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Eli Wallach (1915-2014): One versatile sensation

Eli Wallach, who died on Tuesday at age 98, was an unforgettable character actor who made his mark in scores of television and movie roles, as well as on the Broadway stage. For more than 60 years, he was a name to be reckoned with and a face to recognize, an actor who gave even small roles a jolt of vividness and whose joy in performance was palpable.

In 2011, after ignoring Wallach for more than half a century, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a special Oscar “for a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters.” The prize was much deserved, an acknowledgment that Wallach’s contribution to cinema resided in the diversity of his work.

Indeed, when you read about Wallach, the word you invariably see is “versatility,” and that’s only right. Any actor who can triumph in a succession of roles far different from himself – as a Sicilian, as a Mexican, as a bandit, as a Mafia don, and as Mr. Freeze on “Batman” – deserves to be called versatile. But we can’t stop there, because it’s by defining the specific nature of Wallach’s versatility that we locate his greatness.

Some character actors disappear into their roles. Other classic character types, such as C. Aubrey Smith, William Demarest or Charles Coburn, remain more or less the same from role to role. Wallach was practically unique in that he was a little of both simultaneously. He was the last in a great line of character actors, a solid supporting type who could walk on screen and an audience think, “Oh, that guy again, I like him.” Yet he could be comfortably cast in almost anything.

In a way, you could say he was a character actor who was also a star. What made him wonderful and someone to look forward to – over and over – wasn’t that he was especially convincing, but that he was himself. Somehow that in itself was arresting and appealing. Think about it: Did anybody, in the history of spectators, ever watch Wallach play a Mexican and believe they were seeing a Mexican? Or an Italian and believe this was an Italian?

For that matter, did anybody ever watch Meryl Streep and believe that she was Polish, or that a dingo really ate her baby? Of course not. But there’s a higher level of acting, beyond the merely believable – a mystical level where an actor is communicating who he is, and what he feels about a role, and what he feels about the moment and the issues being expressed. It’s a level characterized by consummate skill, usually derived from the stage, and absolute joy and generosity, which is indicative of personal character.

That’s what Wallach had. That was the nature of his versatility, this ability to give himself completely, generously and skillfully. This is why his ethnic roles haven’t dated. He was, after all, from an era when a Jewish actor from New York could be cast as a Mexican, just as Mickey Rooney could be cast as Chinese in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” But, unlike the case with Rooney, Wallach doesn’t have a single screen moment that is awkward or grotesque.

Fans of his films, especially fans living outside New York, don’t quite appreciate that he was a stage actor as much as he was a film actor – in fact, Wallach, an original member of the Actor’s Studio, preferred the stage and won a Tony Award (“The Rose Tattoo” in 1951) before he made a single movie. Still, Wallach, who was born Dec. 7, 1915, in Brooklyn, didn’t start in movies until fairly late – at age 40, in Elia Kazan’s lurid “Baby Doll.” By then, he had all the time in the world, another 58 years, to conquer this other medium.

His role in “Baby Doll” (1956) – sleazy, morally dubious, ethnic – set the pattern for the next decade and beyond. He appeared in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) and in “The Misfits” (1961), he played one of a trio of men who tries to win the heart of Marilyn Monroe. (In the end, he’s the one she disapproves of most.) One of his best roles was as Tuco in Sergeo Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” He was the Ugly, a flamboyant outlaw with a rap sheet longer than his arm.

He became more impish, more lovable, perhaps more himself as his career progressed, so that the playful personality we saw in talk shows – often accompanied by his wife, actress Anne Jackson – began seeping into his performances. One of the best examples is his performance in “The Godfather Part III,” as a sweet, fun-loving, fussy old don, who is actually plotting the murder of dozens of people. What a perfect role for an actor who was always likable and yet so often the villain.

He continued to work into extreme old age and was quite effective in a small but menacing role in Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” (2010). He never lost it. In many ways, he only got better.

Wallach is survived by Jackson, whom he married in 1948; a son, Peter; and two daughters, Roberta and Katherine.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. E-mail:

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