Always in Character

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, June 28, 2005


In My Anecdotage

By Eli Wallach

Harcourt. 312 pp. $25

It's hard to believe, but Eli Wallach made his Broadway debut fully 60 years ago, and in December of this year -- on Pearl Harbor Day, to be precise -- he will celebrate his 90th birthday. He's one of the last survivors of a generation of great American actors. His wife, the distinguished actress Anne Jackson, is still around, and so are Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton, Julie Harris, Karl Malden and Shelley Winters. But so many others are gone: Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Steve McQueen, Tony Randall, Kim Stanley, Henry Fonda . . . it's a long list, yet not so much gone as preserved for the ages on film.

In the theater (his "first love") or the movies, Wallach appeared with just about everyone on that list. Early in his career, he was "a happy sailor at the Alvin Theatre: salary, $85 a week," in "Mister Roberts," with Fonda in the title role. From there he went directly to Tennessee Williams's "The Rose Tattoo," starring with Stapleton, both of them receiving Tony Awards. In 1956-57 he was in George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" for an impressive 231 performances, playing alongside Charles Laughton (who also directed), Cornelia Otis Skinner and Burgess Meredith.

When, in 1956, he moved along to movies and then television, he continued to keep good company. His first film was Elia Kazan's controversial "Baby Doll," with Malden and Mildred Dunnock, and Carroll Baker in the title role. Then, in 1960, he appeared in the film that, for me and doubtless many others, defined him: "The Magnificent Seven," John Sturges's adaptation of "The Seven Samurai," with an astonishing cast that included Yul Brynner, McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Later there was the famous Sergio Leone "spaghetti Western" from which the title of this book is drawn -- "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" (1967), co-starring Clint Eastwood -- and of course many other films and TV shows, but the sly, vicious bandito of "The Magnificent Seven," Calvera, will be forever Wallach in this filmgoer's mind's eye.

Though Calvera is surpassing mean and brutal, there's always a glint of humor in his eyes -- a glint that may well be Wallach's distinguishing characteristic as an actor. He gets deep inside his roles, but there's always just a suggestion of distance from them, a wry acknowledgment that this is, after all, play-acting, and isn't it fun? That suspicion is confirmed by this memoir, which conveys nothing so much as the sheer delight Wallach derives from playing a part, whether onstage or on film. For so long as he can remember, he writes, all the way back to his early childhood in Brooklyn, "I wanted to be an actor," and the real reason seems to be that it is a lark. Once he got to school, "I loved reading about Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," both of which beg to be performed; "fairy tales were my favorite" (ditto) and "I enjoyed reading the comics in the newspapers" (ditto again).

It took him a while to get there. In the Depression, he found his way to the University of Texas; as a Jew from Brooklyn, he was at first a fish out of water, but that soon changed as he discovered the student theater and picked up some Texan mannerisms that eventually served him well in all those westerns. He lost four years to World War II -- he rose to first lieutenant, serving in a hospital unit -- but at its end two crucial things happened to him: He met and married Anne Jackson, and he got involved with the Actors Studio. That organization, inspired by the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky, was led by Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and others, and focused on "the Method," the essence of which was "emotional memory," i.e., "a technique of transplanting emotional moments from our own lives into what a particular script required."

The pros and cons of the Method doubtless will be argued into the unimaginable future, but Wallach "just decided to excerpt and extract what I could use from each of my Method teachers in creating my characters," with particular emphasis on "what I learned from the world of music, dance, and painting." He pays particular tribute to Martha Graham; never much of a dancer himself, he nonetheless learned essential lessons about movement from the steps she put him through. From there it was a short step to "Mister Roberts" and the many successes that followed it.

Like many other Broadway actors, Wallach was at once drawn to and leery of Hollywood. As he somewhat graphically puts it: "Theater or film? I often compare the two media to lovemaking. In theater, onstage one goes through the entire experience: curtain up, foreplay, excitement, then finally an orgasmic release, curtain down. In film, there's action, foreplay, excitement, and just before you reach the glorious moment of release, the director yells, 'Cut! Let's do this scene again.' I didn't find that very satisfying. But still, I found it difficult to escape the lure of fame that film offered."

Most of the films in which he appeared are forgettable, apart from the two already mentioned and "The Misfits" (1961), directed by John Huston, with a (characteristically) wooden screenplay by Arthur Miller. The movie is less notable for its merits, which are slender, than for the melodrama and personality clashes attendant to its making. In addition to Huston, Miller and Wallach, on the set were Monroe, Clark Gable, Clift and Thelma Ritter. The script was written for Monroe, to whom Miller was still married, but the marriage was falling apart, and so was she; a year later she was dead. Wallach was fond of Monroe and impressed by "her professionalism," and his account of her decline is colored by sadness. His portrait of Gable, on the other hand, is marked by admiration and respect.

Wallach himself obviously is a decent sort but a bit of an odd duck as well. On the one hand, he clearly is devoted to Jackson and their three grown children, but on the other, he simply cannot resist the chance to go anywhere in the world to make a movie or appear onstage. With a mixture of exasperation and amusement, he asks himself: "What is it in my makeup that makes me grab any offer and fly around the world? Will I ever be satisfied? Can't I ever just rest?"

Apparently he won't rest until he rests for good. At 89 he's still going strong. Just last year he had a role in a film called "King of the Corner," and two years ago he had an uncredited cameo in Eastwood's exemplary "Mystic River." The prose he writes in this "Anecdotage" is as lively as he is. He's had "a golden career," and the pleasure it has given him is evident on every page of this book.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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