NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of the New York actor's actor, Eli Wallach.
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Eli Wallach is thinking a lot these days about the old days.
“They had a street car running up the middle of it, and there were a lot of horses in those days, many horses,” he says. “If you read the book, you’ll see where I talk about manure and all that stuff.”
The book is "The Good, the Bad, and Me." After a career of some 60 years saying the words of others on stage and screen, Eli Wallach found that telling his story in his own voice was not so easy.
“I said to Edward Albee, ÎIt's not my skill. Give me a script, put me on a stage or in movies,’” he says. “He said, ÎEli, old Jews tell great stories - just tell stories.’ And that's what I did.”
Stories? Eli Wallach has thousands of them, a treasure trove amassed during his 89 years.
He told more than a few at a recent event at the Brooklyn Public Library, including the time he played Mr. Freeze on the TV show “Batman.” For one episode he was paid $350.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger did Mr. Freeze in the movie ÎBatman,’ [and] he got $20 million. So I said to my wife, ÎI can't believe it. In all my life, I've never seen $20 million.’ So I'm growling and complaining, and she finally said, ÎLift weights.’”
He's been in more than 80 movies. The latest? A film written and directed by New York actor Peter Riegert, "King of the Corner."
Wallach’s film work took him all over the world, but his love of acting, and his ability to analyze characters, all started at 166 Union Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
“Down below is a big vat, and there were two heavy, big Italian women, no shoes on, and they'd throw the grapes in, they’d turn on some music, and they'd begin to stomp the grapes. And that's the way you got good wine,” he says.
As we sat at Sardi's in the heart of the Theater District, it became clear; the movies are nice, and helped support his family, but the theater was and is Wallach's first love. It's where he met his wife of 57 years, Anne Jackson, with whom he's often appeared on stage.
But the movies brought him international fame. Movies like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," and "The Magnificent Seven." Just consider what happened in five minutes walking on West 44th Street, where a young man told him, “The first film I saw with you was ÎBaby Doll.’”
Another man from Israel also stopped Wallach to tell him it was a pleasure to meet him. Wallach told him, “I made a movie in Tel Aviv called ÎLove Letters.’”
A woman from Toronto, a young man from Spain, a guy from Israel - all in five minutes, all Eli Wallach fans.
But cinematic fame came with a price. After doing a play, Wallach would often leave home to do a movie, and in his book he asked himself these questions: Will I ever be satisfied? Can’t I ever just rest?
“Well, the only time I'll rest is when I die. That’ll be it,” he says. “The need to constantly work is important for the actor. We're out of work 90 percent of the time, and I'm always fearful that I'll never get a chance for the next one."
We all know that being a movie star has its privileges. But what perk could be more important in New York than parking?
“The man who runs the parking lot, every time I bring the car in, he whistles the music from ÎThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ and he gives me a cut on how much he is going to charge me,” he says. “It’s usually $14, and [charges] $9.”
Eli Wallach's journey from Red Hook to stages and film locations around the world included one rather unusual stop for a Brooklyn boy in the mid-30s, the University of Texas.
“It was like another planet. It was like being put down in another culture,” he says.
He graduated and came back home, where he earned a masters degree in education at City College. But he wanted to act.
“My father kept saying, ÎCan you make a living?’ My brother said, ÎYou’ve got to go to college. Be a teacher,’” he says. “I said, ÎEvery teacher, every doctor, every dentist I know, all want to be actors. That’s what they want.’"
Wallach served five years in the U.S. Army's Medical Administrative Corps during World War II, then came home and participated in the famed Actors Studio.
One of his friends sublet Wallach's Manhattan apartment, so Wallach had to collect rent from Marlon Brando.
“Each time he'd make up excuses for why he couldn't afford it,” he says. “He had to get new tires for his motorcycle, or he had to go to the analyst and pay money for the analyst. And he’d always tease me and torture me and torment me until he gave me the $35.”
He studied and worked with Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Maureen Stapleton, and his wife Anne Jackson, often in Tennessee Williams plays. While he was starring in one show in the mid-50s, Hollywood's reigning sex symbol came to see him every night - Marilyn Monroe.
She was becoming interested in theater, at a time when a poster of Monroe's subway grate scene from "The Seven Year Itch" dominate Times Square.
"She said to me, ÎYou see that poster? That's all they think of me, that poster. In reality, I want to play Gushenka in ÎThe Brothers Karamazov,’ Dosteyevsky. They all laugh when I say it, but they haven't read the book.’ So that's Marilyn. That's the Marilyn that you don't see," he says.
Knowing Monroe helped Wallach land a role in a film that took on iconic status, “The Misfits.” Written by Arthur Miller for his then-wife, Monroe, it was her last film and it was Clark Gable's last film.
“The first day we were filming, Clark Gable and me, I'm sitting in my truck and he leans in and we're chatting, and John Huston, the director, says, ’Action!’” he says. “And I stare at Gable, and I’m thinking, ÎHe’s the king of the movies. I hope he doesn't know that I never saw ÎGone With the Wind.’"
Wallach loved the movies, but theater is his lifeblood.
“I have two new hips, hip operations, and sometimes there’s pain. But when I go on stage, just as I walk on the stage, the pain disappears and I'm in charge,” he says. “I don't know where the pain went, but it's gone. I get off stage and I crawl around afterward.”
But how does Wallach really feel about the difference between theater versus movies? At a recent appearance in Brooklyn, Wallach explained his preference by talking about sex.
“You warm up, you get closer, you begin to feel one another, and finally there's an explosive thing, and you've made love. That's good. That's in a play,” he says. “In the movies, you get excited, you work on it, you get this, and just as you're about to explode, the director says, ÎCut! Let's do it again.’"
Eli Wallach may be thinking a lot these days about the past, but he's not stuck in it. There are still readings and movie offers to consider.
The journey from Brooklyn has been so exciting, at 89, why stop now?
“Who knew that I'd wind up playing gangsters and Mexican bandits, half-breeds and Greek jewel thieves, and I get paid to do it?” he says. “I thought, that's great. I'm still here. People say to me, ÎWhy don't you retire?’ I say, ÎAh, when I die, that's it.’"
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: