Eli Wallach, an actor whose six-decade career included the iconic portrayal of Tuco in Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, died on Tuesday at the age of 98. The Brooklyn-born actor leaves behind a prolific legacy of television and film acting credits and although he was never nominated for an Academy Award, he was awarded an honorary stature for lifetime achievement in 2010 for being “the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters.”
Wallach continued to work steadily well into his 90s and always maintained a free-spirited attitude that made him beloved in the entertainment industry. “As an actor I’ve played more bandits, thieves, warlords, molesters, and mafioso that you could shake a stick at,” he told the audience when he accepted his Honorary Academy Award at the second annual Governors Awards.
Wallach first rose to prominence on the stage when, in the early 1940s, he took classes with influential German director Erwin Piscator and later attended the Actors Studio when it first began, studying alongside Robert Lewis, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Herbert Berghof, Sidney Lumet, and Anne Jackson. He would later go on to marry Jackson in 1948 and the couple would remain together until his death.
The actor would make his Broadway debut in 1945 in Skydrift before winning a Tony Award in 1951 for his portrayal of Alvaro Mangiacavallo in Tennessee Williams’ play The Rose Tattoo. Even after Wallach would go on to experience success in television and film, he continued to return to the stage throughout his career, having last performed the role of Noah in the Clifford Odets play The Flowering Peach.
But it is film and television where Wallach will be best remembered for his colorful and memorable roles in films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where he acted opposite Clint Eastwood, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, John Huston’s The Misfits, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III, and many, many more. This being despite the fact that the actor’s first love was always the stage.
“For actors, movies are a means to an end,” Wallach told The New York Times in 1973. “I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play.”
By the time Wallach passed away, he had appeared in over 90 films having last been featured in the 2010 films The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, directed by Oliver Stone. He was nearly as prolific in television where he earned an Emmy Award for his role as a former drug merchant in ABC’s 1966 anti-narcotics telefilm Poppies Are Also Flowers and scored Emmy nominations for portraying a blacklisted writer on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2006 and a sick patient on Nurse Jackie in 2009. He also played the role of Mr. Freeze in the Adam West-starred Batman television series in the 1960s.
Wallach is survived by his wife Anne, his three children Katherine, Peter, and Roberta, his sister Shirley Auerbach, and three grandchildren.