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'Fresh Air' Remembers Actor Eli Wallach


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Eli Wallach, the veteran stage and screen actor, died Tuesday. He was 98 years old. Wallach appeared in more than four dozen films over the past five decades and received an honorary Oscar in 2010. He won a Tony Award for starring in the Tennessee Williams play, "The Rose Tattoo," and made his film debut in another drama written by Williams, "Baby Doll." He appeared in such films as "The Magnificent Seven," "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" and "The Misfits." He also was a charter member of the Actors Studio, where the actors practiced a technique that became known as the Method. When Terry Gross interviewed Eli Wallach in 1990, here's what he had to say about the Method.


ELI WALLACH: All of it, basically, was an antidote from the cliche, from the conventional. You know, when an actor says, I remember, and he always looks up at the sky, you think, what is he seeing up there? But that was a signal that he's remembering. And the Method basically was to destroy all that and to get to the truth of a situation. So the studio was like a laboratory. We were professional actors in the theater, but we could go there and work out. I could go and do a scene from "Hamlet" with Billy Dunning(ph), for example. I'd do the closet scene. I wouldn't get to do that on Broadway, and I did it there.


Let's go back to the cliched way of I remember when, and the actor looks at the sky. If you had a scene where you were remembering something, what would you do differently to get into it, I mean?

WALLACH: Well, I would actually try to remember. I - although I know the next line - it says, it was that time of - have you ever forgotten something, and the person says, it's like having water in your ear. You go to sleep, and it'll come out. The water will come out of your ear later. And you've heard people say, ten minutes after they try to think of something, oh. And then they'll say, Palm Beach. That's what you - that's what I look for - the true situation, not the cliche.

GROSS: Yet, there were cliches about actors who studied the Method at the Actor Studio, right? What was the cliche that you had to resist about actors from the Actor Studio?

WALLACH: Well, there's a myth that all members of the studio mumbled. All members of the studio paid no attention to the other person. They were so involved in dredging up the truth of what they had that they paid no attention to the other person. Those are myths. We were impossible. We discovered a new religion, and we had no patience for other actors. I never forget taking Sir Laurence Olivier to the Actors Studio. And he said, well, I can see you're nitpicking now, you know. And I said, well, you did it, too. You have your way of working. Olivier, for example, gets into a character by putting on the externals. He puts on the nose and the robe and so on, and that's the way he gets it. Others say, which comes first? Do you find the truth of the situation? I've played all sorts of characters. Bandits - I've played a lot of bandits. And one time, I figured out you always see them holding up the train or breaking into the bank. You never see what they do with the money. It's always the pursuit of it. I wanted to show the reverse side of the coin. I wanted to show the wealth this guy ostentatiously had. So I put on red silk shirts and gold teeth and silver saddles. And that - that's the way the method helps - a kind of a technique that you work at to bring a character to life.

GROSS: Is that "The Magnificent Seven"?

WALLACH: That was "The Magnificent Seven." Yeah.

GROSS: Since you've brought up how many bandits you've played, let me bring up a couple of films you've played them in. One was "The Magnificent Seven," and you played the head of a band of Mexican outlaws...


GROSS: ...Who raids a village and keeps this village under the outlaw's controls - control. And the Magnificent Seven is a group of kind of renegade, freelance fighters who save the - this Mexican village. How'd you get cast in that role?

WALLACH: I don't know.

GROSS: First of all, you were Mexican, and...

WALLACH: I don't really know. I know that when I first read the script, I said, well, I want to play the crazy - it was based on the "Seven Samurai." I want to play the crazy samurai. Oh, no, they said, that's the love interest. Horst Buchholz is going to play it. What do you want me to play? They said, the head bandit. I said, well, in the Japanese movie, you just see his horse's hooves, and he's a man with an eye patch. I don't want to play that. Then, I read the script carefully, and I come in - ride into town in the first minute of that movie, shoot somebody and ride out. The next 50 minutes of that movie are devoted to me, saying, is he coming back? When is he coming? I said, I'll do it. I'll do it. And I loved - 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 ride through the brush in Tepotzotlan in Mexico. And I loved it. I loved it.

GROSS: Did you have to learn gunplay and horse-riding for the role?

