Eli Wallach: The Ultimate Character Actor

Eli Herschel Wallach, who died in New York on June 24 at age 98, was expected to follow his brother and two sisters who became teachers. After he earned a master’s degree in education from the City College of New York, he surprised his Polish immigrant parents, Abraham and Bertha, when he announced he’s going to become an actor instead.

Growing up in the Italian Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Eli used to cast a prying eye on the shady characters who would hang out at his father’s confectionery, Bertha’s Candy Store.

When he made a name for himself as a tough-guy character actor on the screen — a Mexican bandit in “The Magnificent Seven,” a Mafia don in “The Godfather: Part III” — he based those unsavory roles on the crude customers at his father’s store. He took on a lot of Italian roles in the years ahead.

As a founding member of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, he learned Method acting and became one of Hollywood’s outstanding character actors. He was the go-to guy if you wanted villainy.

His first TV role came in 1949 in an episode of “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.” In 1945, he triumphed on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo,” for which he earned a 1951 Tony Award as best supporting actor. In 1953 he was back on Broadway in another Tennessee Williams play, “Camino Real.” For his 1956 screen debut he portrayed a terrifying seducer in “Baby Doll,” also written by Tennessee Williams.

Eli did numerous performances with Anne Jackson, from an Irish family in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They met in 1946 while performing in a Tennessee Williams play, “This Property Is Condemned.”

Two years later, while working in a Broadway revue, “Make Mine Manhattan,” they decided to get married. “That day we came to Sardi’s,” Eli said. “Everybody kept sending us Manhattans.” Anne said, “I was the drunkest bride.” They had three children.

Acting became a family trade in 1978 as daughters Roberta and Katherine joined their parents in “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Toronto. Roberta portrayed Anne; Katherine played Anne’s older sister. In an interview Roberta told me that "This was the first time in the history of the play that an actual family played the Frank family.” (Except for her brother Peter, who was making animated commercials.)

Asked if he encouraged his kids to go into the business, Eli would say, “Would you push your child off a bridge? You have to be crazy! You have to love this more than anything. It is not fair; it is frustrating.”

On Eli’s first visit to Israel, with Anne (“a lapsed Catholic”) and his agent Peter Witte, a street vendor in Bethlehem tried to sell him some pictures of the holy sites. “No, thanks,” Eli said. “I have my own Nikon and I’ll take my own pictures.”

The vendor looked at Anne and said, “I’ll give you 10 sheep and 10 camels for her.”

As Eli reflected on a proper response, his agent exclaimed, “Take it! Take it! I get 10 percent.”

Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. He has been writing a column for The Jewish Week for 35 years and is a writer/photographer at 15MinutesMagazine.com. He is the author of “Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.

About the Author
Tim Boxer is a former New York Post columnist, and is longtime columnist for the New York Jewish Week. He is also editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com, is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.