Eli Wallach says he adopted a line from Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” as his motto: Make voyages, attempt them, there’s nothing else.” In his autobiography, with the charming subtitle “In My Anecdotage,” he’s an excellent tour guide through the first half or so of his life, from Red Hook to the Army to Broadway and the big and small screens.
He talks about creating some of his most memorable roles, such as the bandit Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” (“The one regret I had in making ‘The Magnificent Seven’ was that I never heard Elmer Bernstein’s musical score while making the film. … If I had heard that score, I think I would have ridden my horse differently.”); discusses how he influenced Marilyn Monroe to study at the Actors’ Studio and she helped him get better contracts; and tells a sweet story about meeting John Clark Gable, and telling him about his father, Clark Gable, who died before his birth.
He relates how Sergio Leone won him over for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by showing him the credit sequence of “For a Few Dollars More”: “In the darkened Paramount screening room, I watched as Leone’s name popped up on the screen. Suddenly a gun appeared in the left corner and proceeded to shoot down each letter of his name to the sound of music. I was hooked.”
Wallach relates the little-thought-of minutiae of life as a film actor: He was not allowed to leave Mississippi, where “Baby Doll” was shooting, as the crew did, to go home for Christmas because, as director Elia Kazan told him, ‘(T)he crew is not on film. You are, and if the plane crashes, I’ll have to shoot all of your scenes over again.”
Wallach is a born observer, and he has a simple, direct way of writing that makes him seem like just one of the guys. Although his attitude toward his chosen profession is one of reverence and respect, he has no such affected ideas about himself. Instead, he comes across as a man who’s had a helluva lot of fun entertaining us.
He’s also devoted to his family, as is abundantly clear from the last chapter, “Reflections on a Golden Career.” Being married actors hasn’t always been easy, but, as he quotes wife Jackson quipping, “Our relationship has worked simply because I am a saint.” Actually, he credits it to the ability to have their fights onstage, via the works they chose to appear in.
However, one suspects it’s more than that. Upon learning Arnold Schwarzenegger earned $20 million to play Mr. Freeze in the film “Batman,” vs. the $350 Wallach earned to play the part in the TV series, he complains to his wife. Her response: “Lift weights.”