Skip to main content

Why the Pope was an Eli Wallach fan

By Carrie Rickey
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Click through to see<a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/world/obituaries-2014'> people who passed away</a> in 2014. Click through to see people who passed away in 2014.
HIDE CAPTION
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
People we lost in 2014
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carrie Rickey: The late charactor actor Eli Wallach told a story that the Pope sent him a fan letter
  • She says Wallach was great at playing bad guys and was often cast as an "American ethnic"
  • He acted with big names in film -- Eastwood, Gable, Stiller -- but his love was theater
  • Rickey: He worked well into his 90s; beloved for monologues, wit and professionalism

Editor's note: Carrie Rickey is the former movie critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRickey

(CNN) -- Even the Pope was one of Eli Wallach's biggest fans. So said the cheeky chameleon of an actor when he received an honorary Oscar in 2010 and remarked that the pontiff -- he didn't say which one -- wrote him a fan letter extolling his performance as the bandito Calvera in "The Magnificent Seven" (1960).

This struck Wallach as odd.

"I've played more bandits, thieves, killers, warlords, molesters and Mafiosi than you can shake a stick at," he said. No doubt he got a pass from the Pope because as the bad guy, the famed character actor, who died Tuesday at 98, had a smile as lethal as his aim.

Carrie Rickey
Carrie Rickey

The most beloved of his screen roles were as Calvera in "Magnificent Seven" and Tuco, the opportunistic robber, who was sometimes an ally but more often the adversary of Clint Eastwood in the 1966 Sergio Leone spaghetti Western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

But surely Wallach, a prolific actor who made more than 50 films and almost as many television appearances, possessed the universal blood type. His screen niche was the American ethnic. In addition to Hispanics, his characters included Arabs, Greeks, Italians and Poles.

He appeared in films large and small, from "The Misfits" (1961), where he played a mechanic besotted by Marilyn Monroe, to "Baby Doll," his 1956 screen debut as Silva Vacarro, the wily cotton planter who aims to deflower his rival's virgin bride, Carroll Baker.

Sometimes he was the lead, more often the supporting player. But when Wallach was on screen, you forgot that Eastwood, Clark Gable or Ben Stiller was next to him.

Occasionally the sinewy Wallach-- born to a Jewish family in 1915 in what then was the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn -- played a Jew. Like the rabbi who helps convert Gentile Jenna Elfman so she can marry Stiller in "Keeping the Faith" (2000). And the aging screenwriter who befriends Kate Winslet in "The Holiday" (2006).

Though he made more than 50 films, Wallach treated movies as a way to finance his work in theater: "I don't live to act, I act to live," he said.

'Godfather' actor Eli Wallach dies at 98

Indeed, he was set to make his film debut as Maggio, the character Frank Sinatra ultimately played in "From Here to Eternity," in 1953 (Sinatra won an Oscar). Instead, he chose to appear on stage in "Camino Real."

He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and appeared in 30 Broadway plays. Among his triumphs were Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo" (1951) and "Camino Real" (1953); the latter earned him a Tony Award.

Among his personal triumphs: Wallach and his wife, actress Anne Jackson, with whom he often appeared on stage from the 1960s through 1990s, were married 66 years. (The secret of their marital longevity, claimed Jackson, was that her husband did the ironing.)

A captivating storyteller who first gained attention as a student at the Actors Studio for his monologues about his time as an Army medic in World War II clearing soldiers out of brothels, Wallach was beloved by directors and co-stars as much for his humor as his professionalism.

In his 2005 memoir, "The Good, the Bad and Me." he claimed that the role of Mr. Freeze, the subzero doctor who turns adversaries into ice in the 1960s TV show "Batman," was responsible for the largest percentage of his fan mail. Nothing else came close, not even his role of dapper Don Altobello in "The Godfather, Part III."

He continued working well into his 90s, in roles such as the liquor-store proprietor in "Mystic River" (2003) and a financial bigwig in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010), his last movie.

And Wallach left 'em laughing: When he received his honorary Oscar in 2010, he told the joke about the nonagenarian whose friends send a hooker to house for his birthday. When she arrives, and promises the man "super sex," he says, "I guess I'll take the soup."

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT