Eli Wallach

The Actor as Citizen … Again

VTR Date: November 13, 2003

Guest: Wallach, Eli


I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today once again is my friend and neighbor, Eli Wallach, who also happens to be one of the most highly regarded of American actors and who together with Anne Jackson, his lovely and wonderfully talented wife compose an incomparable American acting couple admired by all who love the stage and screen.

Now Eli Wallach and I have a sort of five year pact that he return here to The Open Mind at least every five years. His first visit was in 1993, his next in 1998. And at a 2003 Book Party generously given by Sally Minard and Norton Garfinkle to celebrate the publication of my “Conversational History of Modern America” about which more later, I was reminded by the sheer numbers of people, no slouches themselves, in the world of affairs who were crowding around Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach.

So that it’s time again to prod my friend about the efficacy of actors’ involvement with public matters. Years ago, of course, we had hoofer/actor George Murphy as U.S. Senator from California. Then Ronald Reagan as Governor of California with a still juicier role to come as President of the United States. All the while we watched Charlton Heston segue from the Bible to the National Rifle Association. And now it’s Arnold Schwenegger playing Hollywood’s new gubernatorial gift to California.

And so I want to see to day if events have by any chance changed my guest’s mind over the years about acting and governing. Eli, last time you were here and the first time you were all gung ho for actors playing a role in public affairs. At least not being quiet about their opinions about public matters.

WALLACH: Well, my, my point is that when you become an actor you don’t cede your rights as a citizen. If Heston and Regan and Murphy, all good men, all honest men, are allowed to air their views, why shouldn’t an actor do it? I, I was appalled at what happened … I’m in a movie now with Sean Penn; he went to Iraq just to look around. Well, he was pilloried for, for his going there. It was “how dare an actor speak up”.
But actors should speak up. I mean Mel Gibson is doing a movie now which is being attacked. I like the idea that he is going against the current, he’s going to do his movie the way he wants to do it. And that’s the function in a democracy. You should be allowed to speak and say what you want. If you yell “Fire” in the theater, then you’re in trouble. But other than that I think actors, as well as doctors, lawyers, priests, anybody should be able to speak up.

HEFFNER: So what so you want to speak up about?

WALLACH: Well, I listened for four hours yesterday and today on the certification of the Justices that the Senate … several … the Democratic side of the Senate rejected or will not allow them; they’re having a filibuster or what the Republicans call a filibuster. And I say, well their job is to weigh and advise and consent. They don’t like what some of the suggestions are then they have a perfect right to stand up and say “No”. I enjoyed that, I enjoyed watching what’s happening there.

HEFFNER: But Eli, you know, this business about …you want to enjoy that as a citizen, right?


HEFFNER: But don’t you think that from Reagan to Murphy to Heston to Sean Penn to Schwarenegger, they were giving expression to their thoughts as actors using the moxie that they gained from the golden screen, or the silver screen.

WALLACH: I love the word “moxie”. But let me tell you something. The most mail I get for anything I’ve ever, ever done was one episode of Batman; I played Mr. Freeze, I was gong to freeze the whole society and rule the world. I got $350 for one episode. I get letters from Egypt, Spain, Korea … all over the world. Arnold Scharenegger two years ago did Mr. Freeze on Batman and he got $20 million dollars. And I said to my wife, “I can’t believe it, I spent my life in the theater … mostly … and in movies and so on, I get $350 and this man, who is now the Governor of California, gets $20 million dollars. And my wife looked at me and, “Lift weights!”.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WALLACH: So, so …

HEFFNER: You’ve been dong so ever since?

WALLACH: Well, yes, I do each morning, I lift weights. But I’m not in the shape of Arnold Schwarenegger.

HEFFNER: But, but Eli, come on, let’s, let’s be serious about this. When I think of an actor in the White House or in the Senate or in a Gubernatorial mansion largely because of the fame achieved as an actor that bothers me. Doesn’t bother you?

WALLACH: Well, then you have a right to vote and say “I don’t think this man should run.” Each one keeps saying about Dean now …they say he has no experience in foreign affairs. I say well, did Ronald Reagan have experience in foreign affairs. He handled foreign affairs pretty damn well. George Bush he has had no experience in foreign affairs …


WALLACH: … he ran a baseball team …

HEFFNER: A football.

WALLACH: No, baseball. And, he, he has a perfect right to say “I want to run for the Presidency.” I don’t want to run for the Presidency, I want to act. I come from the same, I studied in the same state as, as …


WALLACH: … President Bush. Texas. And John Connolly once asked me … we were both in the same class, and I graduated … he said, “why don’t you stay in Texas … you’ll work in the oil fields, you’ll become a millionaire.” I said I want to be an actor. “Oh,” he said, “I feel for you.” He said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll come to your first opening.” He never came because he was in Texas and I was in New York. But I want to say this.

When I’m accused of being against the war, let’s say, in Iraq now. I spent five years in the Army as a medic, running hospitals all over … from Hawaii to Africa, to France. I think I have a right to express myself. And I came through the period in American history that was absolutely reprehensible. We serviced the Japanese American battalion, brigade on the border between Italy and France. I used to give out the Purple Hearts to these guys. They were not allowed to fight in the East; they fought in the West and great soldiers they were. They won more Purple Hearts than any unit in the Army.

So, I, I say to myself, why should I not be able to speak up if I am opposed to something, and feel free to do it. I, I … D’Amato was one of them, he spoke out; he had his say. Whatever politician thinks he has a lean on the market, on ideas; it’s wrong. I’m opposed to guns, for example; since I dealt with the wounded all through … five years in the Army. I cannot understand how any member of the Congress or the IRA can approve of an automatic, semi-automatic guns. I think, yes, you want to hunt … get a rifle and go and hunt; you have to get a license. But to say that you are not allowed … that you are allowed to use semi-automatic guns, I don’t understand it. That’s one of my opinions, that’s one of my … and every politician is afraid, most of them are to express themselves because they feel they’ll never get elected.

HEFFNER: And you don’t have to worry about being elected.

WALLACH: No. But Dean, for example, is a member of the NRA because he comes from a state where they hunt. And he says that’s fine to hunt. But I’m opposed to using semi-automatic guns.

HEFFNER: You mentioned Governor Dean, Doctor Dean …


HEFFNER: Any strong feelings about the coming Presidential race?

WALLACH: Well, I, I feel …

HEFFNER: As an actor you can state your opinion.

WALLACH: No. As an actor … I’m telling you … that Dean is going to have a hard, hard climb because he’s running against a man who’s already raised $100 million dollars. And he’s an incumbent. And he has now the solid South is for him.

So, when Dean comes in he figures, how am I going to attack this unbeatable man. So he raises money; now he’s just come out and said, “I will not accept funds that the government gives you. If I raise $30 million, they’ll give me $30 million.” The President said, “I don’t need the $30 million”, but he’s now … everywhere he goes he raises money. Dean is going to have a tough fight. I think they’re all … the nine of them are going to have to get together and not draw straws, but they’re going to have to say “Let’s find the most potent man to fight against the incumbent”. And let’s see what happens.

HEFFNER: You know you talk about this matter of money. Aren’t you concerned that Dean’s position and it may now become others position, too, in terms of saying “no public money, we want to be unlimited in the amount we can raise because we think it will be a larger amount and spend”. Aren’t you concerned about what that does to the whole idea of campaign finance reform?

WALLACH: No, because the corporate entity has figured out a way to get around that campaign reform …

HEFFNER: So you don’t want limitations?

WALLACH: … you, you listen to Mr. McConnell talk about in the Senate …


WALLACH: … he’s upholding the Constitution, which is, “I have the money, I want to put up the money”. Do you realize how many people are buying their way into office now. I won’t name several that you know … I mean we have, we have a gov … a Senator in New Jersey Corzine … you have a Mayor in New York … you have people who raised a lot of money.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you’re not going to mention them.

WALLACH: Well, I will mention them, why not?

HEFFNER: I don’t see any reason …

WALLACH: … it’s free and I’m free. No, I like them, I like them; but I think Dean has a perfect right to say “I will not do what all the others do to take campaign funds from the government.” I would … his money mostly is raised … $70 … most Americans send him $70, $85 and he’s very, very powerful now in schemes and ways to raise money. Because for the next … as soon as the primaries are over … as soon as the … what do you call it when they meet …

HEFFNER: Conven …

WALLACH: … convention … as soon as the convention is over, the Republicans are going to spend millions and millions and day in and day out you’re going to get it.

HEFFNER: Well, when do you stop this, Eli? Certainly in the … in past years I’ve heard you inveigh against the whole idea of raising and spending large sums of money for political campaigns. When do you begin to stop it?

WALLACH: I don’t know when you begin to stop it? I tell you … if a person can raise the money, legally, and, and if you don’t like what he does, you vote him out. But the money aspect of it, I don’t want to tie him down against the, the one who raises millions and millions and millions of dollars.

HEFFNER: Let me ask a question.

WALLACH: I’ll raise my right hand.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] You mentioned Charlton Heston, and certainly identify Charlton Heston with politics that are Right Wing …


HEFFNER: Rather than otherwise.

WALLACH: He’s an old friend of mine, Charlton Heston.


WALLACH: We were in “Anthony and Cleopatra” together in 1948.

