Eli Wallach

Wednesday, June 5, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 5, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today has won an Emmy, a Tony, and the respect of both audiences and peers throughout a remarkable career. We’re pleased to welcome Eli Wallach. Great to have you here.

Eli Wallach: Thank you.

Paulson: I marvel at how much you’ve packed into six decades. Given this is a 30-minute show, we’ve got to speak quickly to cover all that.

Wallach: We’ll do one decade a minute.

Paulson: Very good. I want to take you back, though, to what was actually a pretty remarkable experience in college. You had some fairly well-known classmates, didn’t you?

Wallach: Yes. Well, I was from Brooklyn. And my brother found out that if — that Texas had an oil-rich school, a university: the University of Texas in Austin. And he arranged for me to go there. Tuition then was $30 a year. And board and room was $30 a month. So I went. And it was like coming to another planet, because the professors kept calling on me. They didn’t want to hear answers to the question. They wanted to hear my accent. But after about two semesters, I developed a real Southern accent, soft accent. But there were, in my group for four years, Zachary Scott, the actor, who was the first actor I ever saw who wore an earring; Elaine Steinbeck; John Connelly, who became Governor and then Secretary of the Navy and ran for President, who was in the car with Kennedy; and lastly, Walter Cronkite, who was taking a journalism course. He was from Missouri. So I was from Brooklyn; he was from Missouri. I think he always wanted to be an actor, though.

Paulson: Did you do any acting with Walter?

Wallach: Yes, we joined the Curtain Club, which was — there wasn’t a fine arts department, so we joined the Curtain Club. I remember the first play we did together. He was a doctor, and I was in the play. And he came in. There had been a murder in an apartment. He came in and he said — with his little black bag and said, “Where’s the body?” And the lady, the weeping wife, said, “He’s in the closet.” And Walter opened the closet, and I fell out. So that was my first introduction.

Paulson: And you went on, of course, to a distinguished career as an actor, and he went on to be a legendary broadcaster. In the years that followed, did you guys compare notes and say, “Did we make the right choices?”

Wallach: No, I never asked him, “Did he —” but when he was retiring, he said, “I’m going to look into the camera and say, I’ve been telling you stories long enough.” But we see each other fairly frequently, because we both live in New York.

Paulson: You got a start after the war, and you were off and running. I mean, it was only a matter of a few years. Then you had your Tony award and you were an accomplished actor. Did you expect it to happen that quickly?

Wallach: Well, I — before I went into the Army, I had gone to an acting school called the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, a wonderful school. I’m on the board, along with Robert Whitehead and Tony Randall. In the second year — I was in the second year. The first year was Gregory Peck and Efrem Zimbalist. So when I came out of the — out of the acting school, I said, “Broadway, here I come.” And Uncle Sam said, “No, wait a minute. You have one of the lowest numbers of the draft.” So I went into the Army.

Paulson: And you were a great success on Broadway. Really, the breakthrough for you was The Rose Tattoo.

Wallach: Yes.

Paulson: That Tennessee Williams work. Did you know how good your work was and how important that play was?

Wallach: No, I almost got fired, actually. My wife was sitting in the theater while we did a run-through before we went to Chicago.

Paulson: Your wife, Anne Jackson.

Wallach: Anne Jackson. And the producers, director, were sitting there making — the director kept saying to me, “Everything you do in that play you must apologize for.” So I was a most apologetic actor. And they kept saying, “It doesn’t work. We’ll have to let him go.” So finally the director said, “He’s doing everything I suggested, so please give him a shot.” I went to Chicago, and he said to me, “Do what you want to do.” And I was free to do it, and that was it.

Paulson: The theater has always been your first love?

Wallach: Yes, and my last love.

Paulson: Yeah. I mean, you’ve had a great career in film. You’ve even done television. But is there something special about, about live theater that sets it apart from other ways of communicating?

