Actor Eli Wallach discusses the evolution of American motion picture content.
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GUEST: Eli Wallach
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I’d like to think a fairly good neighbor, too, which, of course, as I’ve noted before … here in Manhattan could actually mean no more than sharing the same elevator line, something my wife and I delightedly do with Eli Wallach, my guest today, and with his lovely wife Anne Jackson, both wonderfully talented actors.
Well, when Eli has been here before I’ve noted that for nearly a half century now, actually only one other actor, Robert Redford, has joined me here on The Open Mind. Perhaps because I’m so much in awe of these clever men and women who at will can put on and take off new identities, whether on the stage, in film or on television.
But now my guest today has become an author, too, of Harcourt’s wonderful new, “The Good, the Bad … and Me” with its delightful subtitle, “In My Anecdotage”. About which Clint Eastwood has written, “Unlike many books these days, these one is terribly accurate. Working with Eli Wallach was one of the great pleasures of my life, he is an extremely versatile actor and now a fine story-teller”.
The late Arthur Miller wrote that, “Eli Wallach is the happiest good actor I’ve ever known. He really enjoys the work, just as he must have enjoyed writing this probably true book.”
Mike Nichols writes, “Eli Wallach is almost as good a writer as he is an actor, which is … very.”
And I say this is a great read, go out and buy Eli Wallach’s new book, you’ll love it. But first join Eli and me in our anecdotage as I ask him first, just why he was sputtering so on the telephone the other evening about some foul mouthed play he had just seen when nearly fifty years ago Time magazine wrote about his very first film, “Baby Doll”, “this is just possibly the dirtiest American movie ever legally exhibited with priapian detail that might well have embarrassed Boccaccio.” So, Eli, do you think we’re just getting to be old fuddy-duddies.
WALLACH: I’d rather be an old fuddy-duddy than a dirty old man.
HEFFNER: Not both?
WALLACH: No. No. I didn’t know the, the meaning of “priapian”, so I rushed to the dictionary and read it. I didn’t know I was involved in any such thing when we made the film. One of, one of the critics said, “Where was his hand in the scene on the swing?”
HEFFNER: Where was it?
WALLACH: It was October or November in Mississippi and it was very cold and there was a heating unit down below and that’s where my hand was. But they were suggesting that my hand was on a vital part of the young lady … Carol Baker.
HEFFNER: So don’t avoid the question … seriously. There this dirtiest of all American films … presumably, at least Time magazine said so, and now you’re talking to me on the telephone the other evening and you’re sputtering about the, the nature of something you had just seen and heard.
WALLACH: When I first started to make television, do television appearances, you couldn’t say “damn”. You had to … you couldn’t share the bed with a woman on, on television. Now, it’s all fair game … everything.
HEFFNER: And you don’t like it?
WALLACH: No, I don’t.
WALLACH: I always used to say that the more you cursed; it showed that you had no language ability … no, no sense of what a good sentence was. My mother used to say to me, “Eli, you are … we all have just so many words programmed into us. It’s a quota, so don’t use, don’t use too many words”. So I didn’t speak much as a boy.
The day before yesterday I was in the Library of Congress in Washington, the most beautiful building in Washington and I couldn’t figure out how to use language … then I thought “Wait a minute; if you die before you’ve used up your quota, it ends up in the library.” So I was always in the libraries as a kid. I loved to read. You don’t read any more. People don’t read anymore, it’s all TV now.
HEFFNER: Look, you’re not complaining too much about that, are you? Is it really so much worse now than it was? Have we gone down hill? Didn’t our grandparents and parents say the same thing about what was happening …
WALLACH: Yes …
HEFFNER: … when we were young?
WALLACH: … I guess they did, but I’m old now and so I can indulge in saying I don’t like the language used on television today. I just don’t.
HEFFNER: But, of course, it all began in that other medium of yours …
HEFFNER: That’s where the baaad things happened.
WALLACH: Yeah, but … you turn on Turner Classic films now and you watch and you see wonderful old movies. “Dangerous” the language was not … I watched Cary Grant yesterday in a thing called “Monkey Business”. And it was wonderful, a wonderful movie. Today you use the word “f” 16 times in every … every four minutes on the screen. I don’t like it.
HEFFNER: So where are we going? To hell in a wheelbarrow?
WALLACH: Well, I don’t know. I just like to excite people. I like people to share, share ideas. I, I … Bill Moyers had a program which was wonderful called … “Now”?
WALLACH: “Now”. And it was investigative reporting. That I found very exciting. Today I watched a lot of TV and everybody yells at one another. They scream at one another. Nobody listens to what the other person is saying, but the all talk together at the same … at the same time and it doesn’t please … it doesn’t please me at all.
HEFFNER: Eli, what is the medium of choice for Eli Wallach?
WALLACH: The theater.
HEFFNER: Theater? Still?
WALLACH: Because you get … because a playwright sits down and plans out something and you as the actor, have to obey everything he wrote. We’ve spent years with Tennessee Williams, years with Arthur Miller, years with Murray Schisgal my favorite new one. And all of them were involved in stimulating the mind. Like yours … The Open Mind … today they don’t stimulate very much.
HEFFNER: Theater … or the other media? When you say, “today they don’t stimulate very much” are you comparing the theater today with the theatre before, or are you saying “the other media”?
WALLACH: No. I think, I think there are a lot of good playwrights today. But the theater has dwindled; it now is … musicals mostly and off-Broadway; off-Broadway. But the United States is rich in tiny theaters all across the country. And in every city there’s a regional theater where people can watch plays of, of meaning. And that’s what’s … enriches my life and what should enrich the lives of those who watch them.
HEFFNER: So you’re saying the theater was, could still be, and in some places, many places outside of the big cities, is involved with ideas … thoughts.
WALLACH: Exactly. Yes. Yes. You put it very well.
HEFFNER: Well, I’m just parroting my friend Eli Wallach when you’re saying the rest of it is musicals. But what we’re talking about “they”, who do the musicals know where the audience is.
WALLACH: Oh yes. Oh yes. But some of the musicals were great in those days. I mean “Guys and Dolls” is a great, great musical. “Oklahoma” all of them was wonderful, wonderful treat for the viewer. Today … I don’t know … I … there’s a thing called Encore where they revive little pieces of great, great musicals in the past. A treat to watch. Today …
HEFFNER: You know there’s, there’s a phrase that you use here and I suppose I should have heard it or remembered it, because you say “the theater has often been called the “fabulous invalid”. Why? Why, why that …
WALLACH: Because it always seems to be on the verge of dying and yet it, it revives itself … every, every once in a while a great playwright comes along and the theater has a new lien on life again. Yes, because look what happened. You had the theater, you had the storytellers in, in the jungles. Then you had the theater with great, great Shakespeare, great dealers of the past. Up comes films … radio, films, television … all of them and they have not be able to put away “The Fabulous Invalid”. We’re still alive and we’re still functioning.
HEFFNER: Eli, when you talk about functioning, you talk about ideas … the theater is where ideas come to the surface. How do you distinguish between the writer of plays and the actor of plays?
WALLACH: In my training at the Neighborhood Playhouse or at the Actors Studio, we don’t make up the language, we, we obey what’s written by the playwright … and that’s … the challenge is to bring his, his words to life. And that’s what we do.
HEFFNER: You’re not tempted to …
WALLACH: Make up words?
HEFFNER: Do more? Well, I don’t even know whether it’s make up words so much as to change in your presentation of those words what you know …
HEFFNER: … to be the author’s, the writer’s meaning.
WALLACH: I, I always say that the author is the great composer. The actor is the one who brings back to life what the playwright has written. So, it … it’s like I play an instrument … when a director casts it … he knows what the music should be. I am the orchestra player so I bring to life what the writer has written and the director has created with the author. I am just carrying out what they want me to do.
HEFFNER: Okay. Then tell me, what makes a great actor?
WALLACH: When, when you mentioned Arthur Miller’s thing he said, “Eli Wallach is probably the best good actor I’ve ever known”. I said, “What do you mean ‘good’? Why not great? Why not great”. I don’t know what makes the actor great. I don’t know. Talent? You’re born with it. Anne … my wife says … Anne says, as a wife, that’s par for the course. Be a mother, a wife, have children, but the other part, the talent part, the actor part is there for you to … you have to have it.
HEFFNER: Well, the people who’ve commented on your book talk about the happiest, good actor … great actor … okay, I’ll use that word. You are the happiest guy I know.
WALLACH: Well, I enjoy what I do. I’ve never lost my appetite. When I was a little boy my bed was the Sahara Desert … it was sand … I had seen “Beau Geste” … and I would lie on the bed, I was in the Foreign Legion and I was getting shot and lying there. My mother would come in and say, “Eli, come …
WALLACH: …come and eat”. And I’d say, “Look, Ma, I’m bleeding … I have no, no … I’m going, I’m going.” And she’d walk out. And I knew then she’d lay out the food for me to eat. But that I was in my glory … acting.
