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Speaking Volumes: (Not So) Star Struck: On 'Baby Doll's and spaghetti westerns

June 23, 2005 By:
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Eli Wallach (left) and Clint Eastwood in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
If you're in the mood for a treatise on the fine art of acting, with frequent asides about the history of the Actors Studio and revelations about the secrets behind Method acting, steer clear of Eli Wallach's new memoir, The Good, the Bad, and Me, just out from Harcourt.

But if you're in the mood for a breezy, entertaining chronicle of one man's long history in theater and film - without any fat on its bones or bluster in its prose - then Wallach's book is for you.

The key to its plainspoken style can be found in the work's subtitle: In My Anecdotage. Wallach, now in his 80s, keeps fighting against being dragged into his actual dotage period - he still hops on a stage or stands in front of a camera whenever given the chance. And clearly he's also kept the ravages of time at bey by committing his fine repertoire of anecdotes to print in the style of a relaxed, polished raconteur.

But be warned again - if you were expecting a star-struck cavalcade of show business, then you're also out of luck. Wallach never seems terribly impressed with big names or celebrity status, though he genuinely seems to have enjoyed working with many different kinds of actors throughout the years. And by celebrities, in this case, we're talking about Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood, just for starters.

Nor does Wallach grow effusive when recalling the legendary teachers and directors who've graced his path since the very beginning. Among them have been Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and John Huston, to name only a few. Wallach's also been a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, and has rubbed shoulders with Marlon Brando, James Dean and the like.

They're just people - talented people, mind you, but that's a given as far as Wallach's concerned. This is simply the world he's moved in for the last 50 years or so. There's nothing more unusual about it than that.

The Dreamy One

Such candor is refreshing in such celebrity-saturated times.

The book, though, doesn't really come into its true "anecdotage" until about a third of the way in, after Wallach has sketched out his early years growing up in a close-knit Jewish family in immigrant Brooklyn and his eventual military service in World War II.

This terrain is pretty familiar stuff: Mom and pop own a store; sometimes, the kids help out. Eli is the dreamy one, Sam the son with vision and a purpose from his early years … you get the general idea.

Eli, his brother and sisters swap stories about love and sex and the world beyond the neighborhood, and somehow, they manage to grow up with their dreams intact, especially Eli, who longs to make it on the legitimate stage.

The attack on Pearl Harbor disrupts his life just as he's completing a course of study at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse, where Sanford Meisner, of the old Group Theater, reigned supreme. Wallach puts his plan to storm Broadway into the deep freeze for a time once he's drafted into the Army, and becomes a medical administrative officer in Europe.

In the first 80 or so pages, we also hear about several of Wallach's amorous conquests, and even a number of his flirtations with marriage. But with Chapter 5, titled "Broadway, Here I Come," Eli, now nearing 30, is back pounding the pavement and auditioning every chance he can get. Little does he know that he's just weeks away from meeting the love of his life, in both a private and professional sense.

When his first Broadway play closes almost overnight, he recalls a young Southern women he met before the war named Terry Hayden, who was also crazy about theater. It happens that she's planning to produce plays at New York branch libraries, many of which had small, rarely used theaters in their basements.

Hayden tells Wallach that she hopes to direct Tennessee Williams' two-character, one-act play This Property Is Condemned, and that she wants him to act in it. Hayden tells him to read the play, and then come back the following week so he can read with a young actress she has in mind to play the other role.

Wallach returns as planned and as he waits in Hayden's apartment, "a pretty redhead with beautiful blue eyes" enters.

"Terry introduced us," writes Wallach, "but in my nervousness I instantly forgot the girl's name. She regarded me coolly. I sensed that she was not sure about what I was doing there. Terry took the girl aside and said, 'Listen, he's going to play the role of Tom with you.'

"The girl looked surprised and her voice, soft and sweet like a viola, traveled across the room.

' 'He's a soldier, Terry,' she said. 'He's too old. He's too old for a 15-year-old boy. And what's he doing in uniform?'

" 'Just act with him,' Terry said. 'You'll enjoy it.'

"Williams's play takes place on a set of railroad tracks. A young boy is flying a kite, a girl comes by, and they begin to play the scene. As we read, I kept trying to shave years off my age.

" 'I'm nearly 30,' I thought as I heard the girl's voice echoing in my ear - 'too old, too old.' Still, I read the part and I got it. Little did I realize that I would spend the rest of my life with that red-headed girl whose name I couldn't remember: Anne Jackson."

Wallach and Jackson would go on to have many triumphs together, especially on stage, and they'd also produce three supremely gifted children and share life together till this very day.

One of those theatrical triumphs would be Luv, a three-character play by Murray Schisgal, the author of the off-Broadway hit The Typists and the Tiger, which had also featured Wallach and Jackson. In Luv, the couple shared the stage with the young Alan Arkin, fresh from his triumph in Enter Laughing, and they were directed by the hottest young director of the time - the mid-1960s - Mike Nichols.

One of Wallach's best anecdotes has to do with Nichols and Luv. "Rehearsals went smoothly for the most part," writes the actor. "But at one point, we were confused about the rhythm of a scene, so Nichols gave us a rather unusual direction: 'Anne,' he said, 'I want you to play your part with a heavy Tallulah Bankhead southern accent; Alan, you are to imitate Tennessee Williams's southern drawl; and Eli, I want you to use the heaviest Jewish accent possible. But do not change one word of the script; let me hear you play the scenes that way.'

"One of Nichols's most recognizable traits is his laugh; it sounds like an elongated whistle. And as we played the scenes for him, accents and all, he laughed and whistled all the way through. At the end, he rushed to the front of the stage, tears in his eyes. 'It's miraculous,' he said. 'Maybe we should keep the accents.' Actually, his miraculous direction helped us to get rid of all our tensions. We were free now to dispense with the accents and just have fun with Schisgal's witty lines."

Any lover of films will also find his or her share of delights in this memoir, as Wallach has graced a number of fine films, among them Baby Doll, The Misfits and, for lovers of spaghetti westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

His portrait of Marilyn Monroe, who, with Clark Gable, headed the cast of The Misfits -written by her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller - is funny and touching, and unlike most other portraits of this sad, broken individual. The movie, in fact, gets a whole chapter all its own. Only The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which contains Wallach's most famous film role, gets the same treatment.

At the end of the book, the aged actor appears to pause for a moment - "to reflect" on his choice of profession. Luckily, the mood doesn't last long. Instead, he ends "in his anecdotage" yet again.

"Recently at home, I spotted a big envelope from the Screen Actors Guild. I knew it contained a residual - a check from the union for a rerun of a film on TV. 'Good,' I thought. I may not be making as many films as I once did, but residuals are always a welcome addition to my income.

"I quickly tore open the envelope; the residual was for the movie Mistress, which I had made with Robert De Niro. It was for two cents. … [B]ut for me it meant that I was still in the race, that even two cents was a residual."

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