The Shmooze

Remembering Eli Wallach, Yiddish Theater Champion

By Masha Leon

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Each time I met Eli Wallach — whom I had known for nearly 30 years (and always with his wife Anne Jackson at his side) — he greeted me warmly.

Ever gracious, he’s sent handwritten ‘thank you’ notes following mentions in my column and a particularly sweet one after my review of their daughter Roberta’s performance in a 1991 play adding: “I expect to be in the Roundabout Theatre in Miller’s “The Price.” Hope you’ll come to see it.”

The last time I chatted with Wallach — who died at 98 of natural causes on June 24 — was at the Player’s Club on April 12, 2010 when he and Anne Jackson presented an award to actress Patricia Neal on the occasion of an upcoming prequel to Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” Then 83-year old Jackson put her hand on 94-year year old Wallach and proclaimed: “This is mine!” Wallach then asked her ‘What was I going to say?” and Jackson affectionately replied, “I don’t know, Sweetheart.” Wallach snapped back: “What does that mean?” They looked at each other and smiled.

Eli Wallach and Ann Jackson // Photo by Karen Leon

An actor famous for portraying — as he once said — “Mexican bandits, Italian Mafiosi and a Greek jewel thief, I finally ended up as an ‘Old Jew.’” Wallach had great affection for and kept close ties to the Yiddish theater. At a June 2, 2005 Folksbiene cocktail party at Elaine’s he recalled Maurice Schwartz and Jacob Adler. In 1988 Wallach portrayed the character David Cole — based on Adler — in Joseph Papp’s “Café Crown” at the Public Theater grandstanding with panache and a black cape and fedora on the stage! At the 2002 “Celebrating the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre and 100 Years of Yiddish Theater,” emcee Wallach presented Lifetime Achievement Awards to Yiddish Theater legends Mina Bern and Shifra Lerer.

Without the grades for City College, he went to the “oil rich” University of Texas where tuition was $30 a year and, as he’d tell it, teachers would call on him just to hear his Brooklyn accent. Wallach liked to boast that he and Anne were married in 1948 “when Israel became a state,” adding “and we’re [both] still here!”

At a July 12, 2004 “Dialogue with Rabbi William Berkowitz” at The Center for Jewish History, Wallach delivered a 90-minute uninterrupted “performance” in which he disgorged an avalanche of anecdotes about plays and films he was in, and actors he had worked with. Still smarting at losing out to Frank Sinatra for the role of Mario in “From Here To Eternity,” he recalled a rehearsal for G.B. Shaw’s “Major Barbara” at which Charles Laughton admonished him: “No Stanislavsky crap from you!”

“We were the only Jewish family in Red Hook in a sea of Italians,” he once said. When the director of the [1967 film] “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” told him to “cross himself” he was mystified by Wallach’s peculiar hand choreography. Wallach explained that it was his shorthand execution of the rite based on “seeing my Italian neighbors cross themselves in Little Italy in the 1920s.”

His father’s reaction to his becoming an actor: “”From this you make a living!?””

Some living!. Some life!


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