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A Master of His Craft
Eli Wallach
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4    interview by Paul M. Riordan -- page 2 of 4

Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll.

Your first motion picture role was in director Elia Kazanís Baby Doll (1956). What was Kazan like to work with? I understand that he had an interesting way of handling actors.

Yes. [It was written] by Tennessee Williams. Well, he [Kazan] was brilliant. He knows how to stimulate the actors, put them in situations, and . . . heís able to capture behavior so well. He will pit one actor against another. Heíll say to you, "Go make friends," and heíll tell the other actor, "Donít have anything to do with him." He causes a conflict; he exploits conflict very cleverly. Heís just brilliant.

You know, heíd say, "Print that, [itís] finished." Iíd say, "Can I do one more?" Heíd say, "Sure, film is cheap. Do one more." But he never printed when I asked. It was his way of saying, "Listen, Iím out there. Iím objective. Youíre in the situation. You canít edit it yourself. You canít see what youíre doing. Iím seeing it."

Also, Karl Malden, whoís a friend of mine, said to me, "Eli, when you speak on the screen, your head is about 30 feet high, so donít open your mouth too much." So, I went around with my lips kind of tight together, and I had one line where she [Carroll Baker] says, "Hi Yo Silver," and I gritted my teeth and said, "Hi Yo!," and Kazan said, "What? Why donít you say it?" And I said, "Well, because I did say it," and he said, "No, no, open your mouth and say it. I donít want the Japanese version." So, he said, "Oh, I get it. Karl told you that."

But it was the best experience Iíve had in moviemaking because he allowed us to play scenes. See, in a movie, you walk in the door. It takes two hours to light the door. You walk in and say, "Hello." Cut. Then, they go to something else. And itís frustrating for the actor because he doesnít play a whole scene. Thereís a scene in Baby Doll where weíre sitting around the dining table that was played in toto. It was wonderful because it had an alive quality.

Eli Wallach as "Dancer" pushes "The Man"
to his death in
The Lineup.

You subsequently worked for veteran action director Don Siegel, in The Lineup (1958). What was that experience like?

That was my second film. Iíll tell you what, I went into that film with a New York actorís attitude of, you know, what are movies? And Don, who was a skillful moviemaker, understood it. He never liked my attitude, but he knew how to use it in the film. Did you see that? Itís a good movie. I said to them, "Wait, I kill 5 people in one day? My God." And [Siegel] said, "Itís a movie." (Laughs)

Didnít you work on an early 1960s TV program called The Shirley Temple Storybook?

Yes, it was called The Emperorís New Clothes. Yeah. And I did Batman, too. I did Mr. Freeze. I get more mail for him than anything Iíve ever done. I said, "My God, Schwarzenegger just did the same part and he got 20 million." So my wife said, "Well, why donít you lift weights?"

In 1960, you played the bandit leader, Calvera, in the American Western version of Kurosawaís Seven Samurai -- The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges. I think Sturges has often been underrated; he directed some very good films.

Oh, he did Bad Day At Black Rock.

A great movie.

Oh, yeah. We shot it [The Magnificent Seven] all in Mexico, and I said to him, "You know, you never see what the bandits do with the money. They hold up the train, they rob the banks." So I wanted to show what I did with the money. So I got red silk shirts, beautiful hats, wonderful saddles, a great horse, and two gold teeth. So that was the way I did it. Oh, yes. When I saw the movie, I said, "I wish I had heard the music. I would have ridden the horse differently."

Eli Wallach as bandit leader Calvera
The Magnificent Seven.

You also worked with Steve McQueen on his last film, The Hunter (1980).

Twenty years later, yeah. He was a superb film actor. He knew the cameras. He could ride a horse beautifully. He was exciting on the screen. Most of the stuff he did with the stunts was done in Chicago. So I only worked with him in California.

Itís amazing that he did a lot of his own stunts on that film, considering that he was dying of cancer at the time.

Well, I knew nothing about that. It wasnít until a month after the movie was finished, and a reporter called and said, "Did you know he was dying?" I said, "What are you talking about?" I had no idea.

He did a good job, though.

He sure did. But he said to me once, "I was in my office, and I looked out of my office, and I saw a guy in blue jeans putting stuff in the back of a truck, with a dog running beside him." He said, "Thatís what I wanna do." So he sold his company, stopped doing everything -- I think he knew then that he was going -- he moved up to a little farm with a young lady, got married. Then, he went to Mexico for treatments. Nothing worked. He had, I think, a thing called asbestosis, which is cancer of the lungs. That did him in.

page 2 of 4

Go to Eli Wallach filmography.


© 1998 Paul Riordan. All rights reserved.


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