Wallach: Well, there’s a strange bonding that goes — that takes place in the theater. Once the curtain goes up, you’re on your own. In a movie, they can — if you yawn, they can take the yawn and put it wherever they want. There are usually six or seven writers in a film so that you’re getting different food. In a play, the writer — on Broadway, the writer is king. You can’t change a word. You do a play by Tennessee Williams, you can’t ad-lib. You have to say what he says. It’s interesting that the play this year was written in 1852 by Turgenev. And it was one of the best shows on Broadway with Alan Bates and Frank Langella. They both won Tonys. So I like the plays. However, I get on a bus now, and people say to me, “Oh, oh, how are you — ooh.” And then they whistle the music from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” I’ll tell you, if you want to know about fame, the most mail I ever get now is from one episode I did of “Batman.” I played Mr. Freeze.

Paulson: Right.

Wallach: It was an half-hour episode, and I got $350. Two years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze and got $20 million. So I said to my wife, “I spent my life in the theater. You know, I get $350, and he gets $20 million.” She said, “Lift weights.” So that was the way.

Paulson: And it’s funny that “The Batman Show” had that kind of result for so many people. Eartha Kitt was here not long ago, and she said the same thing: It’s all Cat Woman. You know, she still gets letters years later.

Wallach: Yeah. Well, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, all of them — it was wonderful.

Paulson: How did you happen to decide to do that show?

Wallach: I — it was an accident. Otto Preminger was playing Mr. Freeze, but he had a movie to direct, so I was to play it with his accent — with his German accent. I had more fun doing that.

Paulson: No hesitation about doing a show like that after your distinguished stage career?

Wallach: No, not at all, because the — initially, actors used to say, “I will not do a commercial.” Then I found out Orson Welles did a commercial, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud. I thought, “My God, that’s good company, so I’ll do it.” I did the Evergreen Savings Bank, and I spent five years as the voice of Toyota trucks.

Paulson: Mm-hmm.

Wallach: So I’m, I’m happy about that.

Paulson: You know, your career flourished at a time when the careers of some people collapsed, because it was during a period known as the Red Scare — blacklisting. Did you face that yourself in your career?

Wallach: Well, it was in the air. It was in the wind. We’d sit down to read through a script, break for lunch and come back, and there’d be three people missing. And I did — I didn’t understand what was happening, basically. But there was a thing put out called Red Channels, which was a little booklet which listed all the — every time you signed a petition or if you went to a meeting, if you were objecting to something, your name appeared in that, and then you had to go and appear before a group called by — the House Un-American Activities Committee. And if you go and see the play now, which is brilliantly done by Arthur Miller, called The Crucible, you find that there’s — we didn’t originate it in the 1950s, that it went way back to the Salem witch hunts. I was doing a play in London called Teahouse of the August Moon, by John Patrick. In that play, the reason the English loved it — and we ran for a year — sold out. Because in that one, the Americans make fun of themselves trying to teach democracy to the natives. And the natives wind up, of course, teaching the Americans about living in the Far East. So I did the play in London, and then I went to New York, did it in New York. And was in Washington, DC, at the National Theater doing Teahouse. And I — all the hearings were going on, so I thought the second best show in town is right at the House Un-American Activities Committee. And I went, and I watched Arthur Miller, interestingly enough, testify. They didn’t want to give him his passport to leave the country. I don’t know why. He was no threat. He was a playwright. But he wouldn’t accede to their demand to tell names of people and so on. They used a very interesting device. They said, “You don’t have to name anybody. We know the names. All you have to do is nod, this way, and that’s it.” And a lot of people did that. But you have to live with yourself.

Paulson: Right.

