m following you to the ends of the earth.” She said, “I’ve seen you on the stage, where are you putting in the pure Graham movement?” I said, “The thing is, I can never reveal where I put it!”

MM: There’s been such a debate over the years about method acting. Can you define it? Or is there even a definition?

EW: Every teacher of acting has his own method. Meisner had his technique. I studied with Bobby Lewis at the Actors Studio. My first Broadway play Camino Real and my first movie Baby Doll, Elia Kazan directed both. I wasn’t interested in the movies, I was just interested in plays. I did The Rose Tattoo on Broadway for a year-and-a-half with Tennessee Williams. I spent two years with Henry Fonda in Mr. Roberts on the stage. Annie and I did Major Barbara with Charles Laughton. You learn from all of them. Annie did a movie before I did [So Young, So Bad in 1950]… (to Lauren) Do you know how long we’ve been acting together?

LW: How long?

EW: Since 1946. Where were you?

LW: I was a sparkle in my grandparents’ eyes!

EW: Now we have three children.

LW: Three girls?

EW: Two girls and my oldest is a boy, Peter. He’s quite an artist. Wonderful painter and animator. But I don’t know, I just wanted to do plays. We do an evening called Tennessee Williams Remembered in which we do five plays of Tennessee’s that we did.

We met doing This Property Is Condemned, a one-act play at the Equity Library Theatre—a place where agents and producers could come see us work. The director, Terry Hayden, said, “Let’s make a movie of it, we have $200.” It all takes place on a railroad track and we went to New Jersey and filmed it. So in Tennessee Williams Remembered we do the actual scene and then I say, “You know, we wanted to make a movie so you’d remember it so please sit back,” I say to the audience and we put our backs to the audience and I say “Screen,” and out comes the picture that we made. That’s how we start the evening.

The second thing was, Annie did Summer and Smoke, and we tell stories about Tennessee, and we do Camino Real, The Rose Tattoo and we did The Glass Menagerie on tour with Tennessee helping us. And of course my first movie was written by Tennessee, Baby Doll, based on two one-acts, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Unsatisfactory Supper.

MM: One of the most memorable scenes in Baby Doll is you and Carroll Baker outside in the swing. It’s very sexy and erotic but all you see are close-ups of your faces. I understand it was very cold that day.

EW: It was freezing. We were in Mississippi but it was very cold. They had heating pads down below. The movie was condemned by the Catholic Church… (to Lauren) Are you Catholic?

LW: No, I’m Jewish.

EW: It was condemned by the Catholic Church but all the Catholics in New York went to see it!

MM: I’m half Sicilian and we always thought you were too because of Baby Doll.

EW: Well, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, on Union Street.

MM: A lot of movie buffs think that Sergio Leone cast you as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, because of your performance as the bandit Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, but it was really because of your work in How The West Was Won.

EW: That’s true! He picked up on some shooting gestures I made with an imaginary six-shooter to George Peppard’s little boys in the picture. I didn’t know how I got the job and then I found out later.

MM: How did Sergio Leone communicate to you on the set? Did he speak English?

EW: He spoke mostly French to me and Clint and Lee. He used to call me “Ee-LY” emphasizing the second syllable. Next month I’m going to see Ennio Morricone conduct an orchestra here in New York and I’ve never met him before! I’ve always said if only I’d heard the music before I would have played him differently. Have you ever seen the first movie I ever made, The Magnificent Seven?

MM: I grew up on that movie.

EW: (to Lauren) You’ve never seen me as a bandit.

LW: Were you a convincing villain?

EW: (to John) Was I?

MM: You better believe it.

EW: We shot The Magnificent Seven down in Mexico, just outside of Cuernavaca, and Anne came down to visit me. The kids always came whenever I was shooting. They came to northern Spain when I was shooting The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and watched me do a scene with Clint [Eastwood].

LW: When you saw Anne for the first time when you did This Property Is Condemned, did you have love-at-first-sight lightning bolts?

EW: She thought I was too old. When I first walked in I was still in uniform, I had been in the Army, five years in World War Two. I just showed John some pictures of the Nazis I found in Berlin in 1945 just after Hitler committed suicide. I’m donating them to the Holocaust museum in Washington. Anyway, Annie thought I was too old for her. We’ve been married 58 years.

LW: Congratulations!

EW: Well, the first 30 were the hardest.

MM: You always seem to do such wonderful bits of business, like Tuco brushing his teeth with his finger in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Do you plan these things ahead of time or do they come out of the moment?

