Eli Herschel Wallach was born at Union Street, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, in December 1915. One of four children, he grew up above Bertha’s candy store, managed by his Polish immigrant parents – one of the few Jewish businesses in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood. Two months previously, Arthur Miller had been born in Harlem; while Elia Kazan, born in Istanbul in 1909, was living in New York with his Greek Orthodox family.
‘Even in my earliest memories, my wish was always the same: I wanted to be an actor,’ Wallach wrote in his 2005 memoir, The Good, the Bad and Me. As a child, he watched puppet shows at the La Luna Theatre, and read out comic strips at the local boys’ club. ‘Movies always made a deep impression on me,’ he recalled. On Saturdays at the Rialto, he saw Westerns starring Tom Mix, a denizen of the silent era; serials like The Perils of Pauline; and the bloody epic, Beau Geste.
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles, 1926, acted out all the parts in radio serial, The Lone Ranger as a child. Her mother was a film cutter, and Norma Jeane grew up idolising the stars of the 1930s, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Coming from a troubled background, movies and the dream of acting provided her with a chance to escape.
After the Mafia infiltrated Union Street, the Wallachs moved to Flatbush, where Eli joined a Dramatics Club. ‘Memorizing was easy for me,’ he discovered, after playing his first lead role. He graduated high school in 1932, and though funds were low, his older brother Sam – now a teacher – encouraged him to study for a Liberal Arts degree at the University of Texas in Austin, as the college charged out-of-state students just $30 a year.
‘Texas?’ Eli retorted. ‘That’s where cowboys come from. Why should cowboys go to college?’ For the first few months, he confessed, ‘I felt as if I’d landed on another planet.’ The racial segregation of the South was very different to the ‘mixed neighbourhood’ Eli was raised in, though he admitted that he knew few black people at home.
While in Texas he learned to ride horses, and saw Walter Huston in Dodsworth. After the play, Eli told the venerable actor that he wanted to perform as well. ‘We all do, kid,’ an unimpressed Huston replied. ‘We all do.’ Eli also met Walter Cronkite, who would later become a respected journalist, and Zachary Scott – ‘the first actor I met who wore an earring’ – while appearing in Noel Coward’s Private Lives at Austin’s Curtain Club.
After graduating in 1936, Eli returned to New York and told his sceptical father of his ambition to be an actor. After failing a teaching exam, Eli persuaded his parents to let him audition for the Neighbourhood Playhouse Theatre School on East 54th St. He was accepted, with a warning: ‘It’ll take you about twenty years to become an actor.’
The ‘twenty-year doubter’ was Sanford Meisner, who developed ‘a method of acting that grounded the actor in reality, ridding us of our bad habits and our singsong vocal deliveries.’ Meisner’s technique was unusual. ‘For one month we moved about like animals, not using words but speaking gibberish. We made animal sounds instead of delivering lines. I wondered when we’d ever get to do a scene.’
Among Eli’s fellow students were Gregory Peck, and Tony Randall. Like Arthur Miller, Eli was inspired by the plays of Clifford Odets, which brought working-class life onto Broadway for the first time. Then in 1941, Eli was conscripted. On December 1941 – his 26th birthday – Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Eli spent the next five years fighting on the coast of Africa, and was stationed for a time in Casablanca.
Meanwhile, sixteen year-old Norma Jeane married her steady boyfriend, Jim Dougherty, in 1942. At first they were happy enough, dancing ‘the lindy’ (a kind of acrobatic jitterbug, according to biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles) on Saturday nights. The marriage collapsed when Jimmie joined the Marines, and Norma Jeane began a modelling career. In 1946, the twenty year-old divorcee signed a stock contract with Twentieth Century Fox under a new name, Marilyn Monroe.
After World War II ended, Broadway enjoyed a revival. Eli returned to New York, determined to resume his acting career. One of the first people he called was Elia Kazan, now one of America’s finest directors. Soon after, another friend suggested Eli for the lead role in This Property is Condemned, by upcoming playwright Tennessee Williams. Eli began a romance with his co-star, Anne Jackson, who at twenty was ten years his junior. He soon moved into her Greenwich Village apartment, which they sublet for a summer to a promising young actor, Marlon Brando.