HEFFNER: So, when you talk about a good, a great actor, you’re talking about an imagination. A creative imagination.
WALLACH: True. True. Don’t forget I’ve worked with Charles Laughton, Wilfred Lawson … who else … there are …
HEFFNER: They’re all in the book.
WALLACH: They’re all in the book. Henry Fonda. I spent two years with Henry Fonda. Peter O’Toole, Al Pacino. All of them are in the book. All of them have their way of making an indentation, making you aware of what life is like. And I … to be a part of that business, to be a part of that work, is, is always enriching for me.
HEFFNER: Well, you know you say what life is like. And I … in this wonderful book …and a plug again for “The Good, the Bad … and Me” … although I liked the subtitle best of all “In My Anecdotage” … when you write the Chapter 12 on an actor’s dilemma.
You’re back in New York now, you’ve shaved off your “Baby Doll” mustache and “Set out to honor my agreement to return to the cast of ‘Tea House of the August Moon’ …” and then you talk about those last words, “with a heavy heart I stepped in front of the bamboo curtain and uttered my last lines for the final time”; and as you write this in your wonderful book, I think … Eli Wallach is saying something more. He’s giving us something that … talking about ideas … is so close to him … a little story now concluded … history of world unfinished … lovely ladies, kind gentlemen … go home to ponder what was true at beginning, remains true … pain make man think … thought make man wise … wisdom make life endurable.
I had the feeling that if there’s a motto to Eli Wallach’s life … it is summed up there in those last words.
WALLACH: Well I, I love that … but that’s written by the author.
HEFFNER: I understand.
WALLACH: By John Patrick.
HEFFNER: But you … here it is … it’s in your book and it’s something that obviously meant so much to you and means so much to you.
WALLACH: I spent two years doing that play. I went to do my first film. When it was over I rushed back to do … to continue as an Okinawin. One time the stage manager said there’s somebody important out front. I said, please don’t tell me that … I don’t want to … it makes me nervous. But I came out and I bowed and I bowed and I … it was in London … and I went … and it was Winston Churchill. And he had a little device and he went like this (hand to ear) … it was a hearing aid. And I didn’t know if he turned it off …
WALLACH: … or turned it on … and I spent the rest of the play thinking “is it on … is it off … is it on … is it off”. Those are things that make my life richer. Playing on a stage.
HEFFNER: Well you know, playing on the stage. But I also suspect that the recognition of you by Winston Churchill and others … when we walked into the studio today … I’ve walked into this building hundreds and hundreds of times now and nobody will raise an eyebrow. You walk in and people are waving to you. You also must derive something from your connection with the great of our society; not just good actors … great actors … great participants on the world stage with whom you’ve had some contact. You’ve told me about some of them before.
WALLACH: Oh, yeah. Charles Laughton. Henry Fonda.
HEFFNER: Well, I don’t mean those … I mean the … I’m trying to think of a story you told here at this table once about, about some major figure on the world stage … and I’m talking about those political people, those world leaders … because you don’t hide your political thinking, you don’t hide your thoughts. You’re very, very out … and crusade or campaign for things. Has that meant a lot to you, your ability to put your two cents in with the makers and the shakers?
WALLACH: But being an actor doesn’t mean I’m a second class citizen. I have to be a participant in the society. So if I … am unhappy about something I speak out. And I, I should.
HEFFNER: Are you happy about the degree to which second hand citizenship has been rejected by any number of actors who have now gone on to … if, if it’s correct to say “gone on to” … political life.
WALLACH: No. I think they have a perfect right to go on to political life.
HEFFNER: I’m not talking about “right”. Sure, even I have a right to do that. I’m talking about how pleased you are about the actors who are now … have become senators and governors and President.
HEFFNER: You like it.
WALLACH: Yes. I think it’s fine. I think … a lot of times actors speak out are punished for speaking out. I think it’s good and healthy for people to speak out. Whether they make a point, or disappoint or make people unhappy, they should speak out. And I think it’s healthy for a society.
HEFFNER: And the track record of those who have done so? How would you … as another “speaker-outer” judge them?
WALLACH: Well, in the fifties you had to be extremely careful because you were punished for your thoughts. Now I think it’s healthy to speak out. And I do.
HEFFNER: Any repercussions?
WALLACH: Some. Sometimes, yes.
HEFFNER: What about in the theater?
WALLACH: No. The theater was very healthy. The theater never indulged in blacklisting. Never.
