“If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
Those were the iconic and wise words that Eli Wallach’s beloved Tuco said to an armed gunman who spent more time flapping his lips than practicing his shots in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966).
As many are already aware, Wallach, whose career spanned over half a century, passed away last Tuesday night at the age of 98. With over 80 films, dozens of theatre performances and numerous appearances on television, the Brooklyn born actor left behind a career featuring dozens of colorful characters.
Born in 1915 to Jewish-Polish immigrants, Wallach spent the early part of his childhood assisting his parents in the family- owned candy store. Eventually leaving New York after graduating high school, he attended the University of Texas at Austin with the hopes of pursuing a career in education. He instead started to gravitate towards theatre and pursued a hobby in horseback riding. He would eventually receive a master’s degree in education at the City College in New York in 1938, but his obsession with acting eventually led him to the stage.
Though he wanted to pursue a career in acting in the 1940s, Wallach was quickly drafted into the United States Army, were he served in the Medical Corps. Eventually promoted to the rank of captain, Wallach spent the next four years on the Pacific and European fronts attending to wounded soldiers.
In 1945, Wallach became a founding member of the Actor’s Studio and made his Broadway debut in the play Skydrift. While short-lived (the play only lasted a week) Wallach would meet Anne Jackson. The two quickly fell in love and married in 1948. The husband and wife acting duo would soon find success together and became well known for their multiple onstage personas as husband and wife.
Though he found much success in theatre, it wasn’t until landing the lead role in Elia Kazan’s 1956 film Baby Doll that Wallach started to pursue work in film. Baby Doll saw Wallach play a cunning cotton gin owner attempting to steal away the wife of a fellow businessman.
He found more success in film with his roles in such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), How the West Was Won (1962), The Victors (1963) and How to Steal a Million (1966).
Perhaps his most well-known role to filmgoers today is Tuco, the traitorous bandit who worked so hard to strike it rich and double cross everyone at every turn in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It was Tuco that audiences were cheering for the most to get that buried Confederate gold. He provided Clint Eastwood’s “The Man with No Name” with a great foil. The stoic gunslinger, simply called “Blondie” by Tuco, always seemed so exasperated by Tuco’s endless complaints and talking. In reality, Eastwood and Wallach became quick friends off set.
While the performance didn’t earn him a single award, the critical acclaim for Wallach’s portrayal of Tuco bolstered his film career. He would later pursue more roles in spaghetti westerns to much success with such films as Ace High (1968).
In the 2000’s, Wallach would appear in only a handful of movies and television shows. The Ghost Writer (2010), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and a recurring role on Nurse Jackie (2009), which earned him and Emmy, allowed him to practice his craft well into his 90s.
Wallach left an impact on theatre, television and cinema that is felt to this day. With any veteran actor, it’s hard to sum up a career with a single article. All I can say is that I felt privileged to see Wallach work his craft on screen, and provide audiences with fascinating characters that will remembered for years to come.
Wallach is survived by his wife, three children, grandchildren and multiple great-grandchildren.
Fun facts: After failing an exam to receive the necessary educational credentials to start teaching, Wallach began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, an acting school, in New York City. While working at the Playhouse, he would meet fellow classmates Gregory Peck and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The three would remain friends for decades.
Wallach also played the villainous Mr. Freeze in Adam West’s Batman (1966). He was paid $350. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played the same character 30 years later, was paid $20 million for Batman and Robin (1997).