When Eli Wallach passed away at age 98 the world lost one of the finest actors of our time and a wonderful man. A few years ago I had the privilege of spending an amazing afternoon interviewing Eli for the Concept Farm's Emmy Award winning television show, Cool In Your Code, which aired on NYCTV. I will always treasure that time as one of the highlights of my life. Our four-hour interview was edited into a four-minute segment that won an Emmy Award. (Here’s a link to the video)
Our four-hour interview was edited into a four-minute segment that won an Emmy Award. (Here’s a link to the video.)What started out as an “interview” quickly evolved into an intimate and emotional chat about Eli’s entire life. I came away inspired and totally energized by Eli’s zest for life, love of his family, and devotion to the profession he loved so much. After we had chatted for about two hours we realized that we had only covered the early years of Eli’s life. When I asked Eli if he wanted to stop he said, “ I Just need some more tea. I love talking. Are you ready for more?” He held us spellbound for another two hours. There was so much more to tell beyond what could be captured in a video segment, so we transcribed the entire interview. This post is based on that transcript of the early years of his life. You will be treated to a rare glimpse into life of a a very special man that will touch your heart. Thanks Eli for sharing your life with us.
It was a chilly March day when Eli Wallach met me and my film crew at Sardi’s in New York City. It also happened to be the day of his 59th wedding anniversary. Sardi’s was where he and his wife, Anne Jackson, had their wedding night celebration 59 years earlier. A great convergence of time and circumstance, so you can imagine the emotions that were stirring in Eli when he walked in. He was a bit frail, but still spry, with a gleam in his eye. Eli couldn’t wait to get started and put everyone at ease from the moment he entered the room. What happened next was pure magic – non-stop give and take, storytelling, and sharing of intimate moments and memories. The interview lasted four hours and Eli could have stayed for two more. When it was over, all of us, including the waiters and staff at Sardi’s, gave Eli a standing ovation. You can imagine our challenge when we had to cut three hours of tape into a five-minute segment. Fortunately, we were able to put together a piece that captures the essence of this wonderful man.
At one early point in their lives, successful creative people discover their passion and make a commitment to pursue it regardless of their circumstances and whatever life throws at them. They find and follow their “mighty cause.” In Eli’s case it meant finding a way to respectfully and purposefully not go down the path his family chose for him and overcoming one obstacle and unexpected circumstance after another.
Eli talks about the early formative years that shaped his incredibly successful career. What follows are the parts of the interview that didn’t make it to air. Get ready for a great discussion with a legend.
Hank: Everyone that knows you says that from a very young age you knew you were going to be an actor.
Eli: Yeah. I always had that desire in me.
Hank: So it all started in Brooklyn.
Eli: Yeah, at 166 Union Street, but my mother, father and older brother were born in Poland.
Hank: A close family?
Eli: Very close. I had a brother Sam and two sisters, Sylvia and Sherry. They all became teachers.
Hank: How was life in Brooklyn?
Eli: We had a family business. A candy store named after my mother…Bertha’s. We were the only Jewish family in an Italian neighborhood. I watched Italians make the sign of the cross 40 times a day and I learned how to do it.
When I was making a movie with Clint Eastwood called, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, the director, Sergio Leone said, in this scene you have to cross yourself. My mind flipped all the way back to Brooklyn. I crossed myself the way Italians did, you know, the short hand way they did it. Sergio asked me where I learned that. I said Brooklyn. He said, “Do it again.”
Hank: When you, your sister Sylvia, and your brother Sam were growing up, you went to a small theater in your neighborhood.
Eli:Yes. We all enjoyed it. We did a lot of puppet shows.
Hank: Tell me about high school.
Eli: I didn’t like high school so I spent a lot of my time at The Boys Club on Bedford Avenue. It had a drama club. I remember doing a play at the Boys Club in which I played an old man with a beard who lost his daughter and didn’t believe in God any more.
All the kids in my neighborhood were sitting in a row and one of them shouted, “That’s not an old man, that’s Eli and he’s got that beard stuck on with glue.” I wanted to jump off the stage and kill him, but instead, I decided to do my part and I became that old man.
