RIP Eli Wallach, who has died at the ripe old age of 98.
If you know him for only one role it’s Tuco in Sergio Leone’s seminal 1966 Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Quite right too – he was brilliantly convincing (and funny) as the Machiavellian bandit who is by turns adversary, grudging partner and nursemaid to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. He also played another Mexican bandit, in another classic Western – The Magnificent Seven – and it was a surprise to me when he turned out in real life to be not very swarthy and Jewish.
Other roles that stand out for me include obsessive art collector Davis Leland, opposite Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn in overlooked 1966 crime caper How to Steal a Million. Clean-shaven with slicked-back hair and expensive suits Wallach looked as far as possible from Tuco but still channeled the same greasy, gimlet-eyed avarice to great comic effect.
Wallach was in numerous films and TV over the next four decades, and I was always pleased to spot him, but it was in his 90s that I started to notice again how his quality could elevate something above the ordinary. He was heartbreaking as a lost, dying patient in an episode of Nurse Jackie and was by far the best thing alongside Kate Winslet and co in romcom The Holiday in 2006, where he was warm, twinkly and young at heart. I like to believe that was who he really was. Which is how a great actor makes you feel – and Eli Wallach was a great actor.