Eli Wallach: 1915 – 2014

So, I haven’t had internet in a long damn while after moving and so there’s a lot I need to catch up on, but something in particular I want to take note of is the recent passing of a legendary actor known for being extremely multi-faceted.

Last week, on June 24th (the day right before my birthday), Eli Wallach had passed away at the age of 98. I was really hoping for the life of me since I first found out who he was that he’d make it to 100. Thanks a lot, Obama.

A founding member of the Actors’ Studio, Eli Wallach has been acting until the bitter end of his life from a very long-spanning career. While nowhere near as towering as the recently deceased legend Mickey Rooney’s 90s year streak, Wallach had taken on many different sorts of characters (I cannot attest yet, but the amount of versatility people praise Wallach for rivals the amount I praised Phillip Seymour Hoffman for) for a good 60+ years, namely within the Western genre with which he became a household name.

I have to admit personally, though, out of his many screen credits I have only familiarized myself with a few – Only two of which ever made a huge mark upon me.

One of them was a surprisingly nuanced villain of my childhood who was one of the few things the movie had above its source material.

The other was a cunning little badass that I looked up to and admired most in my high school life against two other leads, all of which have an impressive stature in the film and the Western genre.

Both are Mexican. And under a lesser actor, the performances of Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven and Tuco in The Good, the Bad, the Ugly  would have come across as racist. But damn did Wallach have us fooled. They weren’t caricatures. They were characters fully lived-in dealing with their own issues on top of the main conflict.

Calvera was one of the earliest examples I’ve had of a villain being beyond good and evil. The Magnificent Seven was a staple of my childhood and I had wanted to grow up to be as big pimpin’ as Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner) was in this movie. I eventually was able to see Seven Samurai in college (after a good many years dying to see it) and do consider Samurai the superior film. But, on of the things Magnificent Seven had well over Samurai was the fact of Calvera’s situation. His opening scene had him appealing and explaining the unfortunate matter of raising his men. It’s not a moment excusing him of his brutality and thievery, Calvera is still undeniably the villain through and through, but he’s taking more of the time to make himself a little more accustomed to as an unstoppable force of life in the village. As opposed to Seven Samurai where the bandits are faceless and uncharismatic, the only characters we care about at all are the ronin and the villagers.

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez belongs in a different camp. He’s still a bandit, though a one-man bandit gang all in his own. He belongs in the camp of Spike Spiegel and Sam Spade, so nonchalant about his adventures that killing a man from within a bath is just casual self-preservation rather than a dodged bullet. He’s talkative to a facade of amicability, but is still in his heart of hearts, a bandit willing to rob you or make you pay if you try to cross him. And it may look like you won for a moment, but he’ll come back wearing that noose and trading it for your horse and boots.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had the good damn luck of having not one but two engaging protagonists to follow on (and an engaging antagonist if not sympathetic – he wasn’t), but it’s pretty easy to see that Wallach’s Tuco was more easy for the audience to follow with than Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man with No Name.

I had watched this close-to-perfect classic of a film when I was in high school on a binge-watching and DVD-buying mania from getting my mind off of other things going on in my life. It quickly became one of my favorite movies I’ve ever seen and it’d be a damn fool move to claim the three leads were not the full effect alongside its desert war adventure plot.

But I think it’s a bigger damn fool move to claim Tuco wasn’t the star of the show, even if Clint Eastwood is the top-billed face on the posters and covers. Tuco was funny, sleazy, the only character whose backstory we got a glimpse of, smart, slick and all the other things that a good bandit should be. He was pretty much the Western version of Captain Jack Sparrow, but nobody else could have captured that amazing energy in the character like Wallach did. He wasn’t a good person, but you wouldn’t be able to find any in that movie. Tuco just happened to be the most likable.

I’m afraid I haven’t seen many more of Wallach’s films. He hadn’t struck me too much in The Godfather Part III (which is pretty much to say for the entirety of the Godfather Part III… the only things I found memorable beyond its haunting ending were how badly Al Pacino had devolved from being Michael Corleone, Sofia Coppola’s terrible acting and how Andy Garcia seemed to be the only actor who wanted to be there.). Skokie was surprisingly effective for a television movie,. but his appearance was missed by me over a hugely impactful lead performance by Danny Kaye. I’ve been intent on catching The Ghost WriterThe Misfits and Baby Doll. Now I have more incentive to catch up on them.

The fact remains though that even by just becoming burned in my mind by two of the most impressive performances I have seen in cinema, Eli Wallach remained an icon to me in the Garami Hall of Fame. Nevermind how many other classic Western watchers he’s hit in the chest with his stamina and personality. And how many directors have had the privilege of having him work for them and actors have had the privilege of working with him.

“I’ve learned that life is very tricky business: Each person needs to find what they want to do in life and not be dissuaded when people question them.”

Or wait, fuck that, there’s a wayyyyy better quote to end on…

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

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