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Eli Wallach of 'Magnificent Seven,' 'Good, Bad and Ugly' dies

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eli Wallach was hardworking and prolific character actor
  • Among his films: "Magnificent Seven," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
  • Wallach frequently performed on stage as well

(CNN) -- Eli Wallach, whose long acting career included performances in "The Magnificent Seven," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Godfather Part III" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," has died. He was 98.

Wallach died Tuesday night. A family member confirmed his death to CNN.

Wallach was long one of Hollywood's favorite character actors, giving his parts -- often villains, mobsters or shopkeepers -- an added touch of menace with his gravelly voice. In "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- two key '60s Westerns -- he played bandits.

He also played opposite some of the biggest stars in history. His more than 150 credits includes roles in "The Misfits" (1961), with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe; "Lord Jim" (1965), with Peter O'Toole and James Mason; "Tough Guys" (1986), with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster; "The Two Jakes" (1990), with Jack Nicholson; and even a small, uncredited role in "Mystic River" (2003), starring Sean Penn and Tim Robbins and directed by Clint Eastwood -- his co-star in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

But Wallach's heart was in live theater, where he originated parts in such works as Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo" and Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."

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"For actors, movies are a means to an end," Wallach told The New York Times in 1973. "I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play."

Eli Herschel Wallach was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 7, 1915. Though he was Jewish, he grew up in a largely Italian neighborhood, an experience that would later help him in a number of roles.

"I grew up watching Italians. And, in 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,' (director) Sergio Leone said, 'You have to pray in here. Cross yourself. You know how to cross yourself?' I said, 'Well, I'm Jewish, but I learned how to cross myself because the Italians did it every day 30, 40 times a day, crossing themselves,'" he said in an interview with the blog Old New York Stories.

Wallach attended the University of Texas -- among his classmates was Walter Cronkite -- and served in the Army during World War II.

After the war, he attended the Actors Studio and became a leading devotee of the Method, the approach to acting that asks performers to draw on their own experiences and emotions for an interior understanding of the part. (Lee Strasberg, perhaps the Method's primary American popularizer, once said, "Method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.")

He won a Tony for his performance in "The Rose Tattoo" and also acted in "Mister Roberts," "The Teahouse of the August Moon" and "Major Barbara." He made his film debut in another Tennessee Williams work, "Baby Doll" (1956), three years after turning down the role of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity" (1953). That part went to Frank Sinatra and revitalized his career.

"Every time Sinatra met me after that, he would say to me, 'Hello, you crazy actor,'" he told Old New York Stories.

He almost turned down the part in "Magnificent Seven," but changed his mind when he saw how he could shape the role of the bandit Calvera, he told the website American Legends.

"I went to (director John) Sturges and said, 'In movie Westerns, you never see what the bandits do with the money. ... I want to show how they spend it. I want to have silk shirts. I'm going to put in two gold teeth. I want a good horse, a wonderful saddle.' Sturges said, 'OK. You got it.'"

"Magnificent Seven" also starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson and featured Elmer Bernstein's stirring score. Of the leading members of the cast, only Robert Vaughn is still alive.

Wallach worked steadily, whether on stage, the big screen or small -- especially if the TV series was based in New York. He was in a 1992 episode of "Law & Order" and performed in the short-lived "Tribeca" and "100 Centre Street." But work was work, and that also meant parts in "ER," "Murder, She Wrote," "Highway to Heaven" and the TV movie "The Executioner's Song."

He made "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010) when he was 94.

He had a sense of humor about his fame. He titled his memoir "The Good, the Bad and Me," since his role in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was "the Ugly" -- Tuco, the sometimes buffoonish bandit.

And he enjoyed the spotlight -- even when he was promoting his book.

"I'm having fun answering questions," he said in a publisher's interview. "A woman asked me, 'Is that your real name?' And I said, 'How do you dream up a name like mine?'"

Wallach is survived by his wife, actress Anne Jackson, to whom he was married for 66 years; three children and many grandchildren.

Why the Pope was an Eli Wallach fan

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