I like the fact that Turner Classic Movies announced today a special 11-hour tribute to the now-late and always-great Eli Wallach, who died last night at age 98. He was such a magnificent actor, particularly onstage, where he won a Tony in The Rose Tattoo or on TV in countless performances including his Emmy-winning turn in 1966’s Poppies Are Also Flowers. His movie roles were memorable too, but he never quite got that truly great moment onscreen that could have ignited his film career and sent it in a different direction. It’s true he was terrific as the evil Calvera in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven (which Denzel Washington is threatening to remake) and as the bandit Tuco in the 1966 Sergio Leone classic, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. His 1956 film debut in Baby Doll was a great way to start in cinema for this born stage actor, a disciple of the Actors Studio. There were other turns over the years in the underrated 1958 film The Lineup, the film adaptation of stage hit The Tiger Makes Out co-starring his wife of 66 years Anne Jackson, How To Steal A Million, The Misfits (opposite Gable, Monroe and Clift in 1961), Cinderella Liberty, The Godfather Part III all the way up to his small but amusing role in 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
But there was never that one breakout movie role that would earn him even a single Oscar nomination during a nearly 60-year career in front of the cameras. Incredible. But brilliant as he always seemed to be in even the smallest screen roles, it’s telling that the biggest film role of his career is the one that never happened. He was set to play Maggio in 1953’s From Here To Eternity, the role eventually played by Frank Sinatra. He went on to take the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the part that might have been Wallach’s. It was a defining moment for Sinatra, who desperately needed the role in a career that was sagging at that point. He exploded again after that break virtually handed to him by his longtime friend. Wallach had to drop out in favor of a commitment to the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real. It was a short run, but he never apologized for it and never looked back at what might have been. It’s all now a part of movie lore. The one that got away.
That’s why I have such fond memories of the night of November 13, 2010, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Eli Wallach a well-deserved lifetime Honorary Oscar. Although not one of his performances stood out enough to his fellow actors in the Academy to ever win even a nomination, the body of work was immensely undeniable, and the Academy’s Board of Governors made a no-brainer decision on this one. I was honored to have been hired that year to actually write the Governors Awards show, so I was privy to all the planning, the rehearsals and, of course, the night itself. When the time came in a production meeting to suggest music we would play for Wallach’s entrance, I immediately blurted out Elmer Bernstein’s classic theme from Magnificent Seven. It had to be, right? What a moment to see Wallach, with his cane, strut up those few stairs to the stage in the Hollywood and Highland Grand Ballroom to that music and that rousing, heartfelt standing ovation that night. He did the same thing, at age 95, during the rehearsal a day earlier, walking up those steps, cane in one hand , unassisted and smiling all the way. Anne was with him, and you could see why this was a marriage made in heaven. This also was an actor very proud of the career he made, a man still working even at his age. The tributes were warm and rich from the likes of Josh Brolin, Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro. Tony Bennett sang a song. But I particularly loved what Anne said in offering a toast to her husband and sometime co-star: “What is this one? Lifetime achievement? Oh my God, he hasn’t even started yet,” she said. “Eli will never get to the point of Lifetime Achievement, because he’s constantly evolving and he knows there’s always something to improve.” And in a very funny short-but-sweet acceptance, Wallach actually got serious for a moment after he admitted he didn’t know he had friends in such high places or that he had even joined the Academy. “I am deeply moved by this honor,” he said. “Your recognition of my artistry makes something very clear to me: I don’t act to live. I live to act.”
And we can be so grateful that’s exactly what the remarkable Eli Wallach did so well, for so long.