WALLACH: No. If it says I shoot somebody, I shoot them. I'll never forget what my son said. Yul Brynner shot and killed me in this movie. And my son was about seven, and he said to me, gee, Dad, couldn't you outdraw Yul Brynner? I said, Peter, when you read the script, you read whether you're shot or not shot. So I loved - I love those kind of films. They're fun.

GROSS: Now another famous Western that you did is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."


GROSS: Now this was the - this is the most celebrated of the spaghetti Westerns.

WALLACH: Correct.

GROSS: And the director, Sergio Leone, is now considered one of the great directors of our time. He was not known, though, when you worked with him on the "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Did you think of him as a great or potentially great director then?

WALLACH: No, I - when - I was making a film in California when the agent out there said, there's an Italian here who wants you to be in a movie. I said, what kind of movie? He said, a Western. I said - he said, a spaghetti Western. I said, that's an anomaly. That's like Hawaiian pizza. I don't know. He said, he wants you to look at a few minutes of one of his other movies. And I looked at a few minutes, and I said, I'll do it. Where do you want me to go? He said, I want you in Rome on such and such a date. And I arrived, and I spent the next four and a half months working every day on that movie. And it was an exhilarating experience.

GROSS: Now what had he seen of yours?

WALLACH: Evidently, "The Magnificent Seven." So that - I don't know how - you never know how things happen in the movies.

GROSS: You played a Mexican in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."


GROSS: So once again, you had to do a Mexican accent, but it was a light one. It was...


GROSS: ...kind of light Mexican accent.

GROSS: I want to play a short clip from the movie.


GROSS: OK. And this is the scene - if anyone remembers the story - I'm sure a lot of our listeners do - you and Clint Eastwood have this scam going. There's a big price on your head.


GROSS: So Clint Eastwood brings you into the law. And just as they're about to hang you, he cuts you loose. And you both ride away, and you split the bounty.

WALLACH: Exactly.

GROSS: So you split the price that was on your head. So this was after - this is after the first time, when you're about to be hung. Clint Eastwood frees you, and you're splitting up the bounty.



WALLACH: (As Tuco) There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend - those with a rope around their neck and the people who have the job of doing the cutting. Listen, the neck at the end of the rope is mine. I run the risks. So the next time, I want more than half.

CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Blondie) You may run the risks, my friend, but I do the cutting. We cut down my percentage - cigar? - liable to interfere with my aim.

WALLACH: (As Tuco) But if you miss, you had better miss very well. Whoever double crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. (Laughing) Nothing.

GROSS: I love that little sadistic laugh at the end. (Laughing).

WALLACH: But I don't think it's a very good Mexican accent. I - you know, it's standardized. It isn't - I didn't do the cliche of - I think, maybe I do like that. You know, I don't - I didn't do that. I wanted specifically to be clear in what I was saying.

GROSS: So where did you get the accent from?

WALLACH: I went to school in Texas as a young man. I went to the University of Texas in the '30s. In my class were John Connolly, Walter Cronkite...


WALLACH: ...Zachary Scott and Elaine Steinbeck. And I used to ride horses down there, and I used to go to Mexico as often as I could. I loved Mexico. I think Mexico is a pure country. It's a good country. And so I picked up - accents always frighten me, but I once played an Oriental on the stage in London - "Tea House of the August Moon." And I was convinced that, at some point in the play, some Japanese man would stand up in the audience and point at me and say, faker. That man is not an Oriental, see?

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: And I'd get terrified that I'd get discovered.

GROSS: In the Italian Westerns that you made, especially in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," everything's dubbed, right?


GROSS: Afterwards?


GROSS: So what language did you do it in initially?

WALLACH: Oh, I'd do it in English.

GROSS: You'd do it in English.

WALLACH: And I've played with Italians, French, German. They play in their language. I play in mine.

GROSS: So in these international casts, everybody's talking in their own languages.

WALLACH: Exactly.

GROSS: And it's dubbed in afterwards.

WALLACH: It's the Tower of Babel. It really is. But you wait until they stop speaking or you know what the sense of what they're saying. But then you have to go in the studio and dub it. And I kept thinking of scenes on horseback, riding through the dessert. Now I'm in a studio. I have to match the essence of what he's saying. It's not easy.

GROSS: Why did they do it that way?

WALLACH: Because it's easier and cheaper. An airplane flies over - they don't stop a scene. They drop a wrench in the middle of a scene. It makes a noise. They don't care. Two other Italians over in a corner will be arguing about something.

