How many careers can one man have? Eli Wallach was a Tony award-winning Broadway actor and a soldier, a leading pioneer in the realm of Method acting and Mr. Freeze on the Batman TV show, a villainous live wire and an elderly person so intrinsically soulful that just his presence in a movie could make you happy and sad for no apparent reason.
Wallach was already over 50 when he got his most famous role, and he had almost 50 years left on this earth afterwards. There are a couple of generations that probably only know the older Wallach, stepping into movies for just one scene here and there. In Mystic River, he’s a liquor-store owner interviewed by cops Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, and you can practically see Bacon and Fishburne repressing smiles. He played a character named “Old Man” in The Ghost Writer. The Holiday required him to play the kindest and most wonderful irascible old man who also symbolizes the whole history of Hollywood; it worked. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he has a moment so good it justifies the whole pointless movie.
Go earlier, and there are the performances lost to time: His work with Elia Kazan, his days at the Actors Studio, the comedy play he helped to write and perform when he was in the army. (Wallach played Hitler.) Or you could go straight to Tuco. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly stars three people. There’s Clint Eastwood, in his third go-round as the Man With No Name, etching the Eastwood persona into stone. There’s Lee Van Cleef, with those eyes like demon crystals, a great villain at his greatest and villainous. But the movie doesn’t start with them. It starts like this:
That’s Wallach, jumping out of a window holding an elaborate meat prop and a gun, looking like the villain in a Looney Tunes cartoon. That’s Tuco, the wild brutal heart of a wild brutal movie. Eastwood and Van Cleef played similar parts in the preceding film For a Few Dollars More, so there’s a sense that Wallach is some kind of invading force in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. He’s violent in a way that defies Leone’s gun-ballet tendencies; he’s a rat chewing through the tableau. Soon enough, Tuco partners up with Eastwood’s Blondie, and they become partners in a moneymaking scheme—although it’s more accurate to say that Tuco is Blondie’s victim, since the scheme requires Tuco to wear a noose around his neck and call it a job.
In short order, Tuco is left in the desert. He survives, somehow, becoming a creature of myth in the process. Tuco almost dies a dozen times or more in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which adds potency to his rapacious urge to live. You could describe Wallach’s performance as over-the-top, but it never feels like a pose. It feels vital, more than anything: You get the vibe that Tuco thinks the mere fact of living is a way of poking the universe in the eye.
Because Eastwood shoulders all the weight of being the actual western protagonist, Tuco gets to have all the fun—and in the process, he actually feels more in tune with modern, in-vogue anti-heroes. You know how on Game of Thrones, there are five or six scenes in every episode where someone kills somebody and the scene is played for a joke? Here are all those scenes, five decades early:
There are so many things to appreciate there. The fact that Tuco—heretofore represented as a caveman with a gun—almost daintly opts to take a bath in the middle of a desolated town. The look on Tuco’s face when the man pushes through the door—how Wallach makes him surprised, but also mildly annoyed. The slight lilt in Tuco’s voice when he gives the laughline at the end of the scene—it could be a Schwarzenegger-worthy zinger, but Wallach makes it sound almost professorial.
There’s more, of course; so much more. There’s the scene where Tuco meets his brother, which could play like melodrama in the wrong hands. If you think Tuco is merely one of the greatest cartoon performances in history, rewatch this scene, and see how Wallach can make the character seem childlike and brutally cynical all at once:
He punches his brother, the priest; but he lifts him up, too, and he leaves, almost embarrassed. Wallach brought so much life to all his work; if you could paint with emotion, then Tuco is his Jackson Pollock.
How sad to lose such an artist. How lucky to have him with us for almost a century.