EW: Well, I’ll give you an example. In the first Western I made, The Magnificent Seven, I said to the wonderful director John Sturges, “When I was a little boy watching Westerns, I never saw what the bandits did with the money. I would like to show you what I do with the money.” So I wore red silk shirts, I went to the dentist and had two gold caps put on my own teeth. The Mexican dentist said never mind the gold teeth, I will drill a hole in your own tooth and put a diamond in there, I said no thanks I’ll just do the gold! So that’s how things happen, out of thinking about your character. I’ve just finished a movie, have you seen—

LW: The Holiday? I thought it was great!

EW: With Kate [Winslet]. She’s wonderful because she’s a gifted girl who has a brain in her head and doesn’t do it like the usual girls you meet in the movies. We bonded from the first day of shooting. I’m walking with a walker and I’m lost and she’s driving an American automobile and she pulls over and asks me, “Can I help you get home?” And I say, “Why, do you know where I live?” She says, “Yes I do,” and I say “Well that makes one of us.” We bonded from then on, we talked. I keep saying to her I don’t like what happened in Hollywood, I really don’t… In the beginning I didn’t want to do movies. I said, “One is enough, I’ll just go back and do plays.” After a while I realized how difficult it is making movies.

MM: In what sense?

EW: It’s like pointillism. You put little dots on the canvas and you don’t understand what the hell it is until you step back and look at it and there’s a painting.

MM: You did a couple of films with tough guy director Henry Hathaway.

EW: The first one I did with him, Seven Thieves, I played a homosexual saxophone player, with Eddie Robinson, Joan Collins and Rod Steiger. I’ll tell you a funny story. We’re planning to rob a casino in Monte Carlo and we’re sitting there with the maps. We do a short rehearsal and Hathaway goes to check on the lighting. Meanwhile Rod’s there with us looking at the map and he keeps repeating his line: “Look, if we go in the front door I think we can make it,” then he says “If we go in the front door I think we can make it,” then he says “If we go in the front door I think we can make it.” Hathaway says, “Action!” and Steiger says, “If we go in the front door I think we can make it.” Eddie Robinson looks at him and says, “And I don’t remember my fucking line.”

MM: Is it true that Richard Brooks, writer-director of Lord Jim, only gave you the scenes you were to shoot the next day, not the whole script?

EW: Not quite true, not quite true. That was a Joseph Conrad novel, not an original script so perhaps he wasn’t afraid of another company getting a similar picture out there first… especially just a few years later when TV started making movies. Brooks was wonderful. A little crazy. He was an ex-Marine. He and I got along but he could be very difficult. We shot that in Cambodia, the Vietnam War was just starting.

I just saw Peter O’Toole in Venus, I’ve done three movies with Peter—Lord Jim, one with Audrey Hepburn and William Wyler [How to Steal a Million]. See, I had great directors —Wyler, Kazan, Hathaway, Huston… Huston once said to me [on The Misfits], I had a scene with Clark Gable, and I was drinking and angry cause Marilyn Monroe was dancing with Monty Clift. The table was littered with glasses of wine and I was playing the scene very drunk, very drunk. While they’re lighting, Huston walked up to me and said, “Eli, you know the drunkest I ever was?” I said, “No,” he said “Yesterday.” I said, “I was with you all day yesterday.” He said, “That’s the drunkest I ever was.” He walked away. “Action.” And I kept thinking, “He’s directing me by indirection. He’s saying. ‘Don’t be so obviously drunk.’”

LW: Don’t indicate.

EW: Drunks try to be sober. Gable sat next to me and he started to laugh. The first day I worked with Clark Gable on The Misfits, I’m sitting in my truck and Gable leans on the window. Huston says, “Action,” and I kept staring at Clark Gable, thinking, “This is the King of the Movies. He is the King of the Movies, and I hope he doesn’t know that I never saw Gone With The Wind.” This is what I’m thinking in my mind, right? And Gable is looking at me, thinking, “Who the hell is this guy from New York, with the Method, this Method, I don’t understand this Method!” So we’re staring at each other and Huston says, “What happened? I said, ‘Action!’” I said,”I don’t know, he—,” and Gable said, “He—I don’t know.” Huston ordered a drink for both of us, we each had a drink and from then on Gable and I talked only about theatre.

MM: People forget he was a stage actor. He did Machinal on Broadway and The Last Mile in L.A.

EW: That’s right.

MM: You knew Marilyn Monroe before the picture, obviously.

EW: Yeah, from New York. We used to like to dance.

