Prolific Character Actor Eli Wallach Dies At 98

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In a career spanning seven decades, Wallach appeared in over 200 films, plays and TV shows. His roles ranged from Mr. Freeze on TV's Batman to Kilroy in Tennessee William's Camino Real on Broadway.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The actor, Eli Wallach, has died at the age of 98. He was a prolific character actor, playing in films alongside Clark Gable and Peter O'Toole. He was Mr. Freeze in TV's "Batman" and starred Broadway productions, written by his friend Tennessee Williams. In all, Eli Wallach acted in over 200 films, TV and stage productions over 70 years. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Eli Wallach was best known for two rolls as Mexican outlaws. In 1960, he won acclaim for his portrayal of the bandit, Calvera, facing off against the sextet of gunslingers in "The Magnificent Seven."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN")

ELI WALLACH: (As Calvera) Once there was horses, cattle, gold, fruit from the trees - no more. Now I must hunt with a price on my head, Rurales at my heels. I'll be back.

VITALE: Six years later, he co-starred with Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's spaghetti western "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY")

WALLACH: (As Tuco) As If you save your breath, I feel a man like you could manage it. (Laughing) And if you won't manage it you'll die, only slowly, very slowly, old friend.

DAVID THOMSON: Those were probably his best smiling, snaring, sadistic, wicked roles, the things that he seemed to do very naturally.

VITALE: David Thomson is author of "The Biographical Dictionary of Film." He says Eli Wallach was convincing as a villain in a variety of ethnic roles.

THOMSON: Eli Wallach, in a lot of his films, did not shave. And it's from a time and an attitude when, if you don't shave, you can be almost any disreputable person from anywhere in the world.

VITALE: That was a time when Hollywood didn't think twice about casting a Polish Jew as a Mexican or an Italian. In 1951, Wallach won a Tony award for originating the role on Broadway of the Sicilian truck driver, Mangiacavallo, in "The Rose Tattoo" by Tennessee Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACH: I grew up with Italians in Red Hook, Little Italy on Union Street, owned and operated by the Mafia.

VITALE: Sitting in his Upper West Side apartment, when he was 95 years old, Eli Wallach recalled growing up in Brooklyn, where his parents owned a candy store. During World War II, he served as an Army officer in Hawaii, Casablanca and France. After the war, he studied method acting as an original member of the Actors Studio in New York. He met his wife, actress Anne Jackson, while he was auditioning for the role of a teenager in another Williams play. Sixty-five years later, they still finished each other sentences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACH: And she said to the lady, Terry Hayden, who's going to play the older...

ANNE JACKSON: The boy

WALLACH: The boy? And she said, there he is. Now, you tell.

JACKSON: I said he's too old. And she said, well, he happens to be the best actor. So he's going to do it. So I said, well, alright. And then it's history. I have three children to that man. (Laughing).

VITALE: Critic David Thomson says, it was probably the longest show business marriage of the 20th century. And Wallach's career was also one of the most prolific. He acted in more than 90 films and dozens of plays and TV shows. Thomson says Wallach will be remembered for the quality, as well as the quantity, of his work.

THOMSON: For making an enormous amount of films and a great range of parts and bringing energy and fun and mischief to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY")

WALLACH: (As Tuco) Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco - (Laughing) - nothing.

VITALE: In 2011, the Motion Picture Academy gave Eli Wallach an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the film industry. On the red carpet, he told reporters that his wife was the richest thing he owned. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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