Eli Wallach

The Actor … As Citizen

VTR Date: April 21, 1998

Guest: Wallach, Eli


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Eli Wallach
Title: The Actor … As Citizen
VTR: 4/21/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And while I’m much given to repeating the old saw that “Everyone in this country has two businesses: his own, or her own; and show business,” it seems more and more true these days that show-business people are also forever putting their two cents into the rest of the nation’s business, presidential politics, international relations, and so on. And I admit that that sometimes makes me real uneasy. Of course, my guest today won’t agree. He didn’t five years ago when he became the first actor — can you imagine that? An actor, for gosh sakes — to be on The Open Mind. And undoubtedly he won’t agree five years from now, and then five more years later, and so on and on, as he keeps coming back here and we keep baiting each other.

At any rate, about my guest today, as they say in show business, “He really needs no introduction,” for you’ve seen Eli Wallach time and again on stage and screen for over many more years now than perhaps even he would like to admit. And as I noted during our first go-round, I enjoy a somewhat different relationship with this wonderful actor, for Eli Wallach and his lovely wife, Ann Jackson, have been our neighbors for a long, long time now, which, of course, in Manhattan means living on the same elevator line. Mr. Wallach and I quite frequently stop on the way up or on the way down to discuss the great issues of the day, sometimes ones that have just been raised on The Open Mind. And, indeed, I wonder which public issues loom largest today for Citizen Wallach.

Eli, which ones, from 1776 on?

WALLACH: Well, 1776, for example, is a revival of a musical that is just wonderful. Peter Stone did the book. I can’t think of the lyricist and the composer. But it’s had a great success. It moved from the Roundabout Theater onto Broadway. So I wrote the president a letter. I said, “For the cost of the left wheel of a stealth bomber, you could send this play across the United States to every city for a year, in which young people would get a chance to see the machinations and the devices used by our forefathers in creating this country. Wouldn’t that be a great investment?” Of course, I didn’t hear. But I tell you what Jackie Mason once said about the stealth bomber. He said, “Its strength is that you can’t see it. It eludes the radar. So when the Russians say, ‘Where is that plane?’ Jackie said, ‘Tell them you can’t see it.’ So, he says, ‘Don’t build it.'”

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WALLACH: Each plane costs a billion dollars.

So, yes, I put my oars in. You asked about actors and their two cents worth. The fact that I’m an actor doesn’t mean that I’ve ceded my rights as a citizen in this country. And, of course, you say there comes a weight with it. The more famous, the more imposing the credits and so on, that his saying his statements have some weight. I don’t care. The fact is that an actor should express himself. Charlton Heston talks about the NRA, and is a spokesman for the NRA. That’s what he believes. I violently disagree with him. But we’re old, old friends for many, many years.

So I don’t think an actor gives up his right to speak out.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but, Eli, sure, he doesn’t give up the right, she doesn’t give up her right. But what about the added weight (and you referred to that) that the screen provides, that the proscenium provides, that carries an actor perhaps further than his or her abilities warrant? What about a president, an actor who becomes president, an actor who becomes Senator? We’ve talked about this before, and I know you think it’s perfectly fine. But isn’t that part and parcel of the whole spin business, the whole public-relations business, that I know you don’t like in our society?


WALLACH: But who evades that? Who doesn’t use it? I mean, let’s talk about, for example, campaign financing. Everybody says, as they say, “We all believe in God.” We believe in campaign financing. When it comes down to a vote, neither party, a plague on both their houses, neither one really wants to do it. I mean, you have McLaine and Feinstein bill about campaign-finance reform. They won’t pass it. Trent Lott won’t let it out. He’ll keep it boxed in. Newt Gingrich, they talk a great game, but they don’t do it.

So I have a right to speak out against the hypocrisy that goes on, weight or no weight.

HEFFNER: Yes, and… Eli, they say, “We have a right to raise as much money from private citizens and corporations…

WALLACH: Absolutely. Yeah. Right.

