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Brooklyn Boy

Marc Miller reviews Eli Wallach's memoirThe Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage. logo
Eli Wallach has been around for so long that we take him for granted. Born into a lower-middle class Brooklyn Jewish family in 1915, he caught the acting bug early but had to overcome many obstacles to pursue his acting career. He had the good sense to hook up with the budding Actors Studio in the 1940s. By the early 1950s, he had found major stage success; a few years later, he began carving out a second career as one of the screen's most reliable character actors. And he's not finished yet: You may remember his twinkling, lascivious judge in the Encores! production of Can-Can last year or his incisive cameo in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.

As if all that weren't enough, Wallach has been blessed with a 57-year marriage to another fine actor, Anne Jackson; and he worked with virtually every major player during Broadway's Golden Age. His life is definitely the stuff of which page-turning theatrical autobiographies are made.

Both the title and subtitle of Wallach's The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage (Harcourt, 320p., $25) clue us in to what sort of a memoir this is. An allusion to his appearance in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the title also hints that the book will be full of movie stories, with far more space devoted to The Misfits (for example) than to the Broadway production of The Rose Tattoo. The subtitle promises diverting yarns involving the many luminaries with whom he was associated: Tennessee Williams, Harold Clurman, Julie Harris, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Eugene Ionesco, Cheryl Crawford, and Elia Kazan, to name but a few. Wallach delivers on the anecdotes: The book is practically a nonstop parade of them, some fascinating, some mild, some pointless. He also provides a heady glimpse of New York and the West End in a far more vital and challenging theatrical age than the present. We're invited to share the life of a jet-setting movie actor, accepting the next script as much for the location filming as for the glory or the money. (Wallach's fee for The Poppy Is Also a Flower, filmed in Nice, was six Lanvin shirts.)

But, frustratingly, Wallach keeps us at arm's length for much of the ride. We only get a fleeting idea of what his dramatic influences were, how he shapes a role, or what influence the Method has on a given assignment. Either Wallach isn't the deeply introspective artist we might expect him to be or he has chosen to keep some of his acting insights locked up. Some of his most important stage work -- The Price, Staircase, and The Waltz of the Toreadors -- is mentioned barely or not at all.

Wallach certainly has a vivid memory; he recalls many details of his upbringing on the Red Hook/Park Slope border in the 1920s. This early section of the book contains some wonderfully colorful stuff: the street gangs, the local Yiddish theater, flattening a penny on the trolley track so that it would fit into a nickel telephone slot. Hooked on acting ever since he saw a silly Jewish melodrama and subsequently joined the Erasmus Hall High School drama club, Wallach kept being diverted from from pursuing his dream. Born into a family that valued education and stability, he was persuaded by his older brother to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where out-of-state tuition in 1932 came to $30 a year. (If nothing else, Texas made an expert horseman of him, which came in handy for all the movie Westerns he made decades later.)

Back in New York, his family continued to steer him toward a teaching career. But a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse, studying under Sanford Meisner, bought him some more time and introduced him to the fundamentals of the then-novel Method. Fate intervened again in the form of World War II: Wallach drew a low draft number, saw the world, achieved the rank of captain in a medical administration outfit, and amassed lots of diverting Army stories. Returning to New York and the bustling postwar casting offices, Wallach continued his studies and his journeyman career with stints at the American Repertory Theatre, the Equity Library Theater (he met the 20-year-old Jackson there when he was cast opposite her in This Property is Condemned), and The Actors Studio.

Then in his early 30s, he was older than most budding actors and was hardly your standard handsome-leading-man material. Still, he was cast in the Broadway play Skydrift (a notorious flop) and thereafter did some work with Eva Le Gallienne's repertory company. Wallach makes late-1940s Broadway seem a bracing, busy environment: revolutionary plays by Williams and others, a competitive but supportive circle of struggling actors, and one-room apartments on lower Fifth Avenue for $35 a month -- maid service included!

His luck began to change when he replaced Steven Hill during the Broadway run of Mister Roberts. In 1951 came The Rose Tattoo, with producer Cheryl Crawford gambling on an unknown Maureen Stapleton as Serafina (after Anna Magnani declined the role that Williams had written for her) and the 35-year-old Wallach as the clownish Alvaro. His performance won him a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

Since then, Wallach has seldom had to wait long for the next job offer. His stage career has been a mix of gratifying commercial successes (Luv, Charles Laughton's production of Major Barbara, Teahouse of the August Moon) and more adventurous, shorter-running stuff (Camino Real, Mademoiselle Colombe, Rhinoceros with Zero Mostel). On the big screen, he followed his high-profile debut in 1956's Baby Doll (written by Tennessee Williams) with such prestigious fare as The Magnificent Seven, Cinderella Liberty, and Winter Kills.

Perhaps none of Wallach's films are more fascinating to the public than The Misfits, and his book is particularly touching when describing its troubled filming. Star Marilyn Monroe was a longtime family friend; Wallach recalls her as a serious artist whose acting choices, guided by guru Lee Strasberg, were simple and invariably right. But by the time she filmed The Misfits, not long before her death, Monroe has become a hysterical, insecure movie goddess -- chronically late, surrounded by a protective entourage, and hanging out mostly with co-star Montgomery Clift "because he's the only person I know who's in worse shape than me." (Clark Gable, on the other hand, emerges as an untemperamental professional and a nice guy.)

There are also some good stories about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (director Leone is painted as a madman), Lord Jim, and How to Steal a Million. But a surprising number of the anecdotes seem rather aimless; they fizz out without offering any particular insight into their subjects' minds. And Wallach, able reporter and chronicler though he is, often stands back as a casual observer instead of conveying what impact the event-du-jour had on him.

When he does let us in on his conflicts and musings, it's not always flattering. Reading between the lines, one can guess that Wallach may not be the easiest actor to get along with. He portrays his younger self as a cocky, impatient kid, all too eager to grab the spotlight. While playing in Le Gallienne's production of Androcles and the Lion, he spread discontent backstage by nattering nightly about how he deserved a better role. He seems to have gone through a lot of agents; they annoyed him or they were greedy. He initially turned down The Magnificent Seven because he felt his role was too small but accepted it because the other characters spent so much time talking about him. ("Calvera is coming!") Wallach also commits the occasional stage-history error: Arthur Laurents, for whom he auditioned for Home of the Brave, did not write the book for La Cage aux Folles (Harvey Fierstein did), and the young Wallach yearns for a Tony before that coveted award even existed.

On the plus side, the book does include some heartwarming family stories. And Jackson, who has carved her own distinguished career in appearances both with and without her husband, is shown to be a common-sense, long-suffering spouse. When one TV interviewer asked about the secret of their marital stability, she replied, "Our relationship has worked simply because I am a saint." Encountering the sometimes difficult, frequently unanalytical Wallach in this interesting but incomplete memoir, one is inclined to believe her.


[Ed. Note: Eli Wallach will read from The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage on Tuesday, June 21 at 7:30pm at the Barnes & Noble store on Broadway at 82nd Street.]

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