"Anne says that if she catches me having an affair with another woman, she'll shoot the woman," Eli Wallach said, looking more or less fondly at his wife, Anne Jackson.
"That's because I know that Eli is such a sensitive man that he would never do that to a woman," she explained.
The couple, whose successful partnership on and off stage has earned them the sobriquet "the Proletarian Lunts," are currently playing Russians in "The Nest of the Wood Grouse" at the Eisenhower Theater. They play husband and wife, but haven't always.
"We met in a two-character one-act by Tennessee Williams called 'This Property Is Condemned,' " Jackson said. "I played a 13-year-old" -- she whispered -- "prostitute."
"Why is she whispering?" Wallach asked.
"We're in a restaurant!" she said. "And he played the boy. Then it was many years before we played together except for summer stock . . . You see, as a young actress, Eli and I were different types. I could play the girl next door, the inge'nue in certain Doris Day-type things. Eli, on the other hand, was always a character actor. So if we did play together, he was my father and I was relegated to the inge'nue, and I never really was an inge'nue."
"Inside that beautiful young girl was an old character actress," Wallach joked, "and inside this old character actor was a handsome young juvenile."
"But you are a handsome juvenile, my darling," she answered.
Jackson and Wallach have had careers, together and separately, that are as rich and varied as any actor could want, however she may complain about years as an inge'nue and he might rue "seven years in the saddle" making westerns like "The Magnificent Seven." And they continue to sample the variety at the expense of "being comfortable in a television show," roving the world like vagabonds if the work demands.
"If you go back over this year starting in January," Wallach said, "I was playing the father confessor to Faye Dunaway in Granada, Spain, Anne was with me, and then she went to London to see about our doing 'Twice Around the Park' there. From there we went to Barcelona, and then to Tel Aviv, where we did a documentary, then we spent a week in Egypt going up and down the Nile, then a week in Rome eating, and back to New York. Then we played in Toledo, Grand Rapids and Houston with 'Twice Around the Park.' We did a poetry reading somewhere else, and then to the Edinburgh Festival. And we did this show at the Public Theatre in New York in May, June and July."
They have been married for 30-odd years and have three children, two of whom are actors and appeared with them in a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" a few years ago. They have also sung songs from "Fiddler on the Roof" on a cruise ship and performed scenes for Chinese acting students in Peking.
"The idea used to be that if you left New York, you were at sea," said Wallach. "But we've found that the Big Apple can be wormy, and that there are fruitful areas around the world that we want to taste." He was very pleased with his metaphor. "Isn't that nice, what I just did?"
Jackson was steaming ahead on another topic. "She didn't notice," he said, shrugging.
"I love your brain, my sweetheart," she countered. A few minutes later he didn't answer one of her rhetorical questions, and she put a napkin on her head.
Next spring they plan to be making a movie of "Nest of the Wood Grouse" in Russia, hoping to catch the May Day parade, which figures offstage in the play.
"We've decided to take next year off from the theater as a kind of sabbatical," Wallach said, "and do only film and television. But given the way things come up, that probably won't happen."
One wouldn't be surprised if it didn't.