Hank: Even then you were unflappable. One night your mom and dad were there and after the play your dad gave you a compliment and your mom said she cried. That must have meant a lot to you.
Eli: Yes it did, very much. I said to myself, I can be an actor.
Hank: Your older brother Sam was a really big influence in your life. He was a teacher. You wanted to be an actor. What was his reaction?
Eli: He wanted me to be a teacher. He said everybody in my family teaches. I said, no I want to be an actor. He told me that as an actor nobody makes money, you can’t make a living, and you don’t get a pension. As a teacher you’d get a pension. It’s the depression; I want you to go into teaching and I’ll get you into a school.
First he tried City College but he couldn’t get me in. Then he found out that the University of Texas in Austin had scholarships with a $30 year tuition. So, off I went to Texas with my sister Sylvia.
Hank: How as it going to college with your sister so far from home?
Eli: Sylvia only went for the first semester. I did four years there and each summer I would hitchhike back to New York and work in the summer camps. I always had a big buckle, which said ‘Cowboy’…I talked with a southern accent.
Hank: How did a Jewish boy from an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn ever make it at a school in Texas?
Eli: I learned how to ride horses and learned to speak with a slightly southern accent. And, I had all sorts of jobs, made good friends, and graduated after four years.
Hank: Speaking of accent, why did the professors always call on you?
Eli: They wanted to hear me speak. They didn’t want the answer to the question; they just wanted to hear my Brooklyn accent.
Hank: True to form, you got involved with a theater group at the school.
Eli: Yes, called the Curtain Club. That’s where I met Walter Cronkite and I actually played my first scene with him. I forget the name of the play, but he was playing a doctor and he has a black suitcase and he said to a grieving woman who was crying, “Where is the body?’ She said, “He’s in the closet, in the closet.” Walter went over, pulled open the door and I fell out. I was the body.
That was my first introduction to Walter Cronkite. Every time I see Walter we kid about that. We’re very close still.
Hank: So, school was over, you went back to NYC, and said to yourself, “this is my time.”
Eli: Right. I was ready!
Hank: You went home and made the declaration to your family that you were ready to be an actor.
Eli: There was a terrible silence. They said, no, you can’t because you can’t make a living in the theater. I said, I will try and really wanted their approval. They said no. Instead I should get a Master’s Degree in education and then I can teach.
Hank: Not what you wanted to hear.
Eli: No, definitely not. So I went to City College and I kept thinking that the master’s degree consisted of reading four books and answering questions about those four books. When I went to take the teacher’s exam I was nervous and perspiring and answered the questions as well as I could.
The teacher said, “Thank you, you’ll hear from us.” Ten days later I got a letter saying, sorry, but you did not pass the teacher’s exam. Then I had to go home and tell my family. My brother was crushed and my elder sister told me that she had a friend who knows about an acting school and that she could get me in there.
Hank: That was a major turning point in your life.
Eli: The school was the Neighborhood Playhouse and the teacher was Sanford Meisner. I’m on the Board now. So I went, and Meisner interviewed me and he said, “Do a scene, do something.” I did an ode called ‘on the wire’ about a soldier dying on the wire, complete with plenty of tears.
When I finished Sanford said, “That was interesting, we’ll take you as a student. It’s going to take you 20 years to become an actor.” I said to myself that he doesn’t know who I am. But you know, it did take about 20 years.
Hank: I know you’re being modest, but after the first year, you had to be invited back. Half the students didn’t make it to the second year, but you did.
Eli: Your memory is amazing. Yes I did and was lucky to be with some wonderful actors. Me, Tony Randall, Gregory Peck, we were all in this school. I also studied dance technique with Martha Graham. She was one of my mentors.
Hank: Okay, so you didn’t pass the teacher’s exam and you were studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Then?
Eli: One day, I remember watching a newsreel about the draft and when I get home there’s a letter at home from the government saying, welcome, here’s your selective service number. It was a very low one. I said to myself, wait a minute.
I went into the Neighborhood Playhouse, became an actor, and just as I’m about to get out I kept saying Broadway here I come. Then I get the lowest number in the draft. Not what I expected.
Hank: About that time you had a girlfriend who was a doctor. What advice did she give you?
Eli: She said she could keep me out of the army. I asked how could she do that since I had such a low number. She told me she could do an artificial pneumothorax. She said, she could stick a needle in my back, pump in air, and it would cause the lung to collapse so I couldn’t serve in the army. I thought, either she loves me so much she’ll risk her career, or she wants to kill me.
I said no thank you and I went into the army. The first day I’m on line, I’m naked and the doctors examined the guy in front of me and he couldn’t hear. They rejected him. So, I’m next and I told the doctor that I have flat feet. He said, “So do I,” and into the army I went.
Hank: You had a pretty interesting and diverse time in the Army, didn’t you?
Eli: Yes. I was assigned to a medical unit and my first deployment was to Hawaii. Then I was sent back to a school called the Medical Administrative Corps and become a Medical Administrator. We did the administrative work in the hospitals to free up the doctors. We worked in the hospitals so I put on these little play for the men. We all really enjoyed that.
Hank: I think you are one of the few people in the army promoted for theatrical prowess.
Eli: My commanding officer liked my work so much that he promoted me to Lieutenant. Then I became a Captain and I found out that I buy my own uniforms. By the way, one of the plays we put on was an Irving Berlin play called Is This The Army. I played Hitler. I put on a little black mustache, did the hair, and I was Hitler.
Little did I know that three months after Hitler committed suicide in 1945, I would be sent to Berlin to work on our plans for Japan. I was taken around by a Russian major, a young lady with a big pistol on her hip who spoke English. She took me into a room about this size, and it was the ministry of propaganda.
Hank: It was the photo archive, wasn’t it?
Eli: Right. Pictures were strewn all over the floor and I asked her permission to take some. I took about 50 pictures and sold some to Life Magazine when I came out of the army for about $300. Then, about a month and a half ago, I was looking at these pictures and I decided to donate them to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. They will use them to create an exhibit in the museum.
Hank: How did the war end for you?
Eli: I was in Berlin on a special job and I was scheduled to go to Japan to start and to help put in hospitals and I thought I’d never get out. The bomb was dropped, and I thought, “Thank God, at last I’ll get to go home,” without really thinking of what we did. That thought bothered me and I was reminded of it years later.
Hank: How so?
Eli: I was playing an Okanogan on a stage in New York. Norman Cousins had brought over four or five girls from Hiroshima and he brought them back stage to meet me. They all had reconstructive surgery. They’re bowing and I’m bowing, and they’re bowing and I’m bowing, and I kept thinking, “I hope they don’t know what I thought when the bomb was dropped.”
Hank: You’re a very sensitive caring man.
Eli: Well, it bothered me very much.
Hank: So, the army was over, you’re back to New York. Broadway here I come.
Eli: Ironically, my first play after the Army was Skydrift, about a bunch of soldiers who were going home, and all of them were dead. I’m cast as a soldier on a plane and I thought, that this is not a cheerful picture, not a cheerful play.
The play lasted a week, but there was a young girl in it who was fabulous and I stayed friendly with. We did a movie together. She’s won an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Tony. It was Rita Moreno.
Hank: Then came The Actor’s Studio.
Eli: What happened is after the war in 1947, Kazan, Bobby Lewis, and a lady named Cheryl Crawford founded the Actors Studio. You see it now on your television. It’s called Inside the Actors Studio. Most of the people on it now have never been inside. I was in the first class with the greats – Marlon Brando, John Forsythe, Maureen Stapleton.
Hank: Your wife Anne Jackson was in it also.
Eli: Yes Anne was in it, and that first year it was run by Bobby Lewis, and Kazan took the younger group, and we learned and learned. I’d already studied at Neighborhood Playhouse, so I had studied what they call “the method,” Stanislavski’s way. Each time I act I adapt or adopt different methods for myself.
Hank: Do you need a quick break?
Eli: Just need some more tea. I love talking. Are you ready for more?
Eli and I spent four hours together. I came away spellbound with a great feeling of joy and totally energized about the future. The interview taught me plenty of life lessons and it also earned me an Emmy Award. I dedicated it to him.
Thanks Eli....we'll miss you.