Eli married Anne in 1948, and their son Peter was born a year later. After a year in Cheryl Crawford’s American Repertory Theatre, the couple enrolled in the newly-formed Actors Studio. They were taught by Robert Lewis, alongside Brando, Tom Ewell, David Wayne, Maureen Stapleton, and Joan Copeland Arthur Miller’s sister.) Lee Strasberg taught the younger group, including Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick, Shelley Winters, and Kim Stanley.
After Crawford and Kazan left the Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg – ‘Some exercises in the Studio drove me crazy – bringing up painful childhood memories,’ Eli wrote in his autobiography, while Anne Jackson later told author Joanne Kaufman that Strasberg ‘sometimes got into areas that were better left to a psychiatrist.’ Nonetheless, Eli ‘enjoyed working with Lee, particularly when he taught us about emotional memory, which was a technique of transplanting emotional moments from our own lives into what a particular script required.’
Joshua Logan became a guest moderator, and cast Eli opposite Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts, replacing Steven Hill. David Wayne was also in the cast. In 1951, Eli won the role of truck driver Alvaro Mangiacavallo in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. His co-star was Maureen Stapleton, and Don Murray played a minor role. Eli’s performance established him as one of Broadway’s finest actors.
In 1952, David Wayne called Eli from Los Angeles about a movie role in Tonight We Sing. Eli toured the Twentieth Century-Fox lot and made a screen test with Anne Bancroft for director Jean Negulesco and producer George Jessel, but did not get the part. He was later contacted by Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Studios, at the behest of casting director Max Arnow, who was impressed by his screen test for From Here to Eternity. Cohn commented that Eli looked like a ‘hebe’ – an Italian slur.
‘I’m f—ing well offended,’ Eli told Cohn over the phone. ‘Your name is Harry Cohn. How can you make a remark like that?’ Cohn was also Jewish-born, and like Eli had grown up in Brooklyn. After hearing that Elia Kazan wanted him to star in a new Williams play, Camino Real, he turned down the role of Angelo Maggio. Eli’s replacement, Frank Sinatra, won an Oscar for the part, and was eternally grateful to Wallach for reviving his career.
Marilyn Monroe also served a long apprenticeship, at least by Hollywood standards. In Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe (2014), Gary Vitacco-Robles noted that her screen test for George Jessel’s shelved Cold Shoulder, in which she was ‘strong and convincing’ as a gangster’s moll, ‘would foreshadow the confrontation scene with Eli Wallach.’
In 1948, Marilyn had been fired from Columbia, after purportedly refusing Harry Cohn’s sexual advances. Almost three years later, she accompanied her new friends, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, to Cohn’s office to discuss Miller’s screenplay, Red Hook. Miller had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman. Nonetheless, Cohn denounced his script as ‘communist’ and was further incensed by Marilyn’s presence. The film was never made, but staged as A View From the Bridge years later.
Despite being given minor, decorative roles in bland movies such as Let’s Make it Legal – in which she danced with Zachary Scott – Marilyn made an impact, and became the favourite pin-up of troops in the Korean War. In 1952, she made a cameo appearance opposite the great British actor, Charles Laughton, in O. Henry’s Full House. And in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Marilyn proved herself a forceful actress. Making her film debut, Anne Bancroft commented, ‘I really reacted to her. She moved me so that tears came into my eyes.’
By 1953, Marilyn was the brightest star in Hollywood, after playing a vamp in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, and a gold-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Hathaway described Marilyn as ‘the greatest natural talent I’ve directed.’ She developed her gift for comedy in Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire, alongside David Wayne. Her marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio lasted just nine months, and in late 1954, she left her hometown of Los Angeles for New York.
Marilyn, Eli and the Method
Encouraged by her friend, Shelley Winters, Marilyn had long dreamed of joining the Actor’s Studio. She discussed it with Paula and Susan Strasberg while filming There’s No Business Like Show Business. After arriving in New York, she met Cheryl Crawford, who arranged an informal interview with Lee Strasberg. She began attending classes as an observer, while studying privately with Lee.
