Eli Wallach was born on 7 December 1915 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Abraham and Bertha Wallach, were Jewish immigrants who operated a candy store. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1936. While there he learned to ride horses, a skill that would prove most useful in his acting career. Afterwards he returned to New York City where he earned a Master's degree in Education at he City College of New York. Mr. Wallach then studied acting under Sanford Meisner at the Neighbourhood Playhouse.
In January 1941 he was drafted in the United States Army. He became a staff sergeant at a hospital in Hawaii before attending Officer Candidate School in Abilene, Texas. Mr. Wallach spent five years in the United States Army Medical Corps, rising to the rank of captain.
Following his service in the Army Eli Wallach returned to acting. He studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City before becoming a founding member of the Actor's Studio where he studied Method Acting with Lee Strasberg. It was in 1945 that he made his debut on Broadway debut in the play Skydrift. In the late Forties he appeared in such productions on Broadway as King Henry VIII, What Every Woman Knows, A Pound on Demand / Androcles and the Lion, Yellow Jack, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lady from the Sea.
In the Fifties Mr. Wallach continued to appear on Broadway in productions of The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Mademoiselle Colombe, Major Barbara, The Chairs and The Lesson, and The Cold Wind and the Warm. He appeared in the off Broadway productions The Scarecrow and The Chairs/ The Lesson. Eli Wallach made his debut on television in 1951 in an episode of Lights Out. He appeared on such TV shows as Armstrong Circle Theatre, Danger, The Web, Goodyear Playhouse, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Studio One, BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, Playhouse 90, and Goodyear Theatre. Mr. Wallach made his film debut in 1956 in Baby Doll. He appeared in The Lineup (1958) and Seven Thieves (1960) before appearing in what may be his best known role, that of Calvera in The Magnificent Seven in 1960.
In the Sixties he appeared on Broadway in the productions Rhinoceros, Luv, and Staircase. He appeared in the off Broadway productions Brecht on Brecht and The Typists and The Tiger. Mr. Wallach starred in such films as The Misfits (1961), Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Victors (1963), Act One (1963), The Moon-Spinners (1964), Kisses for My President (1964), Lord Jim (1965), Poppies Are Also Flowers (1966), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968), The Brain (1969), Mackenna's Gold (1969), and The Angel Levine (1970). On television he appeared on such shows as Outlaws, Naked City, The Dick Powell Theatre, Batman (on which he played Mr. Freeze), and CBS Playhouse.
In the Seventies Eli Wallach appeared on Broadway in Promenade, All!, The Waltz of the Toreadors, and Saturday Sunday Monday. He appeared off Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank. Mr. Wallach appeared in such films as Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971), Cinderella Liberty (1973), Crazy Joe (1974), Shoot First... Ask Questions Later (1975), Independence (1976), The Domino Principle (1977), Circle of Iron (1978), The Deep (1977), Movie Movie (1978), Firepower (1979), Winter Kills (1979), and The Hunter (1980).
In the Eighties Mr. Wallach appeared on Broadway in Twice Around the Park and Cafe Crown. He appeared off Broadway in The Nest of the Wood Grouse. He appeared in the films Sam's Son (1984), Tough Guys (1986), Nuts (1987), The Two Jakes (1990), and The Godfather: Part III (1990). On television he was one of the leads on Our Family Honour. He guest starred on such shows as Tales of the Unexpected; American Playhouse; Worlds Beyond; Highway to Heaven; Murder, She Wrote; and the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He appeared in such TV movies as Skokie, The Executioner's Song, and Murder: By Reason of Insanity, as well as the mini-series Christopher Columbus.
In the Nineties Eli Wallach appeared on Broadway in The Price and The Flowering Peach. He appeared in such films as Article 99 (1992), Mistress (1992), Night and the City (1992), Honey Sweet Love (1994), The Associate (1996), Uninvited (1999), and Keeping the Faith (2000). He guest starred on such TV shows as L. A. Law and Law and Order.
From the Naughts into the teens he appeared in such films as Advice and Dissent (2002), The Root (2003), Mystic River (2003), King of the Corner (2004), A Taste of Jupiter (2005), The Hoax (2006), Mama's Boy (2007), Tickling Leo (2009), The Ghost Writer (2010), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), and The Ghost Writer (2010). He had a recurring role on the TV show The Education of Max Bickford. He guest starred on the shows ER, Whoopi, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Nurse Jackie.
Eli Wallach was an extremely prolific actor. His film credits alone number well over one hundred, yet he also appeared frequently on both television and the stage. What is more, Mr. Wallach appeared in films of nearly every genre, including Westerns (The Magnificent Seven), caper films (How to Steal a Million), dramas (Article 99), martial arts films (Circle of Iron), and even comedies (Keeping the Faith). While most actors see success in only one or two media, Eli Wallach saw success in film, television, and on stage. And while many actors specialise in a specific genre, Mr. Wallach was capable of playing in any of them.
It was Eli Wallach's adaptability as an actor that allowed him to cross easily from films to television and that same adaptability that made him at home in any genre. Of course, it was not simply his adaptability as an actor that made him so prolific and so successful, but the fact that he was essentially a character actor with the presence of a lead. Despite not looking particularly like a leading man, Mr. Wallach's talent and presence was such that he could easily outshine the leads in any film. Despite playing the villain in a film filled with such heavyweight actors as Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach remains memorable as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven. Indeed, he very nearly overshadows the seven heroes!
The simple truth is that as an actor Eli Wallach was a true chameleon as an actor. While he may be best remembered as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, he played a wide variety of roles, most of which were far removed from the villainous bandit. In How to Steal a Million he did a comic turn as art obsessed tycoon Davis Leland. In The Misfits Mr. Wallach played brooding widower Guido, who was gathering up wild horses with ageing cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable). In The Tiger Makes Out (1967) he played a sexually repressed mailman turned kidnapper. On the surface the role of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly superficially resembles Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (after all, both are bandits), but Tuco was a much more bumbling, comical, and even oafish figure who was much too selfish to lead men as Calvera did. Such was Eli Wallach's talent that he was capable of great performances even when the films were not very good. A prime example of this is The Holiday (2006). The Holiday is not a very good film, and yet Mr. Wallach is impressive as the disillusioned writer Arthur Abbott.
It is often said of character actors that people do not remember their names even if they recognise their faces. This was certainly not the case with Eli Wallach. He was so talented and so prolific that he made a name for himself simply doing character parts. Indeed, he often overshadowed the leads in the films in which he appeared. People might not remember the other actors in any given movie, but they always remembered Eli Walalch. He was just that good.