HEFFNER: …and unions.” But you don’t agree with that, do you? You want campaign, you want public financing.

WALLACH: I certainly do. I certainly do. I think a farmer in Mississippi or Texas has as much right to his opinion as the spin-doctors and the things. When you look at the negative advertising going on, nobody should be in the Congress. They’re all crooks according to the ads on television. This one lowered taxes, this one raised taxes, this one has put money in his pocket. Politicians are not exempt to criticism. They should not be. And I want the right to speak out against them.

HEFFNER: So what are we going to do? Have Eli Wallach, candidate for what? Why didn’t you ever run for anything?

WALLACH: I’m not in good shape to run. [Laughter] I can’t run. Why, I’ve got my job to do as an actor. That’s my job. When you come into the theater and sit there, you and I have a union, a bonding, that goes on that pleases me. I’ve been doing it for 50 years. Nothing else can take the place of that. And all I want to do is function as an actor.

HEFFNER: And when you function as an actor, are you moving people’s ideas, their political ideas, their social ideas?

WALLACH: Someone once said recently that “The actor is the mouth; the playwright is the brain.” So when I express these thoughts, they’re not mine so much; they’re filtered through my psyche, through my ability as an actor, but they’re the thoughts and expressions of the writer. In the theater, the writer is king. I spent seven years with Tennessee Williams. You don’t change a word. I’ve done Arthur Miller’s plays, Odetts’s plays. You don’t change a word. But they’re the ones who are expressing it. I may not agree with a lot of it, but I do it.

HEFFNER: Have you ever been in a position in which you have violently agreed with the philosophy, with the ideas that are being expressed by the writer?

WALLACH: Sometimes. I did a play by Clifford Odetts, the last play he wrote, called “The Flowering Peach.” He was horrified about the bomb. And I played Noah.

HEFFNER: I remember it well.

WALLACH: It all takes place on the ark and off the ark. But the last line gave me shivers. Noah talks to God and says, “Please do me a favor, God. Don’t destroy the world again. You’ve done it once before, so…” And there’s a clap of thunder. And he says to God, “Where do you want me to look?” And he turns around and looks on the psyche and there’s a big rainbow. And he turns back and says to God, “Not bad. Not bad.” And as he starts to walk off, there’s another clap of thunder. And he says, “What did you say? What? Now it’s in man’s hands to make or destroy the world? That’s a mystery.” And he walks off. So Odetts was saying we have the ability now to destroy the world. Before it was God; now we can do it. And we are damned near doing it.

What amuses me now is we’re talking about Saddam Hussein and the destruction and the weapons of mass destruction. Mass destruction. Did we not create some of the weapons of mass destruction? Have we destroyed them all? There’s a train running between here and somewhere in Omaha, Nebraska, with weapons of mass destruction on it. Now we’re spending billions to destroy. Go back to Jackie Mason’s thing about the stealth bomber. Don’t make those damned things, then you won’t have to destroy them.

See, you remember toilet seats in the Pentagon, for an airplane, cost two, three thousand dollars, right? Somebody should keep a check on what goes on in this country.

HEFFNER: The actors.

WALLACH: Well, I think the actors should. Not only the actors. Doctors. Doctors who have a conscience. Lawyers. All of them should speak out. Yes, I think there should be an open forum in which people get up and say, “Dammit, I don’t like this, and I want to speak out against it.”


HEFFNER: Let me go back to one thing that you said. You talked about the writer, whether it’s Odetts or Arthur Miller, or whoever it may be. He does the writing. There’s the philosophy. Then the actor, I won’t say “simply gives expression” to those words. But when I went to see “Visiting Mr. Green” at the Union Square Theater about a month or so ago…


HEFFNER: …my sense was that Eli Wallach was talking to me, and that what you were doing in that wonderful character was something that came from you. It’s hard for me to see you simply giving expression to what someone else has written.

WALLACH: No, but I’m using his words. You know, there’s another expression, “An actor so great, a great actor, can just read the phone book.” And I say that’s nonsense, you can’t read the phone book. You have to read what the author wrote. And it’s filtered through his life and his experience. I express it for him. Right? So I’m not, this is not me… Yes, it’s me up there, but I’m carrying out his writing.

HEFFNER: Have you never been in real conflict? I don’t mean the shivers that you’ve felt with God’s final word.

WALLACH: Yes. Yeah.

HEFFNER: But I mean, have you never, ever gotten into a substantive conflict with the writer. Not in matter of style, but matter of content.

WALLACH: No. Not really. Because if I get into a play and think I like the play, then I say, “Yes, I agree with what he’s trying to say. And I will help him say it.” But I can’t think of an instance where I’ve fought against the playwright. No.

HEFFNER: And, when you…

WALLACH: See, in the theater it’s different. The theater, the playwright is king. In the movies, a script is submitted, and they say, “Bring in the rewrite man. Let’s change it. What are we going to do now?” There are 16 chefs for one meal. Whereas, in the theater, no, no, no.

HEFFNER: So which do you prefer?

WALLACH: The theater. Because there’s a purity about what the guy is trying to say. If it fails, it fails; if it succeeds, it succeeds.

HEFFNER: But, in the film, don’t you have an input too?


HEFFNER: Aren’t you one of the 17?

WALLACH: No. What’s on the screen is not decided by the actor. What’s decided on the screen is decided by the studio, the director, the author, the editor. If I yawn at one place in shooting a scene, they can take that and put it somewhere else. You know? Right? I once did a film with an Italian actor, non-actor. Had one arm. He said to me, “I don’t like Americans.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I lost my arm in the war.” I said, “I didn’t do it.” The director said to him… He was not an actor. He said, “I want you to count from one to ten angrily.” This man said, “Une, due, tree, quatra, cinque, see, sete, ote…” “Cut.” Then they dub in his speech, and I watched it, and it was wonderful. I thought, “I spent my life studying acting. This man is counting!” Right?

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WALLACH: So, movies are different. It’s a different medium. I used to scoff at movies, but it’s very hard work, because you have to… It’s like doing a crossword puzzle in your head, because it can be done out of context, out of sequence, and it’s very difficult.

HEFFNER: Why is it difficult then? Wouldn’t it be easier to do it? You don’t have to worry about where it’s going to fit.

WALLACH: But the unsatisfactory part of it is the actor in the play, when you go to see “Mr. Green,” and I walk out at the beginning, I know I have two hours, uninterrupted, with no one saying, “Wait a minute, cut here and push there.” To develop it, to grow. That’s a great experience for an actor.

HEFFNER: Is that an experience now? Because as we talk, “Mr. Green” is still on the boards.


HEFFNER: Was that an experience in which you had any participation into the content?

WALLACH: Yes. Over a two-year period I’ve worked on this play. And I’ve put in my all, and I’ve said to the author, “Listen…” He cut out a speech I loved that I put in because of my father, who said to me, “You know Jacob Adler?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “He was the great King Lear. He played the Jewish King Lear.” I said, “Oh.” He played it on Broadway truly, in Yiddish, with the rest of the cast playing in English. And he said, “He was a great man. People used to go up and down the aisles selling things. Children running, people crying, saying ‘Hello.’ When he walked on the stage, you could hear a pin drop. But,” he says, “it took him a long time to die. He didn’t die easy. It took him half an hour.” Which was his, you know, that was the gold crown of acting, it took a half an hour. Well, that was in the play in Massachusetts when I did it, and it was cut out. It was sentimental, and cut it out. But we put in things that made the play walk a tighter line.


Originally when we did it there were a lot of blackouts. Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop. And Ann said, “The life goes on. You don’t turn out the lights. Life goes on.” And the director, Lonnie Price, worked it out. And Jeff Baron, the author, worked with him. And the play has a life. So that when the lights go down here, I walk, change sweaters, and I’m walking to the bathroom, and the life goes on. So I have put in something.

HEFFNER: You know, you mentioned the director. We hadn’t mentioned the director. Where does the director fit in, onstage and in the movies, the role he or she plays?

WALLACH: Well, the movies is a very technical thing. The director decides, as we’re sitting here talking, he wants the camera to focus on you and slowly go in as I speak. Then he cuts the camera back and there’s a two-shot. Those are all mechanical things, have nothing to do with what happens on the stage. Now, the director on the stage says… Charles Lawton directed us in “Major Barbara.” He said, “I want to use a little bit of the movie technique. I want you to play a scene with Burgess Meredith. When you finish the scene, stop. Somebody on the other side of the stage will move, and the eye of the audience will cut and go to that side.” So that’s what we did on the stage. But on the stage the director’s input is very important. He opens the score, he takes the baton, and he says, “Here’s the way we do it.” But it’s done in conjunction with the actor, who says, “Why do I…” George Abbott used to say, an actor, would say, “Why do I move there?” He says, “‘Cause we’re paying you.” Right?

HEFFNER: Has that ever led you, “Because we’re paying you,” to want to be the director, the author?

WALLACH: No. I once directed a play by Tennessee Williams, a one-act play at The Actor’s Studio, called “Hello from Bertha,” about a prostitute who doesn’t want to get out of her bed. She’s being evicted. And I directed it. Then I went out in front of a curtain, and Joshua Logan was the guest director at the studio at the time. And he said to explain the play. So I said, “I chose this play because I’m interested in prostitution.” And the audience began to laugh. I said, “No, seriously. I was a medical administrative officer in Africa during the war, and I raided whorehouses all along Casablanca, Oran, Fez, Marrakkesh, all around. So I’m interested in the plight of the prostitute.” And finally I said the play. And Logan said, “The hell with the play. Keep on with the sex lecture.”

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WALLACH: Right? So the actors were so angry with me acting in front of the curtain, when the curtain went up they didn’t do anything I suggested, and I’ve never directed since.

HEFFNER: And you were acting in front of the curtain.

WALLACH: Yes, I was. I was showing off. That’s what I was doing.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s do a little showing off about some of these public-policy issues that you’re concerned with. WALLACH: All right. I’ll give you one.


WALLACH: Madeline Albright, the Secretary of State, said recently, “Cuba is a disgrace to Latin America.” I thought to myself, “What do the Latin Americans think of the Yankee?” There’s been a long tradition of despising the Yankee and the Yankee dollar. Castro and Cuba represent one thing. I say, what have we done in the past? Think of what we did in Chile. We’re responsible for the death of Allende and Pinoche. Now, we mine the harbors of Nicaragua, when we were trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. We trained and armed and sent an army into Cuba. We tried four or five times via the CIA to assassinate Castro. So what are we talking where Cuba’s a disgrace to Latin America? What has America done? And why we cover it up now? We’re having this great conference going down in Chile now, and even Pinoche didn’t show up. Because it’s a farce. It’s “Where does our power extend, and how strong are we?” So those are the things that I think should be explained.


HEFFNER: Do we characterize your political philosophy as we characterize the political philosophy of so many people from the stage and from Hollywood as to the left?

WALLACH: No. I can give you dozens of actors from the right.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but what about you?



WALLACH: Yes, I would say I’m well left of the center.

HEFFNER: Staying in the same place now as you were, let’s say, at the end of the war, the second war, our war?

WALLACH: Yeah. I spent five years with Uncle Sam.

HEFFNER: But when you were finished…


HEFFNER: …would you say that your political thinking, your political leaning, your political philosophy was similar then to what it is now? What kind of odyssey have you made in this half-century?

WALLACH: Well, I think one of the smartest things we ever did was paying for the education of veterans after the war.

HEFFNER: Yours was, right?


HEFFNER: Your education was.



WALLACH: I had finished, I had a master’s degree before I went in the Army.

HEFFNER: Before you went in the Army.

WALLACH: Yes. City College. I got a master’s degree. In education. I was going to be a teacher. And I failed the teacher’s exam, fortunately.

HEFFNER: Come on, come on.

WALLACH: Yes. And I went into, I got a job in an acting school. When I graduated, I thought, “Broadway, here I come.” And Uncle Sam said, “No, no, no. Wait a minute.” So from 1940 to 1945 I wore the uniform. Proudly, happily. Because I saw what was happening in there.

HEFFNER: Okay. Then?

WALLACH: Now, I was making a movie in Cambodia in 1964, in the jungle, in Siem Riap, in Angor Wat. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, directed by Richard Brooks, with Peter O’Toole and James Mason. And I’m playing a half-breed villain in the jungle. And I go into Saigon, and I see, or in Pnom Penh, and we’re preparing to go into…

HEFFNER: Cambodia.



WALLACH: Into Vietnam.

HEFFNER: Into Vietnam first.

WALLACH: And I say to myself, “What are we doing there? Why? Why?” Now, 40 years later, or 50, how many years later, 35 years later, we’re assessing what we did. I once sat with Senator Cohen before he was appointed… No, he was just appointed Secretary of Defense. I said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you take four ex-Secretaries of Defense, MacNamara, Schlesinger… Isn’t Schlesinger one of…? I don’t know. Weinberger, and you, and have them sit with you and say, ‘Listen, these are the mistakes we made. Why don’t you avoid them.'” I think that’s great. The Chinese respect the elders. I think their expertise and the mistakes they made are valuable in helping this guy chart the correct course. You know? And Secretary Cohen said, “It’s a good idea. I wish they would do it.”

HEFFNER: Has it ever been done?

WALLACH: Oh, yes, I’m sure they have. Oh, yes. Presidents have called in experts.

HEFFNER: Presidents have called in presidents. And we know that. We know that.

WALLACH: Yeah. No, they’ve called in experts who…

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to this question. I really want to press you on this. The leaning. The political leaning that you’ve, that I can identify in Eli Wallach. End of World War II to the present. In this half-century-plus, has there been an intellectual odyssey? Has there been a significant movement in your beliefs, in your politics?


WALLACH: Well, I think as you get older you tend to… As a young actor I was, you know, opposed to the old cliches and conventions and so on. As you get older, you say, “No, no, no. Maybe they had something to say. Maybe they did.” So that, as a citizen, watching what’s happened, I think… Who was it? I think it was Dostoevsky who said, “Show me your prisons, and I will tell you your society.” And I think, Texas, the biggest industry in Texas today is building prisons. Right? All the electric chairs and the injections and all that, do not stress, or do not alter what’s happening with crime. It doesn’t. Deterrence is, as they say in my language, is nonsense. You don’t deter. If you killed all the people sitting in jails now on death row, tomorrow there’d be half a dozen more murders, and you’d have to push them in and take care of them. Why is it we are the only country, plus certain Arab countries, that have the death penalty? England doesn’t have it. Italy doesn’t have it. France doesn’t have it. What are we trying to solve?

And, no matter how heinous the crime, I think there’s got to be some answer other than putting these people to death. That’s not the answer.

HEFFNER: In the 45 seconds that we have left…

WALLACH: You’re joking.

HEFFNER: No, the director said, “Forty-five seconds left, and then you’re off the stage.” What is it you most want to say? You and I are a little bit long in the tooth. In the 30 seconds left, what is it you want to, what’s the message you want to leave?

WALLACH: I want the politicians to be open to the people, and really tell what’s going on. I want to find out who’s buying who, who’s pressuring who, who’s paying off who. My son, incidentally, Peter, is the great conspiracy expert. He’s a maven of the… He knows all about the assassinations of who and where, and the presidents and who was involved. I would like an airing, you know, of the politicians.

HEFFNER: Sounds as though Peter got it from the old man.

WALLACH: I hope so. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

WALLACH: A pleasure.

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 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another 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.