April 21, 2010 / 4:37 PM / 9 years ago

Age no handicap for actor Eli Wallach

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When he was well into his 80s, Eli Wallach told an interviewer that he feared directors would consider his age a handicap. He needn’t have worried.

At 94, the prolific character actor is on the big screen in Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” and recently completed work on Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” sequel.

Plenty of things have changed in the half-century since Wallach began his film career, but his enthusiasm for acting and the high regard in which the industry holds him aren’t among them.

“It’s what I wanted to do all my life,” Wallach said of his work on a recent morning from his native New York.

Even as the retirement-resistant performer anticipates new roles, he welcomes the chance to indulge in cinema nostalgia.

As a featured guest of the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs April 22-25 in Los Angeles, Wallach will introduce a screening of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the 1966 spaghetti Western that for many fans defines the genre. It also inspired the title of his 2005 autobiography, “The Good, the Bad, and Me.”

Wallach recalled that on the Spanish locations of Sergio Leone’s Civil War action-adventure, co-star Clint Eastwood, already a Leone regular, gave him a bit of advice. “Clint said to me, ‘Don’t be a showoff.’”

Without showing off, Wallach steals scenes with his indelible turn as bandit Tuco - the “Ugly” of the title - which Quentin Tarantino has cited as one of the three greatest comic performances in cinema history.

It’s also emblematic of the devious schemers, both deadly and endearing, that Wallach often played. “I don’t know how I got these guys,” he said of the vast assortment of gun-slinging, sword-wielding villains and ethnic characters on his resume, all of them a far cry from his Brooklyn roots. “I didn’t play a Jewish man for years.”

PROLIFIC CAREER, FEW REGRETS

His best-known roles in the early years of his career included Sicilians — in his Tony-winning turn in “The Rose Tattoo” and in his first movie, the controversial “Baby Doll” — an Okinawan in the long-running play “The Teahouse of the August Moon” and Mexican bandits in “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which will receive its festival showcase on Sunday at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Wallach plans to extend the relationship with TCM with an on-air stint. “I have a deep salute for Turner Classic Movies,” the World War II veteran said, noting that he and actress Anne Jackson, his wife of 62 years, enjoy watching the channel.

In June, he’ll tape a guest programer segment with TCM host Robert Osborne, choosing four of his favorite films. He has yet to narrow down his selections.

But Wallach, who as a struggling actor spent a good portion of his between-auditions hours watching French films in Manhattan’s art-house cinemas, said that one of his picks will probably star Jean-Paul Belmondo. To Wallach’s disappointment, years ago he pulled out of a project with the French actor because of a scheduling conflict.

That’s one of the few regrets in a career of remarkable longevity. On stage, television and in film, Wallach has collaborated with some of the leading creative figures of his time, beginning with writer Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan.

He still travels the world to work for prominent filmmakers, most recently to play a small but crucial role in Polanski’s Germany-shot “Ghost Writer.”

But for the upcoming “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” he stayed closer to home. In the New York-set film, which premieres next month at the Cannes festival and opens in September, Wallach plays a man who experienced the stock market crash of 1929.

“The young ones say to me, ‘What do you think?’ And I say, ‘Well, 1929 was tough, but what’s happening now is even worse. You’re going to go through terrible things.’”

As a charter member of New York’s legendary Actors Studio — which also nurtured such talents as Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton — Wallach is well-versed in character-defining improvisational skills. He recalled a particular moment on the “Wall Street” set when they came in handy.

“At one point, I forgot a line,” Wallach said. He improvised a bit of dialogue and added another unscripted commentary: a whistle. After demonstrating the clear, rising note, Wallach added with a laugh, “And Oliver Stone said, ‘Please keep on whistling.’”

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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