Eli Wallach, who was one of his generation’s most prominent and prolific character actors in film, onstage and on television for more than 60 years, died Tuesday. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Katherine.
The versatile Wallach appeared in scores of roles, often with his wife, Anne Jackson. No matter the part, he always seemed at ease and in control, whether playing a Mexican bandit in the 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven," a bumbling clerk in Eug?ne Ionesco’s allegorical play "Rhinoceros," a henpecked French general in Jean Anouilh’s "Waltz of the Toreadors," Clark Gable’s sidekick in "The Misfits" or a Mafia don in "The Godfather: Part III."
In November 2010, less than a month before his 95th birthday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Wallach an honorary Oscar.
Wallach, who was one of the few Jewish children in his mostly Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, made both his stage and screen breakthroughs playing Italians. In 1951, six years after his Broadway debut in a play called "Skydrift," he was cast opposite Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams’ "The Rose Tattoo," playing Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a truck driver who woos and wins Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian widow living on the Gulf Coast. Both Stapleton and Wallach won Tony Awards for their work in the play.
The first movie in which Wallach acted was also written by Williams: "Baby Doll" (1956), the playwright’s screen adaptation of his "27 Wagons Full of Cotton." Wallach played Silva Vacarro, a Sicilian ?migr? and the owner of a cotton gin that he believes has been torched.
Eli Wallach was born on Dec. 7, 1915, the son of Abraham Wallach and the former Bertha Schorr. He graduated from high school in Brooklyn and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he also learned to ride horses — a skill he would put to good use in Westerns. After graduation he returned to New York and earned a master’s degree at City College, with the intention of becoming a teacher.
Instead, he studied acting until World War II put him in the Army. After the war he became a founding member of the Actors Studio and studied with Lee Strasberg.
Wallach’s television credits included a 1974 production of Odets’ "Paradise Lost" on public television; "Skokie," a 1981 CBS movie about a march planned by neo-Nazis in a Chicago suburb, in which he played a lawyer representing Holocaust survivors; and a 1982 NBC dramatization of Norman Mailer’s "Executioner’s Song."
And then there were films. Wallach was a jungle tyrant subdued by the title character (Peter O’Toole) in "Lord Jim" (1965); a rapacious Mexican pitted against Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966); and Don Altobello, a Mafia boss who succumbs to a poisoned dessert, in "The Godfather: Part III" (1990).
"Actually I lead a dual life," he once said. "In the theater, I’m the little man, or the irritated man, the misunderstood man," whereas in films "I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys."