An Honorary Oscar For Actor Eli Wallach Actor Eli Wallach will receive a lifetime achievement Oscar this weekend in Los Angeles. Fresh Air pays tribute to the 95-year-old star of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly and The Magnificent Seven with highlights from a 1990 interview.

An Honorary Oscar For Actor Eli Wallach

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Eli Wallach is getting an honorary Oscar on Saturday, a Lifetime Achievement Award. The nearly 95-year-old actor has appeared in more than four dozen films over the past five decades. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him in 1990.

Tennessee Williams gave Wallach one of his first big breaks, casting him in a production of "The Rose Tattoo." Wallach made his film debut in "Baby Doll," which was also written by Williams. In 1960, Wallach was the heavy in the "The Magnificent Seven." Six years later, he played another heavy in a film of heavies, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." His other movies include "The Misfits," "The Victors," "How the West Was Won" and "Godfather III." This year, he was featured in "The Ghost Writer" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

Wallach was a charter member of the Actors Studio, where the actors practiced a technique that became known as "the method." Here's what he had to say about the method.

Mr. ELI WALLACH (Actor): All of it, basically, was an antidote from the cliche, from the conventional. You know, when an actor says, I remember, and he always looks up at the sky, you think, what is he seeing up there? But that was a signal that he's remembering. And the method basically was to destroy all that, and to get to the truth of a situation. So the studio was like a laboratory. We were professional actors in the theater, but we could go there and work out. I could go and do a scene from "Hamlet" with Billy Dunning(ph), for example. I'd do the closet scene.

I never forget - taking Sir Laurence Olivier to the Actors Studio. And he said well, I can see you're nitpicking now, you know. And I said, well, you did it, too. You have your way of working. Olivier, for example, gets into a character by putting on the externals. He puts on the nose and the robe and so on, and that's the way he gets it. Others say: Which comes first? Do you find the truth of the situation?

I've played all sorts of characters - bandits, I've played a lot of bandits. And one time I figured out, you always see them holding up the train or breaking into the bank. You never see what they do with the money. It's always the pursuit of it. I wanted to show the reverse side of the coin. I wanted to show the wealth this guy ostentatiously had. So I put on red-silk shirts and gold teeth and silver saddles. And that's the way the method helps - a kind of a technique that you work at to bring a character to life.

GROSS: Is that "The Magnificent Seven" you're talking about?

Mr. WALLACH: That was "The Magnificent Seven." Yeah.

GROSS: Since you've brought up how many bandits...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...you've played, let me bring up a couple of films you've played them in. One was "The Magnificent Seven," and you played the head of a band of Mexican outlaws...

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: ...who raids a village, and keeps this village under the outlaw's control. "The Magnificent Seven" is a group of - kind of renegade, freelance fighters who save this Mexican village. How'd you get cast in that role? First of all...

Mr. WALLACH: I don't know.

GROSS: ...you were Mexican and...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. WALLACH: I don't really know. I know that when I first read the script, I said, well, I want to play the crazy - it was based on "The Seven Samurai."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WALLACH: I want to play the crazy samurai. Oh, no, they said. That's the love interest. Horst Buchholz is going to play it. What do you want me to play? They said the head bandit. I said well, in the Japanese movie, you just see his horse's hooves, and he's a man with an eye patch. I don't want to play that.

Then I read the script carefully, and I come in - ride into town on the first minute of that movie, shoot somebody and ride out. The next 50 minutes of that movie are devoted to me, saying: Is he coming back? When is he coming? I said, I'll do it. I'll do it. And I loved it. I used to arrive on the set early in the morning, put on my outfit, get on my horse with my 35 bandits, and we'd go for an hour ride through the brush in Tepotzotlan, in Mexico. I loved it. I loved it.

GROSS: Did you have to learn gunplay and horse riding for the role?

Mr. WALLACH: No. If it says I shoot somebody, I shoot them. I'll never forget what my son said. Yul Brenner shot and killed me in this movie. And my son was about 7, and he said to me, gee, Dad. Couldn't you outdraw Yul Brenner?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: I said, Peter...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. WALLACH: ...when you read the script, you read whether you're shot or not shot. So I love those kind of films. They're fun.

GROSS: Now, another famous Western that you did is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: Now, this is the most celebrated of the Spaghetti Westerns.

Mr. WALLACH: Correct.

GROSS: And the director, Sergio Leone, is now considered one of the great directors of our time. He was not known, though, when you worked with him on the "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Did you think of him as a great or potentially great director then?

Mr. WALLACH: No. When - I was making a film in California when the agent out there said, there's an Italian here who wants you to be in a movie. I said, what kind of movie? He said, a Western. I said - he said a Spaghetti Western. I said, that's an anomaly. That's like Hawaiian pizza. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: He said, he wants you to look at a few minutes of one of his other movies. And I looked at a few minutes - and I said, I'll do it. Where do you want me to go? He said, I want you in Rome on such and such a date. And I arrived, and I spent the next four and a half months, working every day on that movie. And it was an exhilarating experience.

GROSS: You played a Mexican in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Mr. WALLACH: Yup.

GROSS: So once again, you had to do a Mexican accent, but it was a light one. It was kind of - light Mexican accent.

Mr. WALLACH: Yes.

GROSS: I want to play a short clip from the movie.

Mr. WALLACH: Oh.

GROSS: Okay. And this is the scene - if anyone remembers the story - I'm sure a lot of our listeners do - you and Clint Eastwood have this scam going. There's a big price on your head.

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: So Clint Eastwood brings you into the law.

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: And just as they're about to hang you, he cuts you loose. And you both ride away, and you split the bounty.

Mr. WALLACH: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you split the price that was on your head. So this is after the first time, when you're about to be hung. Clint Eastwood frees you, and you're splitting up the bounty.

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly")

Mr. WALLACH: (as Tuco) There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting. Listen, the neck at the end of the rope is mine. I run the risks. So the next time, I want more than half.

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD (Actor): (as Blondie) You may run the risks my friend, but I do the cutting.

(Soundbite of birds)

Mr. EASTWOOD: (as Blondie) If we cut down my percentage - cigar? - might interfere with my aim.

Mr. WALLACH: (as Tuco) Hmm. But if you miss, you had better miss very well. Whoever double crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: (as Tuco) Nothing.

GROSS: I love that little, sadistic laugh at the end.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: But I don't think it's a very good Mexican accent. I, you know, it's standardized. It isn't - I didn't do the cliche of a, I think, maybe I do like that. You know, I don't - I didn't do that. I wanted specifically to be clear in what I was saying.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1990 interview with actor Eli Wallach. He's getting an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement on Saturday.

We'll hear more of the interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1990 interview with actor Eli Wallach. He's getting an honorary Academy Award Saturday for Lifetime Achievement.

In the Italian Westerns that you made, especially in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," everything's dubbed, right?

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: ...afterwards?

Mr. WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: So in these international casts, everybody's talking in their own language...

Mr. WALLACH: Exactly.

GROSS: ...and it's dubbed in afterwards.

Mr. WALLACH: It's the Tower of Babel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: It really is. But you wait until they stop speaking, or you know what - the sense of what they're saying.

GROSS: Why did they do it that way?

Mr. WALLACH: Because it's easier and cheaper. An airplane flies over, they don't stop a scene. They drop a wrench in the middle of a scene, it makes a noise; they don't care. Two other Italians over in a corner will be arguing about something. One director said to an Italian actor who's playing with me, he said to me - the Italian actor - said, I don't like Americans. I said why? He said, I lost my arm in the war. I said, well, I don't know. What could I do? He was not an actor. So the director said, I want you to count from one to 10, angrily. So the man said (counting in Italian). And then when they dub it in, he's playing a wonderful scene, an angry actor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: Well, that's movies.

GROSS: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is really one of the most kind of brutal, sadistic Westerns, in a way...

Mr. WALLACH: No, it's done with tongue in cheek. It's not brutal.

GROSS: I know. I know there's a lot of humor in it. But what kind of mood did Leone tell you that he wanted?

Mr. WALLACH: One of the things he said to me, he said, I want every shot to be done like Vermeer. I want the light to come in from the side windows. And he said to me, I don't want you to have your gun in a holster. I said, where will I put it? He said, with a lanyard around your neck. I said, oh. And then it dangles between my knees, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: He said, yeah. He said: When you want it, you twist your shoulders, and I cut, and the gun is in your hand. I said, show me. He put it around his neck, he twisted his shoulder, he missed the gun, it hit him in the groin. He said, keep it in your pocket. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: That's, that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's interesting that you became a kind of action hero when you were well, probably in your 50s already.

Mr. WALLACH: When "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"?

GROSS: And "The Magnificent Seven."

Mr. WALLACH: Yeah - no, I was a little younger.

GROSS: No, you must have been in your 40s in "The Magnificent Seven."

Mr. WALLACH: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But you know, like today, most action heroes are a lot younger. It's like they start off in their 20s and 30s playing that kind of role.

Mr. WALLACH: Yes.

GROSS: Did you feel like it was an odd match?

Mr. WALLACH: Well, you wear very tight pants in these movies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: And to get up on a horse, they'd always have to cut. I'd put my foot in the stirrup, but then they'd cut away to somebody looking at me. And the next thing, I was on the horse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: So, no, I tell you, in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," I did most of the stunts, and they were very dangerous. I was sitting on a horse with a noose around my neck, and Clint's supposed to shoot the rope. Then - they put a little charge of dynamite in the rope, and it would explode. And then I would ride off on this horse. I said, did you put any cotton in the horse's ears? They said, what do you mean, cotton in the horse's ears? I said, he can hear the explosion. He's going to be terrified. My hands are tied behind me.

Well, they didn't do it. They shot the rope, and that horse took off. I - and I'm riding not using reins, just using my knees and praying that that horse would eventually stop. And eventually, he did. But it was frightening. The horses I get in America, in American films are trained. They know how to hit their marks. They shift their weight. They look great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: But when you get into a foreign movie, and they bring out a horse, I say: I want the gentlest, sweetest horse. And he usually turns around and looks at me when I sit on him and thinks, oh, God. I've got this guy for three weeks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACH: But I like riding.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WALLACH: Pleasure.

GROSS: Eli Wallach, recorded in 1990. On Saturday, he's getting an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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