Wallach: And it’s now coming back with the — September 11th made us all very cautious, nervous, and frightened. Now you find the CIA and the FBI conflicting. One doesn’t want to tell the other, and so on. And you think, “Why is it happening again?” Why is it that a dark-skinned man with a little moustache or a beard gets on a plane and the captain comes and says, “Get off the plane”? He says, “Why?” He says, “Because we’re having a problem. You can’t — I won’t fly with you.” And I think we repeat ourselves. In — right after Pearl Harbor, under the guise of defending the country, all the Japanese, citizen or non-citizen, a lot of ‘em were put into prison. One of our units in France, in Nice, between — on the border between Italy and France, was this 442nd Japanese-American Brigade. They were not allowed to fight in the Far East. I used to give out the Purple Hearts. And these guys got more Purple Hearts than any unit in the Army, all to prove that they were loyal Americans. So we have to be very careful. We must defend the country. We must wipe out terrorists. But by the same token, we must be aware that we don’t abuse the rights of people.

Paulson: You know, you talk about similarities between the 1950s and today. What’s different?

Wallach: I hope that the press wakes up and really does more investigative journalism. You’ve got a man on television now who deserves the Academy Award and the best medal for investigative reporting, and that’s Bill Moyers on the program called “Now.” Because “Now” says, “Wake up. This is what’s happening. This man is doing this. This man is resigning.” You go back to Enron, and you go back to Anderson, and you go back to all the — global, and you go to all these companies and you find that we’ve been hoodwinked for a long, long time. So I hope America wakes up.

Paulson: You know, shortly after the — well, actually, in the middle of the Red Scare, your film career really took off in a big way. And your 1956 film debut was, again, in a Tennessee Williams work: Baby Doll, which was a dirty movie for the time. It was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. What is your recollection of the controversy surrounding that film?

Wallach: I thought it was a biblical movie, because it dealt with revenge. The director, incidentally, was (Elia) Kazan, who was being attacked for various reasons. I had done my first Tennessee Williams play with his direction, called Camino Real, which, if you read Tennessee’s life, you’ll find he was a very progressive, liberal man.

Paulson: Yeah.

Wallach: And Kazan took a certain direction, and it — for him, it worked. For a lot of people, it didn’t work.

Paulson: Now, you, you played a gentleman who seduces the young, young girl in the —

Wallach: I don’t really seduce her. The director said to me, “Do you seduce her?” And I hadn’t thought of it. And I said, “No, he’s a Sicilian. He’d lead her to the point and then abandon her.” He said, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” But, but I was amazed when it was attacked by the church. Time magazine said it was “the most pornographic movie ever seen,” and it was a “priapian feast which would make Boccaccio blush.” So I ran to the dictionary to look up priapian. I read — never realized I was being very priapian. So look it up if you want. I’m sure everyone who sees this program will rush to the dictionary.

Paulson: They’re all going to miss the next two or three minutes of the show.

Wallach: Oh, I see. All right.

Paulson: And yet you didn’t hesitate to take on what was really a controversial role.

Wallach: I — you know, I had to make a choice. Before Camino Real, they couldn’t get the money. So I auditioned for a film. I hadn’t made a film. I met the producer and head of the company. And he said, “All right, you don’t look Italian.” And I said, “I’ve been playing an Italian in The Rose Tattoo for a year and a half.” He said, “All right, one picture a year for seven years.” I said, “No, one picture. If you like it, you can hire me again.” “All right, you have to do a test.” I did the screen test. I got the job. I come home, and the money for the play comes through. The play is by Tennessee Williams. He’d been working on it with me in mind for a year and a half. So now I had to choose: the lady or the tiger, the play or the movie. I picked the play. The play lasted about 2 1/2, 3 months. The movie was “From Here to Eternity.” Frank Sinatra played, played Maggio and won the Academy Award. And every time he saw me after that, he’d say, “Hello, you crazy actor.” So — but you never regret. If you look back, your career won’t work. Because three years later, I was doing a play by Tennessee Williams, directed by Kazan. It was Baby Doll.

Paulson: The — a big movie and one which a lot of people recognize you for is “The Magnificent Seven.” You play a bad guy. And you’re such a nice guy, you know? Why is it that people keep casting you as villains?