HEFFNER: You didn’t change his mind about anything?

WALLACH: No. Why should I? I mean … we, we never discussed politics, then we were in Shakespeare. Ask me about Charlton Heston.

HEFFNER: No, no … I want to then say, “well there’s Ronald Reagan, Conservative Republican. And there’s George Murphy, Conservative Republican. There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican at least. What do you find to be the political orientation of most of your friends in the art of the theater.

WALLACH: I think most of them are quite liberal, or progressive. Really.

HEFFNER: Politically?

WALLACH: Politically.


WALLACH: But you have some on the other side; you have a … gee, I almost fall out of … I can’t remember.

HEFFNER: Well, the ones I mentioned.

WALLACH: Okay. Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: But the Liberal ones?

WALLACH: Liberal ones? Yeah.

HEFFNER: Susan Sarandon …Sean Penn.


HEFFNER: Sean Penn.


HEFFNER: Okay. Do you have any … you, you have no objection whatsoever to these people identifying themselves with causes of one kind or another. Do you have any difficulties …


HEFFNER: … when you see them on the stage or the screen?

WALLACH: I’m a survivor from what happened in the fifties … both to the Japanese Americans who were thrown into jail because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor on my birthday. I, I objected to the fact that you had to go before a Committee and go against the Constitution and say, “you’ve got to answer this question.” There is a part of the Constitution which says … one, one of the … what do you call it?

HEFFNER: Amendments?

WALLACH: One of the Amendments is you’re allowed to say, “I refuse to answer that” on, on … whatever … on the Fifth Amendment.

HEFFNER: But you were never put in that position, were you?

WALLACH: No. But I’m saying the head of Enron, or several of them have said, and they have a perfect right to say it …

HEFFNER: To use the Fifth.

WALLACH: To use the Fifth.

HEFFNER: Now when actors use the Fifth, they were pilloried.

WALLACH: That’s right. They’re usually out of work. Zero Mostel … ten years couldn’t work. A lot of actors couldn’t work.

HEFFNER: Your own experience was what? … limited to the “Baby Doll” …

WALLACH: Well, I was in a movie that was condemned by the church. I had no idea when I was making the movie. I thought it was biblical in a sense, I was trying … get revenge at what a many did to my company.

Cardinal Spellman was told … he said … “I caution you, you may commit a sin if you see this movie.” And I couldn’t believe it. And then they asked him, “did you see the movie?”. Oh, no, he said, “if the water supply is poisoned, I don’t drink it.

HEFFNER: Pretty good.

WALLACH: Pretty good; but how does he know the water supply is poisoned, unless they test it?

HEFFNER: Well, somebody told them, just as …

WALLACH: But somebody told me …


WALLACH: Somebody told me that that movie was a good movie.

HEFFNER: Was it?

WALLACH: It certainly was. It was written by Tennessee Williams, it was directed by Elie Kazan, who incidentally has his life turned awry because of a position he took.

HEFFNER: Where were you, in terms, philosophically and politically, in terms of what he had to take. The knocks that he had to ….

WALLACH: Well, I called Dalton Trumbeau who said, “this situation … there were no heroes or villain; they were all victims. All of them were victims. That’s, that’s the response I give.

HEFFNER: But he added to the list of victims, didn’t he?

WALLACH: Well, he went to jail for a year.

HEFFNER: Oh, yes.

WALLACH: You gotta believe in what you believe in and be willing to go to jail if you have to.

HEFFNER: What … did you know many of the people who, in the older Hollywood, you’re too young to remember them too well.

WALLACH: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Of course. Did you know any of the people who were involved, without naming names?

WALLACH: No, I tell you, I worked with Henry Fonda, I worked with Eddie G. Robinson, I worked with Charles Laughton, I worked with Eva LeGalleon. I worked with all these people who said, “We want to practice our craft, we don’t want to be threatened by saying ‘you have to answer a certain question’.” If a part … the party was legal … if it was legal, you have a perfect right to be a member of it.

HEFFNER: And it was legal in those days.

WALLACH: Yes. Yes. And look what happened … Reagan stuck to is guns and, the whole Soviet Union collapsed and, and now he’s …poor man he’s ill … but he had his positions, his beliefs and, and he became very, very popular. Anne acted with him on the GE series.

HEFFNER: Really.

WALLACH: Yeah. But I, I just say to actors … believe what you want to believe. A lot of them today are still frightened by what happened in, in the fifties and the sixties. They were frightened. They say, “I don’t want to sign anything. I don’t want petitions.” There are big battles going on now between …with our Union … with Equity and … putting on productions outside the City of New York without union, without a union. So that we’re protected; we get health care, we get a … if you’re old, you go to an actors home. But they want to have non-union productions all across the United States. And I say you have to be … you have to fight them. Not say, “oh well, that’s today.” It isn’t today.

George S. Kaufman … yes, George Kaufman … no, George M. Cohan …


WALLACH: … George M. Cohan took a position to destroy the union; there’s a statue of him on 47th Street …

HEFFNER: Do you bow as you pass …

WALLACH: No, I do not because I never approved of what he did, and as a matter of fact, he’s still not a member of Equity, although he’s gone for years and years. But Equity is a fine union. It’s the only union that didn’t blacklist during the period of, of the questioning.

HEFFNER: Did AFTRA? I don’t remember …

WALLACH: I don’t think AFTRA was, was even in existence …

HEFFNER: Well, that’s right. Of course not. Not until after the, the real beginnings of television although we were into television by that time.

WALLACH: Television is amazing. I love this little story of the young kid being asking by a British journalist, “which do you like better, television or radio?” And the little boy said, “oh, radio … by far.” And he said, “Why?”, and the boy said, “The pictures are better.”

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WALLACH: So, I think television has siphoned off a lot of the public who read books. My mother, when I was little, said to me, “you only have so many words programmed into you, so don’t … you’ve got a quota … so don’t waste a lot of the words.” So as a little boy I didn’t speak much because I was saving my quota. Then I figured out a way to defeat it. I said if you die before you used up your quota, it ends up in libraries. So as a kid growing up, that was my saving grace. I went to libraries, I read as much as I could because I wasn’t using my quota. But all of the people who had died had left behind their quota … their unfinished quota.

HEFFNER: What do you think of the people who are using up their quotas today, and the profession itself. Do you have any overall feelings about Hollywood in particular?

WALLACH: Well, you have to understand what’s happening mechanically.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

WALLACH: I mean “special effects”. I mean they’ll blow up a building or do this and they, they do little of the … go back and look at the early movies … there were a lot of gangster movies, but the didn’t have special effects. You didn’t see all the blood flowing out of the arteries, you didn’t see that. You didn’t need that. Today … in the “old days” you were allowed to get in bed with a woman unless you kept one foot on the floor; cause … now my wife says, “we’re paid as actors to expose our emotions, not our backsides.” See. I think what’s happened in the movies, mostly, they’re, they’re not very appetizing.

HEFFNER: That’s a nice word.

WALLACH: Yeah. I can’t go and watch coming attractions in any movie house because you, you’re assaulted by what they do, by what they put on. They turn up the sound, triple-size sound and you, and you lean back as though you’re being punished for something. It’s like being in a prison cell and water’s dripping on you. Then … Anne and I always sit and we watch and we vote which movie … we’ve never passed on any movie that was shown in a coming attraction. That so, we say, “go look at Turner classic movies”. You’ll see, you’ll see good old movies, no commercials in between.

Do you know what’s happened with television? We couldn’t say “damn”, when I was on television. We did live television. Today, every second words begins with the letter you-know-what. And I think, what are the kids learning? What are they understanding? Is this the way people do it?

I saw a little girl, Brittney Spears on television the other night. She was wearing … lower than a jock strap. And I thought, “What does she want to show? If she can sing. Why does she have to show all her parts?” There are a lot of things, as you get older, you begin to get … if you want to … if you keep awake. I do the New York Times crosswords puzzle, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, by Thursday I’m running out of power and Friday I can’t answer any of the questions. But today I say to myself I should be critical. I want the children to go to school, I want them to learn. President Bush said, “no child left behind.” Well a lot of the children are being left behind. We still haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction. We haven’t found the, the atoms bombs that everyone is manufacturing. I would ask Vice President Cheney … can I ask you three points … 1) do we have weapons of mass destruction? 2) did we supply the Iraqis with weapons of mass destruction; 3) did we abandon the Kurds up in the North when we said we would support them if they fought against the Iraqi? No. Did we participate in the assassination of Ayendi in Chile? And did we not say anything for 13 years while Pinochet was a terrible dictator. We were concerned. And we’re not. We back … we pick which will benefit us. That’s why the problem now in Iraq is happening.

If you say, if you say today “North Koreans, you can’t build the atom bomb.” Why can’t he? Israel has it. Pakistan has it. India has it. Why are they picking out poor little Iraq …

HEFFNER: Listen … it’s a good way to end the act. I’ve just gotten the signal we have no more time. You’re asked your questions.


HEFFNER: We’re going to have to find out what those answers are in some future date. You’ve got to come back in five years.

WALLACH: Tell me, please tell me how much hate mail you get.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] You’ve got to come back …


HEFFNER: … in five years.

WALLACH: All right.

HEFFNER: Eli Wallach, thanks for joining me today.


HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.