One director said to an Italian actor who's playing with me - he said to me - the Italian actor said, I don't like Americans. I said, why? He said, I lost my arm in the war. I said, well, I don't know. What could I do? He was not an actor. So the director said, I want you to count from one to 10, angrily. So the man said (Italian spoken). And then when they dub it in, he's playing a wonderful scene, an angry actor.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: Well, that's movies.

BIANCULLI: Eli Wallach speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1990 interview with Eli Wallach. The veteran stage and screen actor died Tuesday at age 98.

GROSS: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is really one of the most kind of brutal, sadistic Westerns, in a way.

WALLACH: No, it's done with tongue in cheek.

GROSS: I know.

WALLACH: It's not brutal.

GROSS: I know. It is - I know there's a lot of humor in it. But what kind of mood did Leone tell you that he wanted?

WALLACH: One of the things he said to me - he said, I want every shot to be done like Vermeer. I want the light to come in from the side windows. And he said to me, I don't want you to have your gun in a holster. I said, where will I put it? He said, with a lanyard around your neck. I said, oh, and then it dangles between my knees, right?

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: He said, yeah. He said, when you want it, you twist your shoulders. And I cut, and the gun is in your hand. I said, show me. He put it around his neck. He twisted his shoulder. He missed the gun. It hit him in the groin. He said, keep it in your pocket. So that's - that's...

GROSS: (Laughing) It's interesting that you became a kind of action hero when you were - what? - probably in your 50s already.

WALLACH: When - "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"?

GROSS: And "The Magnificent Seven."

WALLACH: Yeah. I was - I was a little younger.

GROSS: No, you must have been in your 40s in "The Magnificent Seven."

WALLACH: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But you know, like, today most action heroes are a lot younger. It's like they start off in their 20s and 30s playing that kind of role.


GROSS: Did you - did you feel like it was an odd match?

WALLACH: Well, you wear very tight pants in these - in these movies.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: And to get up on a horse, they'd always have to cut. I'd put my foot in the stirrup, but then they'd cut away to somebody looking at me. And the next thing, I was on the horse.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: So, no - I'll tell you.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: In "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," I did most of the stunts, and they were very dangerous. I was sitting on a horse with a noose around my neck, and Clint's supposed to shoot the rope. Then, they put a little charge of dynamite in the rope, and it would explode. And, then, I would ride off on this horse.

I said, did you put any cotton in the horse's ears? They said, what do you mean - cotton in the horse's ears? I said, he can hear the explosion. He's going to be terrified. My hands are tied behind me. Well, they didn't do it. They shot the rope, and that horse took off. I - and I'm riding not using reins, just using my knees and praying that that horse would eventually stop. And eventually, he did, but it was frightening.

GROSS: Oh, I'm really impressed because, I mean, that horse really takes off...

WALLACH: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...After the gun goes off.

WALLACH: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And I assumed there was some kind of trick there or something because I figured it would really need a stunt rider to ride like that with their hands tied behind their back.

WALLACH: No, I rode. I rode. But you have to be very careful. Horses are not - you know, I just came from Lexington, Kentucky, in the horse country. We did the play down there. And horses are not supposed to be too smart. They're - thoroughbreds are very frisky. They're angry most of the time.

GROSS: Yeah.

WALLACH: The horses I get in America - in American films are trained. They know how to hit their marks. They shift their weight. They look great.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: But when you get into a foreign movie, and they bring out a horse, I say, I want the gentlest, sweetest horse. And he usually turns around and looks at me when I sit on him and thinks, oh, God. I've got this guy for three weeks.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: But I like - I like riding.

GROSS: I want to get back to something you were saying before. You were describing how you learned how to ride a horse and how you learned a Mexican accent when you were at the University of Texas. I can't think of a lot of people from Brooklyn who went to Texas to go to college in - this must have been - what? - the 1940s.

WALLACH: In the '30s.

GROSS: In the '30s. What got you to Texas to go to college?

WALLACH: The tuition was $30 a year. The University of Texas was an oil-rich college - university. It's a huge plant now with 40 - 50,000 students. When I went it, it was 4,000 students. And I couldn't get into City College. I didn't have the grades. I never liked high school. And I finally wound up down in Texas. I'll never forget - after the first semester, I went back up to New York to make some money for my tuition. And I wore a big belt that said Tex - Texas on it. And they used to call me Tex. Here I was from Brooklyn. And so they assigned me as a horseback-riding counselor, and so I had to ride. That's one the reasons I rode a lot.

