Actor Eli Wallach, BA ’36, Dies at 98

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In a Hollywood career that spanned six decades, Eli Wallach played his share of villains—and he did it so well that even the Pope was a fan.

Four years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sent Wallach a fan letter. “He said, ‘One of my favorite movies is The Magnificent Seven.’ Wallach told CBS in 2010. “And I thought, ‘I don’t understand. I’m a killer in that. I kill people. Why is he so excited about me killing people?'”

Wallach, BA ’36, Distinguished Alumnus, died Tuesday at age 98. He was a prolific actor who appeared in more than 100 films, television shows, and plays from the 1940s-2010. Some of his most famous credits include The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Misfits, The Magnificent Seven, The Godfather III, and The Holiday.

Eli Wallach, front center, in the 1935 Curtain Club yearbook photo.

Eli Wallach, front center, in the 1935 Curtain Club yearbook photo.

Born in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood in 1915, Wallach was an imaginative child who spent hours acting out elaborate daydreams. His favorite scenario had him fighting with the French Foreign Legion in the Sahara: “My mother would come in and say, ‘Time to eat!’ and I’d say, ‘Look, I’m bleeding!'” he told the Alcalde in 2000.

In 1932 he enrolled at UT solely because of the cheap, $30-per-year tuition. After New York City, Texas was “like another planet,” Wallach said. It was an unlikely route to Hollywood—the university didn’t even have a formal theater program yet—but a fortuitous one: Wallach learned to ride for a part-time job taking care of the UT polo club’s horses, an experience that helped him land many Western roles. He also joined a student theater troupe called the Curtain Club, acting alongside future Texas Gov. John B. Connally, LLB ’41, Life Member, and soon-to-be legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite, ’33, both Distinguished Alumni. The three men remained friends for years, and Connally presented Wallach with the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1988.

Wallach happily took on any role the Curtain Club needed, no matter how thankless: In the murder mystery The Seventh Guest, he played a dead body (while Connally had a bigger part as a doctor). That same flexibility would serve him well throughout his career. Wallach was never choosy about film roles, which he used to bankroll lower-paying but more rewarding roles onstage. “I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play,” he told the New York Times.

Screen shot 2014-06-25 at 9.26.28 AMAfter graduating in 1936 with a bachelor’s in history, Wallach moved home to New York and earned a master’s degree in education, planning to work as a teacher. He steadily grew a career  in theater until he was drafted into the Army in 1940. During World War II, Wallach served as a hospital administrator in Africa and retired at the rank of captain in 1945. For the next decade he worked as a theatrical actor in New York, where he met his wife, the actress Anne Jackson. The husband-and-wife team earned a reputation as a talented duo, acting together in Tennessee Williams plays like The Glass MenagerieCamino Real, and The Rose Tattoo (for which Wallach won a Tony Award). Wallach landed his first film role as a Sicilian farmer in 1956’s Baby Doll, also written by Williams.

The workmanlike actor was never nominated for an Oscar, despite appearing in many big-name films. But in 2010 the Academy gave him an honorary award, calling him “the quintessential chameleon.” In his acceptance speech for that award, Wallach poked fun at his frequent typecasting as the bad guy—despite his mild-mannered personality. “I’ve played more bandits, thieves, warlords, molesters, and Mafiosi than you could shake a stick at,” he said, “but as a civilian I collect antique clocks, tell stories of my days as a medic in World War II, watch every tennis match, live for my family, collect the daily mail, run the dishwasher, and take pictures of faces in the bark of trees.”

Photos from top:

Wallach as a Mexican bandit in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966); as a UT student in 1935; and as screenwriter Arthur Abbott in The Holiday (2006).


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