HEFFNER: How come?
WALLACH: I don’t know. Because it felt it was a society that protected the idea and the thoughts that were on, on the stage. And therefore it was not to be meddled with.
HEFFNER: You mean it was part of that … what you described before, of your respect for the words and ideas of those who had written …
HEFFNER: … the copy that you would then act out.
WALLACH: I mean Shakespeare … Shakespeare wrote things that your hair stands up on the back of your neck when you, when you read what he wrote. And all of it. When Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, all of them are very, very generous in exploring the inner thoughts of what’s to appear on a stage. And we’re lucky to have had them. And I keep thinking now you have Tennessee Williams, you have Arthur Miller, you have … I always throw in Murray Schisgal because I felt very rich to have worked with Murray.
HEFFNER: And you’re talking about people who are off the stage now.
WALLACH: Yes. Well, we have to go when we have to go.
HEFFNER: No. But I’m … are “we” being followed in turn by those who express the ideas that you feel the stage is meant to express?
WALLACH: I do. I think, I think the use of the word … of language … of thought is, is what counts. I mean who cares about … well, I make silly statements … but I think we’re richer for having the arts. A painter. We were in the museum yesterday to see Diane Arbus’ photos. The world is richer for its art.
HEFFNER: You think that we continue to recognize that sufficiently. You’re an optimist, aren’t you? You … basically … you … I’ve heard you complain about a lot of things that are going on, but basically you think that human spirit will survive.
WALLACH: I do. I do. Otherwise, what’s the point of going on? Yes. You have to, you have to enjoy what’s there.
HEFFNER: And in the other mass media … television, film … what’s your prognosis? You continue to act.
WALLACH: I do.
HEFFNER: I mean in, in … you certainly continue in, in film.
HEFFNER: You like it, by the way?
WALLACH: I do. I sneered. At, at the beginning I thought, no, it’s mechanical. But then I realized how difficult it is. Good film work is, is brilliant, brilliant. It’ reminds me of “pointillism”. You put little dots on, on a piece of art …
WALLACH: And you step aside, step back and there you have … you see, you see pictures. I think growing up and watching as a little boy … Westerns, I never realized I’d wind up on horses, riding … spaghetti Westerns … it’s always fun for me to indulge in that mysterious world.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, you talk about the spaghetti Westerns and I think of the fact that I think of Eli Wallach … not just as my neighbor, but I think of you in terms of the spaghetti Westerns and I think of you in terms of “Tea House” and what an incredible contrast there is, in my mind, but I guess you’ve integrated the theater and ideas with the spaghetti Westerns.
WALLACH: Well, if you look at “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, Sergio Leone did … as an Italian … did research on the Civil War that was rarely done in American film. And Clint Eastwood … bless him … began to do and analyze just what Leone did … the clothing they wore, the way they walked, the way they rode, all of that … is a part of our history. And I’m lucky to have shared in it.
I spent three and a half months in the jungles in Cambodia in Ankor Wat. Part of the United States was preparing to go to war in Viet Nam, and I’m making movies of … based on a book by Joseph Conrad … what was it called … what was the name of it …
HEFFNER: Which one?
WALLACH: Lord Jim.
HEFFNER: Lord Jim?
WALLACH: Yeah. So, here I was, an actor in the jungles, playing as a half-breed warlord … and I’m thinking to myself … “I’m from Brooklyn, what the hell am I doing here in the jungles?”
WALLACH: But it’s always a challenge to me and a treat for me to indulge in these fantasies.
HEFFNER: What’s up, next … we’ve got one minute left. What can we expect?
WALLACH: I, I hope I’m going to do a film … Spike Lee is going to direct, with …
HEFFNER: Denzel Washington …
WALLACH: Denzel Washington …
HEFFNER: Isn’t that the one with Washington …
WALLACH: Yeah. And I’m going to play an old Jewish owner of a lot of banks. And it’s … it will be a challenge for me to create this man … with, with Spike’s guidance.
HEFFNER: A film Mr. Green?
WALLACH: I’m working on that. I wish it would happen.
HEFFNER: I wish it would, too. That was one of the most delightful, most intriguing plays I’ve seen Eli Wallach in.
WALLACH: Thank you. Thank you.
HEFFNER: Eli, I appreciate so much the fact that you’ve become an author … “The Good, the Bad …and Me: In My Anecdotage”. And I hope everybody does go out and get … not their fill of Eli Wallach, because there’s so much more to come. Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.
WALLACH: Thank you.
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.