After taking the role of Sakini in a London tour of Teahouse of the August Moon, Eli agreed to replace David Wayne in the Broadway production. ‘I first met Marilyn when she came backstage,’ he wrote. ‘After that night’s performance, a press agent had ushered her into my dressing room – I remember that she looked nothing like the movie star I’d seen onscreen; she wore a simple dress and had short blond hair. She was pale, shy, and wore no lipstick.’
‘The first thing she said to me was, how do you do a whole play?’ Eli recalled. ‘Though she was by now perhaps the world’s most famous movie star, she had never appeared in a play, and she seemed both awed and curious about it. I had the impression that she might not have ever seen a stage production. After we’d talked for a while, she asked if she could come see the show again and watch from backstage. I told her I was afraid that management wouldn’t allow it, so she said she’d watch from the balcony, which she did many times after our first meeting.’
In fact, Marilyn had played a small part in a 1947 play, and had seen Teahouse of the August Moon a few months previously, when her former co-star, David Wayne, had played Sakini. However, the theatre was undoubtedly a very different, exciting world to Marilyn. She would watch many plays over the next year or two, including Paddy Chayevsky’s Middle of the Night – which Anne Jackson later toured, and was filmed with Kim Novak after initially being considered for Marilyn.
Marilyn and Eli quickly became firm friends. In fact, they were seen together so often that gossip began to circulate. ‘I followed her up Broadway, while she was walking with Eli Wallach,’ actor Stefan Gierasch told Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed (2012.) ‘She had grease on her face and was dressed down, but everyone still recognised her. Everyone always wondered if she was secretly dating Eli, but they never knew for sure.’
‘In the street heads would turn to stare or ogle whereas a moment before everyone had passed her by,’ wrote Anthony Summers, who interviewed Wallach for Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1985.) ‘”I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,” Marilyn would murmur.’
‘Wallach was bemused by the contradictions in her,’ Anthony Summers wrote. ‘In the summer of 1955, when Seven Year Itch was about to open in New York, he sat watching with Marilyn as workmen erected a forty-foot-high poster of the famous skirt scene. Only the bottom half, showing her legs and upper thighs, was in place. As a huge crane lowered the cutout image of her torso into position, Marilyn mused,” That’s the way they think of me, with my skirt over my head.” Wallach said, “She didn’t seem to mind. She accepted it.”’
Years before, Marilyn had named Wallach among a list of men she would like to sleep with, in conversation with Shelley Winters. After meeting Eli, however, her feelings were platonic. She once gave him a book of Einstein’s collected letters, signing it ‘to my brother.’ Poet Norman Rosten, photographer Sam Shaw, and masseur Ralph Roberts were among Marilyn’s other surrogate siblings. She nicknamed Eli ‘Teahouse.’
The gift became a running joke between Marilyn and Eli, as Einstein had also been on her infamous ‘list.’ After Marilyn died, Shelley Winters saw a framed photo of the great scientist among her friend’s personal effects, inscribed ‘To my darling Marilyn, Albert Einstein.’ In fact, Marilyn never met Einstein – his signature had been faked by the mischievous Eli.
‘One time when Marilyn and I were cavorting on the dancefloor,’ Eli remembered, ‘I looked up to the balcony, where I noticed Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn’s husband of the time, Joe DiMaggio, watching us. I gulped and said that I didn’t feel like dancing anymore. She looked up at them and smiled. “The hell with them,” she said, “Let’s keep going!”’
Marilyn became a regular guest at the Wallachs’ home, eating traditional Jewish fare such as bagels and gefilte fish. She occasionally volunteered as a babysitter for their four year-old son, Peter. In August 1955, their daughter Roberta was born – followed by Katherine in 1958.
Eli often discussed literature with Marilyn, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. He suggested ‘that she read the last chapter of it. At lunch a week later, she told me that she couldn’t believe her eyes. “How could the publishers ever put that in a book?”’ she asked, referring to Molly Bloom’s sensual soliloquy (which she would later perform for the Strasbergs.)
‘Oh,’ Eli replied. ‘The Supreme Court finally allowed it.’
‘I told Twentieth Century-Fox and the press that I want to play Grushenka in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov,’ she confided. ‘They all laughed, but none of them have read the book; I call them 19th Century Fox.’ Wallach recalled that ‘I was impressed with her adjustment to the world of the theatre and her determination to remake her image, also with her professionalism.’
Marilyn also gave Eli business advice. ‘She once even helped me rewrite a contract to make sure that I got the best possible deal,’ he revealed. ‘I remember her putting on her little Ben Franklin spectacles to read the contract. “All right,” she told me, “take out clauses three and four. And make sure they clarify your billing.”’
Their friendship helped Marilyn to relax in the intense environment of the Actors Studio, where she often felt intimidated and judged by others. ‘After shows at night, a lot of actors would gather at Downey’s on 8th Avenue to eat, drink and talk shop, and Marilyn often joined us,’ Eli recalled. ‘”I enjoy the people here,” she said of the actors she met from the Studio. “They love their work, they listen, and they look you in the eye.”’
Away from the cutthroat atmosphere of Hollywood, Marilyn reaped the benefits of belonging to a community of actors. But she was still unsure of herself. ‘In an early observation, Marilyn watched Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton perform and was moved to tears by their emoting until Strasberg delivered thirty minutes of sharp criticism,’ Gary Vitacco-Robles wrote. ‘Marilyn panicked and second-guessed her own judgment about acting.’
By 1956, however, Marilyn’s confidence was growing. Actor Earle Hyman explained to Michelle Morgan how Marilyn supported him in his first scene at the Studio. ‘People were quite nice about it but then Eli Wallach said, “I don’t think Earle’s work was clear.” There was a silence and a pause and everyone turned to Marilyn who had raised her hand for the first time ever. She said, “Well I don’t know, Lee, but it seems to me that life is sometimes unclear.” I thought she was extremely brave to stand up and say that and I never forgot it.’
‘To be a superstar and all the things it entails is an awful pressure,’ Maureen Stapleton told Sandra Shevey, author of The Marilyn Scandal (1987.) ‘Eli once told me, “Hey, she’s smart.” And I said, “I know she’s smart.”’ In her 1983 autobiography, actress Carroll Baker recalled Wallach, Elia Kazan and others ‘making a beeline’ for Marilyn when she visited the Studio.
Eli was in the audience when Marilyn finally performed a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Studio, with Stapleton as Marthy. ‘The other members of the Studio sat quietly as Marilyn played the scene simply and with self-assurance,’ he remarked.
Marilyn had hoped to play the title role in Tennessee Williams’ first screenplay, Baby Doll, opposite Marlon Brando. But director Elia Kazan chose Eli and Carroll Baker instead. Marilyn served as a ‘celebrity usherette’ at a preview of Baby Doll, and also attended the premiere. Eli’s movie debut as the vengeful Silva Vaccaro – another Italian character – was explosive, and the film was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency as ‘the dirtiest picture ever made.’
Marilyn would soon make her triumphant comeback opposite Hollywood newcomer Don Murray in Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop, prompting the New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther, to remark, ‘Hold onto your chairs, everybody, and get set for a rattling surprise. Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress in Bus Stop. She and the picture are swell!’
In early 1955, Marilyn enjoyed a brief fling with Marlon Brando, who became a lifelong friend. A few months later, she attended a party with the Wallachs, where she was reunited with Arthur Miller. In Marilyn Monroe (1998), Barbara Leaming notes that Miller left alone, and the Wallachs took a ‘disappointed’ Marilyn back to her suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Soon after, however, Arthur asked Paula Strasberg for Marilyn’s phone number, and a passionate affair began. Miller often joined Marilyn and Eli for dinner at Downey’s, and while gossips speculated that Eli was acting as a ‘beard’ for the clandestine couple, he denied this – pointing out that he had not known Arthur well before meeting Marilyn.