Wallach: Because I, I think — I try to find the reason for it. Every Western I saw, you watch the bandit hold up the bank, steal the cattle, rob people all the time. But you never see what he does with the money. So when I was cast in “The Magnificent Seven,” I said, “Listen, can I wear red silk shirts? I want to put in two gold caps, and I want to have a beautiful horse, who’s gentle.” He said, “Yes.” So I dressed to show that I earned the money. From then on, for the next seven or eight years, I was playing baddies. And the biggest one was with Clint Eastwood called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” And as I walk in the streets now, people whistle the song — the music.

Paulson: So the key to your success was, you were able to find the human side of being a villain, huh?

Wallach: Right.

Paulson: This show is about free speech, the First Amendment. We talk about the founding fathers. You actually played a founding father. You were Ben Franklin. Did you have any say in which founding father you could be?

Wallach: No, I don’t know why they picked me as Ben Franklin. It was shot in one week. It’s still playing in Philadelphia every day since 1975 — ’76.

Paulson: And it’s a Houston film.

Wallach: It’s a John Houston-directed film. It plays at the Visitor’s Bureau. And George Washington was played by, uh — oh, God. O’Neal, Patrick O’Neal. They had one white horse. The British Army was six soldiers with muskets. Then they changed their costumes. And were the six revolutionaries. And I played Ben Franklin, and I’ll never forget we broke for lunch and I went to the Ben Franklin hotel for lunch. But I’ll never forget one line he said. At the end, he says — Ben is going up the stairs, and the smoke is blowing past him. And he says, “On the chair I sat in when I signed, there’s a sun; and I don’t know whether it’s rising or setting. But you have a republic, if you can keep it.” And he — they did, all of them: Adams, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Burr. All of them knew that that document is amazing. It is amazing at how the foresight, the prescience of writing that down. And today it takes nine men to sit around and say, “No, no, I don’t think, well —” Listen, we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble if that document is toyed with. Hmm.

Paulson: You appeared on television as early as 1949 on the “Philco Television Playhouse.” You have been on television this past season for “The Education of Max Bickford.” You have seen television from the front row. Did it live up to its potential?

Wallach: It’s frightened a lot, television, because they’re worried about ratings, the advertising, age. They compartmentalize it. From 13 to 30 is one group, where they think that’s where all the money lies. The older people are being shunted aside. And it’s sad. But there are little islets, little islands in this great globe of good, quality stuff that goes on. So you watch for it.

Paulson: And, of course, “Max Bickford” was widely acclaimed. Did you — was that a positive experience for you?

Wallach: Oh, I loved it. Yes, I enjoyed it.

Paulson: You know, you, you have talked occasionally about kind of an ageist viewpoint in the entertainment business. And yet you continue to work six decades into your career.

Wallach: Right.

Paulson: What’s the secret?

Wallach: I feel if I stop, I’ll die. I don’t know. You hold on like this, you see, because it is — it gets very difficult at an age. You must make an adjustment. The financial plateau works this way — 13 to 35, one; 35 to 48; 48 to 60; 60 over, they fall off the edge of the earth. In the movies, Tyrone Power died while he was making a film in North Africa. And there was no insurance. So from then on, all leading roles, or feature roles, had to have a physical exam. As they got older, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda — who else did I name? Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, all of them couldn’t — they were afraid to insure them. When Jane Fonda made the movie “On Golden Pond,” she wanted her father to play it. And they said, “No, he can’t pass the exam.” She said, “I’ll be responsible for the insurance.” So she took a big gamble in case he collapsed. But in an ageist society, you have to find ways to protect yourself. Thank God for the Screen Actor’s Guild, ’cause I get a pension now. Every movie I made, they took money out and put it in a pension plan. And I get health benefits. So I’m lucky. I think of all the people who do not have those, those protections. And so I can defy the ageist thing and go on working. I don’t care if I make $85 a week or $8,005 a week. Joe Papp once directed us in a play. We were getting $400 off-Broadway. We went to Washington, and I got $4,000 a week. So money is fine. You need it, and so on. But there has to be something going on in here about what you want to create and do in your life that is important. Also, I was going to say this to you, Ken. Actors and artists and dancers and singers are not second-class citizens. They’re entitled to their rights under the Constitution as anyone else. And on one hand, you’ve got Charlton Heston as the president of the National Rifle Association holding up the rifle. On the other hand, you’ve got actors saying, “I defy that. I don’t believe in that. I believe guns should be controlled.” So you’ve got this debate. And that’s what’s good about a — about a democracy. The fights that go on — I like Charlton Heston. We were in a play together many years ago. But I don’t agree with him on his viewpoint about guns, particularly guns. This may hurt my career, but I —