MM: That’s a wonderful scene where you dance with her in The Misfits.

EW: She was always worried… her marriage was breaking up. And she felt that the camera was an X-ray machine and could tell what she was really thinking, so she could never come to set on time. She never, in two and a half months in Reno, Nevada, never came on time. I said to Gable, “Did you ever think of chastising her, did you ever think of saying what are you doing, you’re always an hour, two hours late.” He said, “No, if I did that, it would tighten her up even more, she wouldn’t be able to speak at all.” Both Gable and Marilyn were doing The Misfits as a challenge, doing a piece of work that was different from what they usually did in a movie.

MM: On How to Steal a Million, is it true that William Wyler would do endless takes?

EW: Yeah. Annie made the movie with Stanley Kubrick called The Shining with Jack Nicholson, and she did ten or 12 takes, and finally she said to him, “Listen, I can imitate anything, I can do it, so please tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it,” and he said, “I never tell anybody to do anything.” That was also the case with Wyler.

MM: I guess he knew what he wanted when he saw it.

EW: He also couldn’t hear too well.

MM: That’s right, he had the war injury.

EW: But Audrey [Hepburn] was wonderful, she was so sweet.

MM: These directors you worked with were larger than life. And worked without interference.

EW: On Baby Doll, Tennessee came on the set only once. Kazan was the one who did the talking.

MM: You know, every year, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly becomes more of a classic. The critics consider it one of the great films.

EW: They didn’t at the time!

MM: They called it a Spaghetti Western but it’s a brilliant work of art. What was Lee Van Cleef like?

EW: People ask me a lot about him. He’d made quite a number of films, Westerns mostly, but small parts until Sergio cast him opposite Clint in For a Few Dollars More. His wife was with him on location and he was very happy—he had just bought her a new Mercedes. We became good friends. The thing I liked about Clint was that he had made A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, and the focus in this third of the trilogy was on me, and Clint was my mentor. He’d say to me, “Listen, don’t be smart, don’t try any stunts because they can be very dangerous with the Italians, they’ll say, ‘Jump out of the window!’” You saw the movie?

Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven. Courtesy of United Artists

MM: A hundred times.

EW: My first scene in the movie is I jump out of the window, I crash through a window with a bottle of wine and a chicken. I thought, “Jeez, I’m jumping out of windows now.” But Clint was very helpful.

MM: You obviously rode before in The Magnificent Seven.

EW: I’ve been riding horses since 1933.

MM: You had to have been a horseman because your riding is too good.

EW: Well, I rode in Texas at the University of Texas. They taught me how to exercise the polo ponies, and I liked to ride, particularly Western saddle, not the British style.

LW: It’s harder to ride Western, much bumpier, but you can find a way to get control.

EW: That’s right. What I don’t like about the English riding is you have to post. You do this and they’ll throw you. No, you get on a horse… I’ve done some good riding, particularly abroad, where it’s dangerous. You do a Western in America and the horses hit their marks.

MM: They’re movie horses.

EW: They’re movie horses! I did a couple of them in Europe, Ace High and Romance of a Horsethief.

MM: That was directed by Abraham Polonsky, the blacklisted director.

EW: When I was doing The Teahouse of the August Moon in London in the Fifties, a lot of the blacklisted directors and actors had fled this country and gone over there.

MM: When Sergio Leone offered Henry Fonda the role in Once Upon a Time in the West, didn’t Fonda call you?

EW: Yep, he called me up and he said, “I don’t understand this. They want me to shoot and kill a little boy. I can’t.” I said, “Who’s the director?” He said “Leone.” I said, “Do the movie,” and later he called me and said, “Thank God I did it,” because he was wonderful. You know, when I first got to Italy, Sergio said to me, “Ee-LY, I don’t want you to put your gun in a holster.” I said, “So where do I put the gun?” He said, “You have a rope around your neck, and when you want the gun, you twist your shoulders, I cut to your hand and there’s the gun.” I said, “Could you show me?” He weighed about 300 pounds, he put the rope around his neck, twists his shoulders, the gun missed his hand, hit him in the groin. He said, “All right. Keep it in your pocket.” So for the rest of the picture I kept it in my pocket.

What I like about Clint is he said, “When I leave here I’m not gonna make any more Spaghetti Westerns. I’m going back to California, I’m gonna form my own company, work with Don Siegel, and I’m going to star in and direct movies.” I thought, “That’ll be the day!” MM

Featured image photograph by S. Bukley, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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