9 Of Eli Wallach’s Greatest Roles

The actor, who died yesterday at age 98, rarely got to be the star. He was, instead, the consummate character actor, playing unforgettable sidekicks and villains, rascals and rivals.

Eli Wallach worked well into his nineties, racking up more than a hundred credits on film and television (and that’s not even taking into account his Broadway career) — in 2010, at the age of 94, he appeared on screen twice, in movies from Oliver Stone and Roman Polanski.

In honor of the prolific actor, who died at 98 on Tuesday, here’s a look at some of his greatest roles.

1. Baby Doll (1956)

Warner Home Video

Wallach’s first big screen role was in Elia Kazan’s sultry Baby Doll, where he played Silva Vacarro, the owner of a rival cotton gin that’s been taking all of Archie Lee Meighan’s (Karl Malden) business. When his gin’s burned down, he rightly suspects Archie’s the culprit, but rather than retaliate outright, he comes up with another plan. His campaign to seduce Archie’s virginal child bride Baby Doll Meighan (Carroll Baker) is an incredible mix of the creepy and the sensual.

2. The Magnificent Seven (1960)

MGM Home Entertainment

As bandit leader Calvera, Wallach terrorizes a Mexican border town into seeking the help of a group of hired guns in this classic Western based on The Seven Samurai. It’s no small feat to face down the likes of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn, but Wallach manages it easily, bringing swagger and gusto to the villainous role.

3. The Misfits (1961)

MGM Home Entertainment

As Guido, a widower living in a half-built house in the Nevada desert, Wallach is one of three men vying for the gaze of the recently divorced Roslyn Tabor — and for good reason, since she’s played by Marilyn Monroe. The movie’s an elegy for the West, and it has a whole extra layer of mournfulness to it given that Wallach’s co-stars all died not long after it was shot. The Misfits was the final completed film for both Monroe and Clark Gable, while Montgomery Clift, struggling with addiction, died a few years later.

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

MGM Home Entertainment

Technically, Wallach’s character Tuco Ramirez is “The Ugly” to Clint Eastwood’s “Good” and Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad,” but he’s the scurrilous, comic, human heart of one of the greatest Westerns ever made. And he gets what may be the best scene, in which Tuco runs through the cemetery looking for the grave that holds the treasure the three men have been vying for, while Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” plays.

5. Batman (1967)

Warner Home Video

George Sanders and Otto Preminger both played Mr. Freeze on the ’60s Batman TV series starring Adam West (BLAM! POW!). But Wallach brought his own take on the hammy role of the frozen baddie, for which he claimed to get more fan mail than any other part in his career.

6. The Godfather Part III (1990)

Paramount Home Video

It’s hardly the equal of the previous installments in Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy, but The Godfather Part III does feature Wallach as the nefarious Don Altobello, head of the Tattaglia crime family, who plots against Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) while pretending to be an ally.

7. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006)

Michael Ansell / NBC Photo

Wallach stopped by Aaron Sorkin’s much-maligned dramedy about an SNL-ish live sketch show for a guest appearance as Eli Weinraub, a mysterious older man lurking backstage who turns out to have been a blacklisted writer. It was an “extra special episode” sort of storyline that Wallach turned into something more, and the performance earned him an Emmy nomination.

8. The Holiday (2006)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wallach plays Arthur Abbott, an aging Hollywood screenwriter once again in this romantic comedy about two strangers who swap homes. He befriends and guides Iris (Kate Winslet) by having her watch movies with strong female characters, and in doing so, Wallach gives some awfully good adorable grandfather figure.

9. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As Jules Steinhardt, Wallach plays a Wall Street veteran in Oliver Stone’s sequel, one who’s a kind of foreteller of doom, talking about why an economic crash now would be so much worse than in 1929. “It’s going to be the end of the world,” he says, but it’s the creepy whistle Wallach lets out that seals the deal.

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