As has been widely reported, we have recently lost one of our most prolific actors of stage and screen: Eli Wallach, perpetual journeyman and character specialist, passed away Tuesday at his home in Manhattan, at the age of 98.
Is it odd to mourn a man you never met? To feel a sense of not just regret, but tangible loss upon their passing? It was only a year ago that I grappled with this question with Roger Ebert, a significant role model whose example I would often consult for both professional and personal guidance. It happened again with Philip Seymour Hoffman, a sobering and tragic case of talent, success and even love not being enough to quell personal demons.
Eli Wallach was neither of those things to me. He was a man who quietly, diligently, capably went about his job for over 60 years. He was in a number of productions – whether on TV, film, or the stage – that I saw and quite liked; he was in a great many more that I’ve not yet had the fortune to see. He lived, by all accounts, a long and fulfilling life, with a stable and loving family: he had a wife, Anne Jackson, who collaborated with and challenged him on stage; two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren; and, as it would happen, a nephew, a certain A.O. Scott.
And what else is there to say? Not that I mean there wasn’t much more to Wallach’s life, from his five years in the Medical Corps during WWII to his collaborations with the likes of Lee Strasberg, Tennessee Williams, Sergio Leone, and Francis Ford Coppola, or the countless other details that made up Wallach’s life that I will never and have no reason to be privy to. But that is, more or less, a summary of Wallach’s presence in my private little bubble. Is it so foolish, or perhaps simply unnecessary, then, to feel just so dreadfully sad that this man is no longer out there, somewhere, in the world?
Do I love him as Clark Gable’s sidekick in “The Misfits?” Sure. Do I adore him as the slippery, weary villain of “The Magnificent Seven?” Absolutely. Would I watch “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” several dozen times just to watch the practiced way the mischievous Tuco, a bumbling idiot in any lesser film, always knows enough to keep one eye on the door? I could, and I have. Affection for his screen work isn’t an entirely satisfactory answer, though – Wallach never was (nor really ever intended to be) the kind of electric performer who blew you away with his raw talent. He was a workhorse who created solid, lived-in characters; maybe he wasn’t the poster-boy for Strasberg’s Method but he was the proof that it was more than attention-grabbing behind-the-scenes stunts. There was perhaps never a more worthy recipient of an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement: he may never have really turned in a single, star-making performance, but it was always a pleasant surprise to see his face when he popped up.
Is that all there is to it? Did Wallach simply ingratiate his way into my life with a distinctive mug and a knack for being watchable? By just seeming like a nice old man who loved what he did?
Honestly, I don’t really know the answer. I just know that Tuesday evening, Eli Wallach passed away. And that’s too bad.