Paulson: Go ahead and take a stand. I — you know, you’ve been — you had a remarkable career, and you’ve also had, I think, the privilege of working closely with many legends and singing a lot of performances. We talked a little bit earlier. You saw Orson Welles work onstage.

Wallach: Right.

Paulson: Can you reflect a bit on the most memorable performances you’ve seen over those six decades — or seven decades?

Wallach: Well, I, I remember vividly The Cradle Will Rock. Orson Welles was the producer — one of the producers. And the theater — the Works Progress Administration in the Federal Theater hired actors because of the Depression. Under the Roosevelt plan, you could hire and — so that they could have a living while they try to create things. The play was The Cradle Will Rock, which was kind of a liberal-leaning thing. And they decided that it was too daring and too challenging, so they couldn’t do it. And Orson Welles said, “The theater should be free to express itself. If you don’t like it, don’t come.” They said, “All right, but you can’t — none of the actors — we will not pay the actors if they go.” So Orson dreamed up this idea. The actors sat in the audience with a full house opening night. On the stage sat the composer and creator of the show, Mark Blitstein, who played the piano; and they sang. And it became such a hit, they decided — oh, no, no, this is what happened: they said, “You can’t appear on that stage.” So Orson Welles said, “We’ll walk.” And he told the audience opening night, “You will walk with me from 38th Street to 44th Street. There’s a theater that’s empty.” And the audience went, the actors sat in the audience, and the pianist was on the stage and played. And that’s how that play was done.

Paulson: A legendary evening.

Wallach: And now, years later, there’s a play called Urinetown, which upsets people because of the title. But it’s a very, very interesting, fascinating piece. It won the Tonys for best book, best direction, best everything. So go see it.

Paulson: Yeah, the writers and star have been on this show, and they’re just — they’re terrific, and the show’s a great treat.

Wallach: Great.

Paulson: You know, we’ve covered a lot of territory. We’ve done a pretty good job of covering a lot of years in a short period of time. But I have to tell you. Every time I’ve read an interview with you over the last 10, 15 years, there’s always the promise of a book. Where’s the book, Mr. Wallach?

Wallach: I understand now the meaning of block, writer’s block, ’cause I approach the desk, and I say, “I’ll go watch the news. This thing’s just happening now, the queen’s 50th anniversary.” And I was playing then when the queen came to see me play in London. But now, finally, I’m getting there. And I have a wonderful man named Bill Phillips who looks at it and says, “Wait a minute. You tell these wonderful anecdotes. But I want to know; what about you? How do you feel?” So I’ve got the title of the book. I know who I’m going to dedicate it to: my wife. And I’m, I’m going chronologically along. But I start with an interesting way. I start the book today — no, 20 years ago, doing a gangster on television. And, and I couldn’t figure out how to play him, and they showed me a little film clip of his brother being questioned by the Kefauver Crime Committee. And they said to him, “Where do you live, Mr. Anastasia?” He said, “I live 167 Union Street.” I said, “You can shut it off. I was born at 166.” And so from then on, I follow my life through. I’m up to age 80.

Paulson: Terrific. We look forward to it.

Wallach: Thank you.

Paulson: Thank you for joining us.

Wallach: Pleasure, Ken.

Paulson: Our guest today has been Eli Wallach. Join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”