After Baby Doll, Eli’s fame increased. He was directed by Charles Laughton in a Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. Throughout the 1950s, Wallach made frequent forays into the new medium of television, mostly in one-off plays. His performance as an unhinged murderer in Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup, was highly regarded.
‘Did making movies mean that I would only play villains – a vengeful Sicilian, a hired killer?’ Like Marilyn, Eli worried that he would soon be typecast. Back in New York, he saw Sir Laurence Olivier in John Osborne’s play, The Entertainer. While sceptical of Method acting, Olivier accompanied Wallach to a class at the Actors Studio. Later that year, Eli made the first of four classic Westerns – The Magnificent Seven.
After marrying Arthur Miller in 1956, Marilyn starred with Sir Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl – a film she also produced. Olivier had little patience with her intuitive style of acting, and the pair clashed. She then took a break from her career, living quietly with Miller in the countryside, where she suffered the first of two miscarriages.
In 1959, Monroe’s most enduringly popular film – Some Like it Hot – was released. Behind the scenes, though, it had been another troubled shoot. Marilyn was now addicted to sleeping pills, and director Billy Wilder accused her of being unprofessional.
While her acting continued to win plaudits, Monroe was becoming disillusioned with her career – and her husband. Arthur Miller was writing The Misfits for her, but her doubts about the script were echoed by others, including Elia Kazan. John Huston, who had guided her through a breakthrough role in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), agreed to direct, while Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter were all given key roles.
‘By the time we began work on The Misfits in 1960, she seemed to have become a different Marilyn than the one I had known in New York,’ Eli wrote. ‘The action that happened offscreen during the making of the film sometimes seemed to rival what was happening onscreen.’ The Millers’ marriage was falling apart, and Marilyn had just ended a very public affair with Yves Montand, her co-star in Let’s Make Love.
The film was shot in location in Nevada that summer. Eli’s character was Guido, one of three cowboys who meet Roslyn (Monroe), a young divorcee in Reno. Guido was a pilot in World War II, and is haunted by his wife’s death. He is the only one of the main players without a last name. In Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1992), Donald Spoto suggested that Guido’s name is a reference to Alvaro, from The Rose Tattoo; while Fred Lawrence Guiles, author of Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe (1984) described Guido as ‘the realist among the cowboys – willing to lie, steal, or deal with the devil.’
In the opening scene, Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) talks with Guido, who wants to buy Roslyn’s wrecked Cadillac, outside a boarding house where the two women are staying. Isabelle calls to Roslyn, warning her not to be late for her divorce hearing. An anxious Roslyn appears at the window, and asks ‘Iz’ to come upstairs.
The scene plays on Marilyn’s own reputation for unpunctuality, revealing that it was caused by nerves, not laziness. In Norma Jean (1993), the third edition of his seminal biography, Guiles noted ‘a touch of irony’ in the fact that, over an hour after her first call, Marilyn had still not arrived on the set, although a crowd of local onlookers had already gathered. Finally, Huston began shooting without her.
‘Thelma Ritter and I joined the spectators as each blow of the sledgehammer smashed into the car,’ Eli remembered. ‘The people watching must have thought that moviemaking was some sort of insanity – beat up a new Cadillac and talk to an empty window.’
Marilyn’s appearance at the window was filmed the next day. ‘It went very well,’ Wallach wrote. ‘At the end of the scene, I swear she winked at me.’
In another scene, Guido dances with Roslyn while his friend, Gay Langland (Clark Gable) looks on. As Guiles has noted, they are dancing the ‘lindy’ – the same steps Marilyn had learned with her first husband, nearly twenty years before. But Barbara Leaming believed the scene was based on Miller’s own history with Marilyn – and his rivalry with Elia Kazan.
‘The sequence echoed the pivotal moment nine years previously when Elia Kazan entered [agent] Charlie Feldman’s house to discover Marilyn dancing with Miller, and the sight of them made it clear that the trio’s dynamics had changed drastically,’ Leaming commented. ‘That moment had been a plot point in their lives, and so it was in Miller’s screenplay. Once again, Miller returned to the primordial theme of the triangle. Identifying as he did with Gay, Miller imbued Guido with characteristics that bring Kazan to mind.’
Although photographs taken during filming of the scene show the actors laughing together, there was a darker undercurrent. ‘Throughout the scene, Marilyn seemed to be upset and unhappy,’ Eli claimed. ‘Every time we went through another take, she would squeeze my shoulder very hard. It wasn’t until later when I was taking a shower that I noticed my shoulder was black-and-blue.’
Ralph Roberts, Marilyn’s masseur, sensed a competitive streak in Eli. ‘While the cameras turned, Eli manoeuvred Marilyn so that her face was never seen by the camera while they were dancing, only his,’ Roberts told Fred Lawrence Guiles. ‘Marilyn finally said, “Well, the public is going to find my rear more interesting to look at than Eli’s face anyway.”’
The prestigious Magnum Photos agency was granted exclusive coverage of the shoot, and the pictures seem to form a ‘behind-the-scenes’ narrative. Inge Morath (who would later become Miller’s third wife) shot the dance sequence.
‘There were times today when Marilyn was absolutely wonderful when she began to relax a little,’ Eli told James Goode (author of The Story of The Misfits, published in 1961.) ‘She has a kind of innocence, a freshness.’
During another lull in filming, Eli made himself up as Dr Sigmund Freud and persuaded Morath to photograph him, in a light-hearted bid for the lead in Huston’s next film. James Goode remarked that Wallach looked ‘frighteningly authentic,’ but Montgomery Clift got the part. Huston wanted Marilyn to play Freud’s patient, but in another ironic twist, her psychiatrist advised her against it.
‘Marilyn said a very touching thing to me in the lobby the other day,’ Eli told Goode. ‘I was wearing a Sigmund Freud costume. She said, “Eli, you’re going to be working all your life.” I said, “Yes, until I die.” She said it so sweetly.’
In the scene where Roslyn berates Guido’s hypocrisy, Eli unwittingly gave Marilyn centre-stage. ‘Huston had set the camera up on my side of the truck, shooting over my shoulder for a close-up on her,’ he remembered. ‘Feeling secure in my knowledge of making movies, I directed all of my lines to Marilyn. After we finished the scene, Huston said “cut,” then told the crew to set up the next shot.’
‘I couldn’t believe it. Aren’t you going to shoot the scene over Marilyn’s shoulder now for my close-up?” I asked. “I directed all of my lines to her.”’
‘Huston stared at me. “Never,” he said slowly, never tell a director where to set up the camera.”’
In another emotional scene, a drunken Guido is driving recklessly. ‘Say hello to me, Roslyn,’ he slurs. She replies helplessly, ‘Hello, Guido.’ Magnum’s Erich Hartmann photographed the sequence. ‘Because of the darkness of the set, both the outline of the vehicle and the world in which it travels have dissolved, leaving the occupants stranded in a kind of nowhere,’
George Kouvaros observed in Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: The Misfits and Icons of Postwar America, a 2010 study of the Magnum project. ‘This sense of spatial dislocation is
made more disturbing by the expression on Wallach’s face…[His] dead eyes suggest a fatal relinquishment of control: it’s as if the vehicle itself is doing the driving…’
‘As the film progressed, I began to notice a tension growing between Arthur Miller and Marilyn,’ Eli reflected. ‘And then other symptoms began to arise in Marilyn: lateness, having to repeat scenes over and over, forgetting her lines, having difficulty separating reality from the film she was making.’
‘Each male character in the movie spoke of how beautiful and wonderful she was. And each one was going to save her,’ he remarked. ‘Whenever these sorts of lines were spoken in the film, they seemed to make Marilyn even more unhappy.’ Fred Lawrence Guiles stated that the company had split into camps, with Eli favouring Miller’s camp against Marilyn’s.
However, Wallach later insisted that ‘I didn’t know which side I was on.’
In her 1987 book, Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciation, photographer Eve Arnold noticed that Marilyn and Eli’s relationship ‘underwent a change. They had been close friends, but she would suddenly grow cold on him. One day she would sit on his lap or he on hers, and the next day she would cut him.’
