Generous, Vital, Enthusiastic, Wallach Lives to Tell the Tale

The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach. Harcourt, 320 pages, $25.

It never mattered whether the part was big or small, whether the movie was wonderful or execrable, Eli Wallach always approached acting like Albert Finney approached eating in Tom Jones: The job wasn’t finished until the last bit of meat and marrow had been sucked from the bones.

Mr. Wallach’s gusto could have led to his being lumped in with Anthony Quinn as a rather overly vital ham with a gift for playing peasants. But, as with Quinn, a long look at the career in question shows that the gentleman has chops.

The Good, the Bad and Me is a genial autobiography, fairly typical of a book undertaken by an author of great age-Mr. Wallach is 90 this year-in that the early years are the most vividly remembered.

Which brings me to a rhetorical question: What is it about Brooklyn, anyway? Florence during the Renaissance would be hard-pressed to compete with the literary raptures inspired by Park Slope during the Depression. Mr. Wallach begins his book with a paragraph that Hemingway might admire for its concision and specific visual impact: “Union Street was a wide main artery running from Prospect Park past Park Slope down to the docks of the East River. Number 166 housed Bertha’s, a small toy, candy, and stationary store named for my mother. A long glass counter ran the length of the store. There was an icebox for soda pop and a pay telephone. On the back wall of the store were shelves, which held toys, big jars of Indian nuts, and cigarettes.”

The Good, the Bad, and Me doesn’t sustain this level of spare magic, and soon we segue into the land of “And then I played …. ” As the subtitle indicates, Mr. Wallach’s book is primarily an anthology of anecdotes about actors and acting. His innate enthusiasm rather attractively translates into an appreciation for his fellow craftsmen.

Initially intimidated by working with Clark Gable on The Misfits (1961), Mr. Wallach soon realized that Gable “was an inordinately shy man who enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow actors. He was a true professional, always on time and line perfect …. He never talked about movies; he talked about growing up in Ohio, doing summer stock, acting Shakespeare …. He had a great laugh and enjoyed teasing me when I’d prepare for a scene using exercises I’d learned at the Actors Studio. ‘Oh, you’re at it again,’ he would say with a laugh. ‘Maybe I’ll try those exercises in our next scene.'”

The legendarily difficult production ground everybody down. At a birthday party, Marilyn Monroe, who had been having a heated discussion with Arthur Miller, stood up and began yelling: “You don’t understand women …. I am a film actress and I know what I’m doing. Stop interfering. Why don’t you let John [Huston] direct?” Later that night, Mr. