Eli Wallach

The Actor … Off Stage

VTR Date: April 28, 1993

Guest: Wallach, Eli


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Eli Wallach
Title: “The Actor … Off-State”
VTR: 4/28/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And, about my guest
today … well, as they say in show biz, he really needs no introduction.

It’s true. For you’ve undoubtedly seen Eli Wallach time and again on the stage and on the screen for over many more years now than perhaps even he would like to admit.

But I enjoy a somewhat different relationship with this wonderful actor. For Eli Wallach – and his lovely wife, Anne Jackson – have been our neighbors for a long, long time now … which, in Manhattan, means living on the same elevator line. Our kids and their kids even went to school together.

All of which, in part, at least, explains the mystery of having an actor on The Open Mind!

Doctors, yes. And lawyers, too. Journalists, of course. And assorted others. But there must be a first time for everything … and since Mr. Wallach and I quite so frequently stop on the way up or down our mutual elevator to discuss the great issues of the day – occasionally issues that have just been raised on The Open Mind … I thought it timely to invite him here not to discourse on the theatre or motion pictures … but rather to examine the actor generically in his role dealing with great public issues, his role, perhaps, as social or political commentator. So, Eli Wallach, thanks for joining me today.

WALLACH: Thank you.

HEFFNER: As a pundit … as a commentator. You know, John Leonard, many years ago in The New York Times, when he was writing “The Last Word,” did a piece on “Show Biz and Serious Biz,” and it had to do, in part, with the way we tend to dismiss actors and actresses as activists in political matters. And I wondered what your take on that is?

WALLACH: Well, the fact that you’re an actor doesn’t mean you’re a second class citizen. You have the same rights as others. People feel that maybe an actor has too much influence or sway because of his position in the public eye. But the fact is he’s a citizen, he pays taxes: he has all the problems that other people have. I ride the subway constantly, and people meet me and say hello, and they’re all very friendly. But it doesn’t mean that an actor shouldn’t have a political opinion about things. I remember I was in China in 1980 with E.G. Marshall and my wife, Anne, we were guests of the American Ambassador, a man named Leonard Woodcock, who’d been appointed by Carter. And as we’d sit around in the evenings he, he kept saying, “You know, Ronald Reagan is going to be elected President.” I said, “They’ll never elect an actor. Never.” But … not only did they elect an actor, they elected him twice. And I kept thinking, “Well, maybe they didn’t believe it the first time.” But the fact is that they elected an actor. Now, actors have been speaking out a long time on all sorts of issues, and sometimes they got into trouble, especially in the early ’50’s in America with the blacklisting. So, actors tend to be not reclusive, but they tend to stay away from hot potato items.

HEFFNER: But what about this business, and you mention about the possibility that, well, maybe they have too much power, because familiarity … I think it was Anna Quindlen who, the other day, used the line “familiarity breeds content.” And maybe they have too much power for that reason.

WALLACH: Well, I … I tell you, in the movie field, if an actor’s films begin to go downhill, that power is, is sapped, and it goes away. They don’t stay on long. I don’t know. Charlton Heston represents the NRA, so he speaks out on, on what his favorite topic. Paul Newman speaks out on another topic. Susan Sarandon speaks on, on whatever she feels hot about. So I think actors should speak out. They’re part of the process, the political process. And they should speak out.

HEFFNER: Were you happy with the … that … the way the political process worked out when George Murphy tapped danced his way into Senatorship and then Ronald Reagan became President?

WALLACH: I wasn’t upset about it. I just think, why not? Why should the Senate be … you know, you don’t have to be a lawyer to be on the Supreme Court. I didn’t know if you knew that. You don’t have to be. A lot, a lot of politicos are not lawyers. They haven’t got legal minds. Harry Truman was not a lawyer, but he was a smart politician. So I think anyone who wants to get into the political process… I think most of them are crazy to want to try to solve the problems … that they should, they should get involved and speak out.

HEFFNER: But, but wait a minute, there’s something different between speaking out, and you referred to those wonderful days in the ’40’s and ’50’s when the House UnAmerican Activities Community and then during the “Red Scare,” got after the people who went from the stage or from the screen into some cell, and occasionally they went into cellblocks, too, because …


HEFFNER: … there were … those the … “The Ten,” some of them went to jail. Shirley Temple was even investigated for her political prowess.

WALLACH: That’s right.
HEFFNER: You’re not dealing, it seems to me, with the question of the added power. The, the fact that when you ride the subway, people know who you are … there are many, many people who see you on television … have seen you on the stage …


HEFFNER: … don’t we live at a time when that familiarity seems to bring about a sense of, “well, he can do politics, too.” Or, “she can do the political thing …

WALLACH: Yes, but if they haven’t got the wherewithal to back up what other people think about it, they don’t last very long in the political process.

HEFFNER: George Murphy?

WALLACH: George Murphy was a Senator for, I think, one term, and out, because they realized that he could tap dance, but he wasn’t, he wasn’t a very good Senator.

HEFFNER: Ronald Reagan?

WALLACH: Ronald Reagan is amazing. I think Ronald Reagan … the trick with Ronald Reagan was that he, he was underestimated by everyone. They thought this guy was … he fell asleep at meetings. He didn’t fall asleep at meetings. I just heard George Schultz discuss him this morning on the good things he did and the mistakes he made. You know, it’s very easy today for me to sit and watch a TV thing and talk back to the TV screen, and say, why, why do they never ask the question I would ask?

HEFFNER: You know, on that elevator, that now famous elevator of ours, where you and I ride up and down … you most frequently say, “why didn’t you ask
this …


HEFFNER: … why didn’t you ask that?” What do you want to ask, what do you want to do as a citizen/actor … citizen first. What are the things …

WALLACH: I love, I love … you mentioned the Black List. I love what … you remember Jack Guilford?


WALLACH: He was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Community and they said, “Mr. Guilford, are you in favor of the violent overthrow of the United States Government?” And there was a long pause, and he said, “No … gently.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)
WALLACH: So, I think … I think he was speaking out about what a lot of people feel … there are things wrong with the government and you should speak out. You should speak out. That’s what I feel actors should do, too. Regardless of the sense of power that they may have, that’s beside the point.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I, I respect and appreciate what you say, but I get the heebie jeebies and the willies when I realize that there has been a transference of the admiration for, or again the familiarity with a face on television, a face on the … in the theater … and the assumption that this person knows something beyond the lines that he or she has memorized, or is reading … mostly is reading.

WALLACH: Well, it’s an interesting thing that in jury duty … you know you have the right to discard a guy coming up for jury duty … they always reject the actor because the actor … maybe … he has a … he’s a humanist, more or less. And they’re, they’re suspicious of the actor, putting him on a jury, he may see both sides of the question. He may have that open mind, so they don’t want him. I don’t … I think a lot of times if your mind is so open, all the goodies drop out, you know. So I think it’s good to have sometimes a closed mind, and not be afraid to speak out of what you find that’s unjust. I think it’s insane for this country to allow a man to go down to Virginia or wherever and to buy 65 guns, and bring them back to New York City. I think it’s crazy. I, I’ve lived in other countries … Italy … France, England, Spain, Canada … they think we’re nuts. And people take a gun and go out and kill. What happened in Waco is, is a disgrace, you know.

HEFFNER: Which, which end? Because people have said it’s been a
disgrace … not very many people who will disagree with you that the fanaticism that was represented at Waco was a disgrace, but I think you’re talking about something else.

WALLACH: I’m saying, the right … that man went out and built an armory … he went out and purchased machine guns … they just arrested the man that could convert from the semi automatic to the automatic … that’s, that’s very dangerous. I think
people … I don’t know if you know this … the Second Amendment doesn’t say that you have the right to bear arms … it’s related to a well-trained militia. It doesn’t mean every guy can go out and buy 50 guns.

HEFFNER: But, Eli, you realize that there’s a dispute about that, sure. You and I who will oppose the National Rifle Association …


HEFFNER: … take that point of view. There are many others who feel very strongly that somehow or other involved in this is their right to “something.” We’re not just talking about the good guys …


HEFFNER: … versus the bad guys …

WALLACH: They want to …

HEFFNER: It’s not only …

WALLACH: They want a right to go out and hunt … fine … take the gun … put it in a locker and when they want to go hunt, take it out and go hunting. But to go out and buy a semi automatic submachine gun is crazy. You can buy a tank … that’s, that’s insane to allow that.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now we’ve identified an issue.


HEFFNER: And here you … the face is familiar, you’ve been in the theatre now for … how many decades …




HEFFNER: A lot of people have seen you. A lot of people have tremendously enjoyed what you’ve done on the stage, on the screen. Even in commercials, you’re a very familiar face. Do you think what you’ve just said about the National Rifle Association carries more weight than what the next guy sitting next to you in the subway car does … and should it?

WALLACH: No, I don’t think it should. But the fact is that, you know, they hired a very well recognized face with the, with the Charlton Heston … Moses … to discuss their viewpoint, their side of the issue. So, why, why shouldn’t I speak out, and say I object to guns. Virginia is celebrating the fact that they passed a law now that you can only buy one gun a month.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that terrific?

WALLACH: See, that’s the flavor of the month … Colt or whatever. I once did a movie called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly …

HEFFNER: Oh, I remember that so well.

WALLACH: And I walked into a gun shop and assembled a gun from various Winchester, Colt and all the rest of it … put the gun together … I loved … this anecdote is true … the director said to me, “I don’t want you to have a holster for your gun.” I said, “What do I do with it?” He says, “You have a lanyard around your neck.” I said, “And the gun dangles between my legs, right?” He says, “Yes. When you want it, you twist your shoulders, I cut to your hand, and there’s the gun.” I said, “Show me.” He put it … he went like this … it missed, it him in the groin …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WALLACH: He said, “Keep it in your pocket.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WALLACH: And for the rest of the film I carried that gun in my pocket.

HEFFNER: Now, that’s a very violent film … I know it very well. Do you have any concerns about participating in the violence that is pushed by the media?

WALLACH: Well, I, I just think it’s very interesting that Clint Eastwood, who just won the Academy Award for the Best Director, Best Movie, has just had an
epiphany … he’s just said, “I don’t want the violence … “Dirty Harry,” and shooting and so on, because you realize that it, it does have a sway.” I … there are certain films I won’t do. The violence in that film is done with tongue in cheek. It’s not serious, you know.

HEFFNER: Eli Wallach, I have never heard anyone who’s participated in a violent movie, who’s made it, acted in it or whatever, who hasn’t said, “It’s done with tongue in cheek. It’s really cartoon violence. …”


HEFFNER: … it couldn’t have an effect.”

WALLACH: Oh, yes, it does. I, I … I’d take the stand that it does. I, I’m very unhappy about that, but let me ask you … every network has these, these meters … Neilson’s ratings …


WALLACH: Sweeps … whatever they call it. A serious discussion, or a serious … Hallmark is the last of the breed now that does worthwhile pieces … the rest of it is … I can’t believe what, what goes on. I just appeared at a series of films being shown about censorship and intolerance. The week before I appeared, Dustin Hoffman appeared, and a film called Lenny, which was objected to and censored and so on. I appeared in the movie, the first film I was in …

HEFFNER: Excuse me, it wasn’t censored … it was not …

WALLACH: No, no, it …

HEFFNER: … it was objected to …

WALLACH: … it was objected to …

HEFFNER: … it went on … it went on the screen as was …

WALLACH: Right. But … yes … true … but it was objected to and people spoke out against the film … fine. The film I did was condemned by the Catholic
Church … anybody seeing that film was in danger of being excommunicated …

HEFFNER: Baby Doll.

WALLACH: Baby Doll … according to Cardinal Spellman, who, when asked if he’d seen the film said, “Absolutely not. If the water supply is poisoned, I don’t drink it.” That’s what … I saw the film recently … I can’t understand … today you get into bed in the movies, and you see the actual act … and the language they use is disgusting. As my wife says, “I’m paid as an actress to bare my emotions, not my backside.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WALLACH: But I … anyway you give me … I, I wander all over the lot … I say, “Fine, they showed that movie, but the movie didn’t do too well because it was damned and condemned.” However, they have a right to object; I have a right to speak out.

HEFFNER: And you have a right … you’re, you’re perfectly correct, to participate in the political process where your voice comes to mean even more.


HEFFNER: You ever thought about running for office?


HEFFNER: Citizen Wallach … no?

WALLACH: I, I keep thinking … listen, old Bill Clinton just said …

HEFFNER: Young Bill Clinton …

WALLACH: Well, he’ll get old very quickly … he’s 100 days older today … old Bill Clinton said, “When I get in, I’m going to clean up what Common … Common Cause says is the most corrupt aspect of the political system, which is the purchasing, with donations and contributions and under the table financing of all of these candidates who run.” It costs $6 million to run for the Senate. Why? Why should … I love what Harry Truman did, he got finished with the Presidency, he went home, carried his own bags up the stairs, and got out of politics. Today, they use it as a system to go from there into lobbying, into more power, and so on. And I, I object to that.

HEFFNER: Why do you object to it?


HEFFNER: Yeah, why?

WALLACH: Because they’re taking advantage of their position, of their former position.

HEFFNER: But think what a person learns, a man or a woman learns in government. Learns, perhaps, to use in a very positive sense, for the public good.

WALLACH: Fine, he should be hired by a, by a company and do it there. But he should not go back into the political process. They’re signing now, they’re saying a person who leaves office … the first thing he does, he’s held a good job … is acquainted with all the ins and outs of the position he was in … the next thing he does, he rents his services out, and gets back in swaying the political process again. He wasn’t re-elected to do that.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s not the same thing. But let me ask you whether that attitude carries to the, to a support of those who say, “Let’s have limited terms for those who come to office, let’s have citizens … citizen actors, citizen dentists …

WALLACH: Yeah, that’s fine. That’s a quick facile solution to the problem. Limited terms also waters down the political process. Because you’re saying, “The next time, I can’t pick who I want to pick; he’s had his two terms and out.” Well, the President is two terms; I guess there are some Senators that should get out. But they should be voted out, they shouldn’t say, “Okay, you’ve got a proscribed term.”

HEFFNER: Yes, but as you study the issues that you’re very much concerned about, whether it has to do with China, whether it has to do with high officials … we talked once about Haig, and I was certain you didn’t mean Haig & Haig, you meant Alexander Haig …

WALLACH: Yes, Alexander Haig.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s, let’s get on to that, but first, I’m a little puzzled as to why you dismiss so quickly as an element in what you consider obviously to be the degradation of American politics. Will you dismiss this notion of, of limited terms? I don’t know where I stand or sit on that matter, but you … you’re …

WALLACH: I don’t …

HEFFNER: … orthodoxly dismiss it.

WALLACH: I don’t limit the terms, no, I don’t. I say, you want to elect him, elect him. Then he should struggle hard to win the people’s confidence so that he earns that, that position. However, there are some in there who have gone through a metamorphosis that’s amazing. I mean, Strom Thurmond was one of the leading segregationists of his time, and I grew up in the South, and I know what happened. I served in a segregated Army in World War II. I grew up where, where Blacks were not allowed to stay in the town I was in after dark. So this man is now chummy with Clarence Thomas, who’s on the Supreme Court, so he’s had a wonderful conversion.
But …

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute …

WALLACH: I wish he should be, I wish he would be voted out of office, but that’s for the people of South Carolina, not me.

HEFFNER: So the idea of limits … you, you disapprove of. Haig …


HEFFNER: What, what, what’s there … what’s biting you?

WALLACH: I made a movie, Jack London’s … in Cambodia … Lord Jim … Joseph Conrad …


WALLACH: Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim … in the jungles of Cambodia, while we were heating up to go into Vietnam into the war …


WALLACH: 1960 … end of ’63, ’64 … the Prince had a wonderful arrangement in Cambodia, he served both sides, he was a shrewd man … the Czechs were building a shoe factory, the British built him this … the Americans built highways and airports and so on. He allowed the Vietnamese to come down Ho Chi Minh Trail, so on. Now, we were going to go in and we were going to “clean her all up” … right. So we began bombing Cambodia … illegally, we’re not at war with Cambodia … we went into Laos, we did all of these things in a war we should not have been in, right? Now, 30 years later, people are saying, “what a mistake we made.” When people spoke out against that war, at the time, they were considered traitors, they were fleeing to Canada, and so on. I think it’s … Kuwait … another example … well, I’m getting away from Haig. But so, I did a play in Washington, and it was a new Soviet play at the height of the Cold War. And everybody from the Right came … Haig, McFarland …

HEFFNER: Why did … why did they …

WALLACH: Because they wanted to see a play about the Soviet Union … it was, it was done by Joe Papp at the Public Theatre, it was a lovely play about bureaucracy, and it was refreshing to see that even the Russians were beginning to say, “What have we made here? This monstrous bureaucracy,” and it was a lovely play. I don’t know if you saw it.


WALLACH: It’s a lovely play … it was called The Nest of the Wood Grouse. Now, the wood grouse in Russia, the male during the mating season goes deaf …

HEFFNER: Self protection.

WALLACH: It’s self protection. And, and when a Russian doesn’t see, doesn’t answer questions, is unaware of what’s happening around him, he’s … they call him a wood grouse. So that was the play. So, General Haig, Ambassador … NATO, all of that, Secretary of State came back stage, and we chatted. And I said, “Let’s have lunch.” He said, “Fine.” I said, “I’ll take you to lunch, but we’ll discuss only one subject, if you don’t mind.” He said, “What?” I said, “Cambodia.” He said, “Cambodia?” I said, “Yes.” And the only ground rule is you mustn’t say to me, “Well, there are certain elements secret that I cannot divulge.” Well, we had a lovely lunch in which I had all my things about Cambodia and what they were doing, and at the end, he said, “You know, there are certain things I cannot divulge.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter) So there was great satisfaction on your part for being able to be Citizen Wallach and say all the things on your mind.


HEFFNER: A man who worked for an actor who became President of the United States and I can’t help but think that you were capitalizing, if I may use that word, not on your citizenship, but on your power, as your strength as the person on that stage. Huh?


HEFFNER: Why not?

WALLACH: I gave him the invitation, so … I, I said … I looked at him with, with great regard and said, “Can we have lunch. I would like to … I’d like to pick your brain, I’d like to find out what it’s like.” I had a long talk with Blackman … Justice Blackman not long ago. I, I find it intriguing that these … there’s one man, a stalwart in the Court, who’s getting old now, who says, “I don’t know if I can hold out much longer.” But, but the wheel spins round, I think eventually the court will come back to a balance.

HEFFNER: A balance which way?

WALLACH: It doesn’t matter. I love the fact that there are people in there who say … I mean, what’s his name, the Italian one …

HEFFNER: Scalia.

WALLACH: Scalia … has a mind like a razor … he’s … you know, I mean he’s good to be in there because he’s, he’s an objector, a dissenter and so on. And it’s refreshing to have people in there like that. I’d love to be on the court and fight with him.

HEFFNER: You don’t have to be a lawyer, you told me that already, so …

WALLACH: Yeah. I wish Cuomo had gone, but he … I don’t know …

HEFFNER: I think you’ve just expressed what a lot of people (laughter) think. They don’t know.


HEFFNER: Well, we have a minute … minute and a half left … let me ask you …

WALLACH: That’s all?

HEFFNER: That’s all … I’m sorry … we can’t do anything even on television to stretch a half hour …

WALLACH: I thought I’d solve all the problems …

HEFFNER: No, the one that remains. What do you think the power of the media will come to be? Will it be lessened in political life? Will it be increased? What do you see in the years ahead?

WALLACH: When I was a little boy, my mother said, “You have just so many words programmed in you, so before you get rid of these … lose these words … think.” And I didn’t speak very much as a little boy … I kept thinking, “My God …” Then I came on a solution, if I died before I used up my quota of words, where did those words go? In the library. In the library. So I’m very devoted to books and to the library, and to going to read, read, read, read. Literacy, that’s important to me. Today the TV media, I mean, it happens, you see it … you see those people burning to death … the first eight items on any TV show are a rape, a fire, a shooting, a taxi cab’s crashing, an airplane thing … it’s all havoc … you don’t see people celebrating their 30th anniversary. Or people saying, “let’s go on a trip,” or discussing music. And TV as is corrupt in, in terms of selling themselves out, as any other … the other medium. The New York Times is all the print that’s fitted, not the print … fit to print … it’s fitted. The fact that one critic in The New York Times can make or break the fate of a play is disgraceful. In Europe, the critics fight amongst themselves, the play runs on. Here the man says … two minutes they allow … less than that … on television and, and the four TV critics say, “I give it one ashcan …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WALLACH: … I think it’s worth this. Or don’t go.” How dare they? How dare they?

HEFFNER: The power of the media, second only perhaps to the power of the media, to the stage and film. Don’t forget that. And I think that when we get together next time, because we have to get together again on, on, on these issues, we’ll find that increasingly you’re going to be saying these negative things about the media, and I suspect that increasingly you’re going to be ready to go into politics. And now you’ve expressed your point of view … I want to thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

WALLACH: It went very fast.

HEFFNER: It always does. Thanks, Eli.


HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

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

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America..