Eli Wallach died today at age 98. Some of you are saying, “Wallach? Who’s he?” Most of the rest of you are probably saying, “Wallach was still alive?” For those of us who followed Wallach’s career, today is a sad day.
Wallach, best remembered for his bad-guy roles in the classic westerns The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven, has left a legacy of cinematic excellence that places him in the pantheon of under-appreciated supporting actors.
I can’t remember the first time I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I was young. I do remember that it was a regular feature on an cable channel, one probably owned by Ted Turner, and that I would watch the Clint Eastwood marathons as often as they aired. When VHS came on the scene, I wore out a bootlegged copy of Leone’s film, rolling and rewinding the scene where Tuco (played by Eli Wallach) enters the gun shop and puts together the perfect revolver.
It is an almost wordless scene, and it should be the only thing they play at Wallach’s funeral. Forget for a moment that Tuco manages to shoot cartridges from a percussion cap revolver. It’s the movies! And there’s something much deeper, as the title of the movie insinuates. There’s good (though Blondie is hardly good, by any technical definition). There’s bad (and I’m not sure Angel Eyes is as bad as many think). Then, as Tuco so aptly demonstrates, there’s an odd gray area that exists between good and bad, or maybe farther down than bad. Regardless, Wallach’s Tuco is incredibly well developed. Tuco is the epitome of ugly, and Wallach handles his guns with a casual nonchalance that makes Tuco seem even more ice-cold.
There’s a rumor that Wallach, when he was shooting The Magnificent Seven, would ride out into the countryside for hours with his band of thieving miscreants. When it was time to shoot the scene, the gang would ride up, saddle sore and in character. While the story may be apocryphal, it makes me like Wallach all that much more.
“When you have to shoot,” Tuco says, “shoot. Don’t talk.” Enough said. Wallach, and all of the minions he so masterfully portrayed, will be forever missed. Time to break out the DVDs.