GROSS: When did you start acting?

WALLACH: As a boy. As a little boy. I - and before the war, I went into the Neighborhood Playhouse. I failed the teacher's exam. Everybody in my family were teachers. Thank god I failed it. And I went and got a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. It's a wonderful acting school. I finished - one of the teachers was Martha Graham. Sanford Meisner, so on. I finished in 1940. And I - we did - our senior project was a dance from "Look Homeward, Angel." We choreographed it. Tony Randall was in the class. We choreographed "Look Homeward, Angel."

And at one point, Uncle Sam stands on a thing and points a finger at me and says, Uncle Sam wants you. And sure enough, I got a low number in the draft, and Uncle Sam got me. So I went in the army at the end of 1940 and got out at the end of 1945. So I spent five full years in the army, not acting. I kept thinking, Broadway, here I come. And Uncle Sam kept saying, wait a minute. We've got problems here. So I spent five years as a medical administrator in the army.

GROSS: You've, throughout your career, divided your time between theater and movies. Have you had a - have you had a preference? How have you - what kind of balance have you wanted to keep?

WALLACH: Well, I've got the appetite, still, to act. I love to act. And I don't care where it is. It could be in a tiny theater in Chicago, or it can be on a huge stage in New York or a movie in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. The fact is that I'm acting in each one of those media - in the media. But if given a choice - if I were told by a judge, you can only practice one of television, movies or the theater, I'd choose the theater without hesitation.


WALLACH: Because the gratification is immediate. There's a connection between me and an audience. I have control over what you see. In a movie, you only see what's put on the screen. I did that movie, "The Two Jakes," with Jack Nicholson. When they cut it and edited it, they had - I had a long scene in a courtroom that was cut out. Now, no one knows about that. In "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly," there's 20 minutes of me tracking down Clint Eastwood in a cave. It's beautiful - brilliantly shot. No one has ever seen it. So I don't like that. I like to have control over what you see.

GROSS: Eli Wallach is my guest. We'll be seeing you soon in "Godfather III."

WALLACH: I play a character called Don Altobello.

GROSS: You're Italian again.

WALLACH: Yes. Tall and handsome. Don Altobello, an old, old friend of the Corleone family. So I said to - I said to Coppola, the director, if I'm such an old, old friend of the family, why wasn't I in "Godfather I" and "Godfather II"?

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: He says, well, you were away in Sicily. And it was very sweet. The second day I was going to work on this movie, he said, you're going to play it all in Sicilian. I said, now I don't know Sicilian. He said, well, get a guy, get a cassette. You'll memorize it. So I memorized it, and there'll be subtitles under that scene. That specific scene I play - it sounds like this. (Sicilian spoken) - like that.

GROSS: Had you seen "The Godfathers I and II"?

WALLACH: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So you felt you could just pick up on the story and...

WALLACH: Well, no. When we - when I got the script, the last ten pages were omitted.


WALLACH: Because he didn't want anybody to know their fate in this movie.

GROSS: Oh, like Woody Allen.

WALLACH: Well, I had no idea where I was going. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And it's very interesting not to know. It's like life. And he's a fascinating director because he would - he'd tighten a screw here and tighten a screw there with just a word or two. And he'd leave me alone pretty much. I played an old man with an hour and 20 minutes of these rubberized make-up thing on. Now to go from Cinecitta in Rome back to my hotel at the Spanish Steps would take an hour by car, so I rode the subway. So the first day, I finished. I got on the subway, which was 20 minutes - very fast. And I'm sitting there, looking at my script. And I'm peeling off all this rubberized make-up. And I look up, and there - the opposite side of the car on the subway - they're all staring at me. I had - half my chin was ripped off with this rubberized - and I put it back on, and they applauded. (Laughing) That's in Italy.

GROSS: Did they realize you were an actor?

WALLACH: Oh, they realized that.

GROSS: Did they think something very grotesque was happening?

WALLACH: They knew I was coming from Cinecitta, so they know all the actors come out of that studio.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WALLACH: A pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Eli Wallach speaking to Terri Gross in 1990. The acclaimed actor, who received an honorary Oscar in 2010, died Tuesday. He was 98 years old. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.