Monroe’s press agent, Rupert Allan, told Sandra Shevey of an incident where Marilyn and her friends met Eli at the airport, before flying to Los Angeles for the weekend. He was waiting for a plane to San Francisco. She asked if he was going alone, and said, ‘If you had asked me I would have gone with you.’ Allan believed she was toying with Eli’s affections: ‘That was one of the few times I thought she was cruel. She would never have gone to San Francisco with him.’
Speaking to Guiles, Ralph Roberts alleged that Eli hoped to expand his supporting role. ‘Late in the shooting, Eli had numerous conferences [on the sly] with John Huston and Miller,’ Roberts said. ‘This resulted in a major script revision in which Eli emerged as a kind of hero, Gable turned out to be an alcoholic bum and Marilyn was no longer a divorcee but was now a prostitute.’ When the script arrived, Roberts recalled, ‘Gable blew a gasket’ and threatened to walk out unless the changes were scrapped. ‘Marilyn was relieved when she learned that Gable had won out against Huston, Miller and Wallach,’ Roberts added.
While James Goode’s book confirms that major script changes were dropped at Gable’s behest, Wallach does not mention having any involvement. Whatever the truth behind these rumours may be, it’s clear that the dynamic between Guido and Roslyn – slowly shifting from warm camaraderie to deceit and betrayal – was being replayed away from the cameras. ‘One day my wife, our three children, and our nanny arrived on set,’ Eli remembered. ‘My son was eager to see Marilyn…But the moment we got to her trailer, she looked out and when she saw us, she shut the door.’
As she drifted away from Eli, Marilyn grew closer to Montgomery Clift, who played the youngest – and most damaged – cowboy, Perce Howland. ‘He was a superb actor,’ Wallach wrote, ‘but he also shared many problems with Marilyn – self-doubt, neurotic fears, and a need for painkillers, sleeping pills, and stimulants. Monty and Marilyn were two sides of the same coin; they seemed to bond.’
‘I have trouble working with people I greatly admire,’ Clift told James Goode. ‘I started with Eli…and I can’t find one goddamned thing I don’t like about him.’
In October, Wallach was invited to speak to an audience of drama students at the University of Nevada. ‘I am a member of a minority group that has been persecuted for two thousand years, the actor,’ he began. ‘Hounded, persecuted, stigmatised, driven…like gypsies.’
During a crew member’s birthday party, Marilyn had a heated argument with Miller. ‘Later that evening I ran into Marilyn in a hallway of the hotel, and she lashed out at me,’ Wallach wrote. ‘”Oh, you Jewish men,” she said, walked down the hall, and slammed the door to her room. It was the last thing I recall her saying to me. I only saw her once more on set – the last time was during a scene with Gable in the cab of my flatbed truck.’ Eli, an amateur photographer, took snapshots of the scene.
After filming her last scene on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, Marilyn saw Henry Hathaway and confessed, ‘I so want to do something different. That was one of the things that attracted me to Arthur…one of the fantasies in my mind was that I could get away from Marilyn Monroe through him, and here I find myself back doing the same thing…’ (Retold by Hathaway to author John Kobal, People Will Talk, 1985.)
Gable suffered a heart attack shortly afterward, and died days later. He was sixty. His wife, Kay, had been expecting their first child. Marilyn was devastated, and the press unfairly blamed her tardiness for Gable’s demise. But Kay Gable made it clear that she held no grudge, inviting Marilyn to her son’s christening in 1961. By then, the Millers were divorced. In 1962, Marilyn began work on Something’s Got to Give, and was photographed by Lawrence Schiller while filming a daring pool scene. The movie was never finished, and Marilyn died of an overdose in August.
In a 1961 interview with Coronet magazine, Eli had praised his co-star and friend. ‘This is no dumb blonde. She’s got guts,’ he said. ‘She saw herself drowning in Hollywood in 1955 and told her studio, “I’m not just wiggling my behind.” Marilyn is not any one thing; she’s multidimensional. As an actress, she has lots of imitators – but only Marilyn survives.’
‘The Happiest Good Actor I Know’
Henry Hathaway directed Eli in another great Western, How the West Was Won (1962.) ‘Hathaway always referred to me as “that New York actor,” and I enjoyed the title,’ he remarked. ‘I was very impressed with his directorial ability to make the scenes come to life.’
While working in London in 1963, Eli met John Huston and they discussed Marilyn’s untimely death. ‘While we were walking, he asked me what I thought of all the rumours about Marilyn and how she died,’ Wallach wrote. ‘I told him that I didn’t believe most of what had been said and thought her death had been accidental, that she had mixed up her prescriptions.’
In 1965, Eli was offered the role of villainous bandit Tuco Ramirez in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, opposite Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Unsure of whether to take on another ‘ugly’ character, Wallach called Henry Hathaway. ‘Well, you made your bed; now lie in it,’ Hathaway said. It would prove to be Eli’s most popular film, and is now considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made.
Wallach starred alongside Omar Sharif in Genghis Khan (1965), and made two films with Peter O’Toole: Lord Jim (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966), a charming caper also starring Audrey Hepburn, who ‘was as beautiful as the Venus coming out of her half-shell.’ He continued to work in theatre and television. The Typists, in which Eli appeared alongside Anne Jackson, was filmed in 1971.
Meanwhile, Marilyn’s legend continued to flourish. In 1973, novelist Norman Mailer published Marilyn, a rather florid, ‘factoid’ biography. Mailer capitalised on longstanding rumours that Marilyn had been intimate with both John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby. The book was accompanied by a selection of photos taken at different stages of her career, selected by Larry Schiller.
In 1976, Eli was reunited with John Huston for Independence, a short film in which Wallach played Benjamin Franklin. Huston took a rare acting role in Winter Kills (1979), loosely based on conspiracy theories about the murdered Kennedy brothers.
The Executioner’s Song, based on Norman Mailer’s non-fiction book, was filmed for television in 1982. Larry Schiller produced, and Eli was cast as the uncle of convicted killer Gary Gilmore. Then in 1992, Wallach starred in a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, The Price. Miller later described him as ‘the happiest good actor I know.’ He then appeared alongside Robert De Niro in Night and the City, a remake of Jules Dassin’s classic film noir.
Wallach made guest appearances in hit TV shows, including Law and Order and E.R. In 2003, Clint Eastwood directed Eli in the Oscar-winning Mystic River. Two years later, his autobiography was published. He then played a more sympathetic role in a romantic comedy, The Holiday (2006), giving audiences a rare glimpse of the gentle family man behind Eli’s sly screen persona.
While attending an awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2002, Eli met a young man in the bar. He introduced himself as John Clark Gable, the son Clark Gable had never known. He was now a professional racing driver, and took Eli on a hair-rising ride. Wallach told him a story about how he had danced with Kay Gable at a party, during filming of The Misfits forty years before. ‘I asked Gable, “Why did you let me jump around dancing like a madman with Kay if you knew she was pregnant?”’
‘”Well,” he said, “at her last pregnancy, the doctor ordered bed rest for several months, but she miscarried. I didn’t expect this youngster; this is a dividend. I guess there’s some life in the old man yet! I figured let her dance and have fun and see what happens.”’
‘”So here you are,” I told Gable’s son. “You are what happened! And welcome.”’
In the latter years of his long career, Eli underwent a hip replacement, and lost sight in his right eye. The Train, a short film from 2009 in which he played a Holocaust survivor, is still in post-production. He continued working until 2010, when his final films, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, were released. In November of that year, the 94 year-old actor was presented with an Academy Honorary Award in recognition of his cinematic legacy.
The death of Eli Wallach was announced on June 25, 2014. He is survived by his wife, Anne Jackson, and three children.
By Tara Hanks
The Good, the Bad and Me: In My Anecdotage by Eli Wallach, 2005.
The Story of The Misfits by James Goode, 1961.
‘A Mosaic of Marilyn Monroe.’ Coronet, February 1961.
‘American Child-Woman: Marilyn Monroe and Baby Doll.’ Tara Hanks, ImmortalMarilyn.com, 2009.