He played cotton-gin owners, military officers, monsignors, rabbis, truck drivers, Shakespearean heroes — even a Batman villain. But Eli Wallach, who passed away at age 98 due to causes unknown, is best known to a generation of moviegoers as the ultimate bandolero-wearing bandito, thanks to two iconic roles: Calvera, the leader of the frontier thugs who terrorize a Mexican village in The Magnificent Seven (1960); and Tuco, the “ugly” of Sergio Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). When you think of a stubbled outlaw villain, the kind who’d glare down Steve McQueen or have the balls to call Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-No-Name gunslinger “Blondie,” you are thinking of Wallach.
What’s funny is that these roles are thought of as iconic — not because the performances aren’t great (they are), but because Wallach’s acting was never about having a fixed style or being pegged down in an archetype. A Brooklynite who graduated from the University of Texas graduate and later studied at the Actors Studio beside a host of heavy-hitter theater actors and Method-y movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman, among others), he played his share of larger-than-life characters and held the stage with the best of them. (He was set to play Maggio in From Here to Eternity, but dropped out to do a play; the part went to Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar for his performance.) But Wallach would be the first to tell you he was a character actor — the kind of utility player that doesn’t hog the spotlight but helps everybody around him do their best work.
After establishing himself as a Broadway performer in the 1940s and becoming a charter member of the Actors Studio in the 1950s (along with his wife, the actress Anne Jackson), Wallach spent most of the remaining decades of his life working steadily in the theater, on TV and in the movies. Tennesee Williams plays, guest appearances on Batman (he played Mr. Freeze), Euro-exploitation takes on horse operas or Hollywood dramas — Wallach approached each job with a sense of professionalism and an interest in the inner life of whomever he was playing. “A good actor steals,” he said, when asked about his process. “I take from what’s given, the rules of the game, and I sift it through my machine.”
Though Wallach was primarily associated with those two Western classics, his filmography was long, varied and impressive: Baby Doll (1956), The Misfits, opposite Monroe and Clark Gable (1961), Lord Jim (1965), How to Steal a Million (1966), Cinderella Liberty (1973), Winter Kills (1979), The Executioner’s Song (1982), The Godfather: Part III (1990) and The Ghost Writer (2010). Still, though he was one of the last living links to the single most fertile period of American acting, people still came up to him in his elderly years and called him “Tuco.” “I always end up being the evil one, and I wouldn’t hurt a fly,” he told an interviewer in 2006, when talking about his memoir The Good, the Bad and Me. “I have to find justification; it had to have meaning.”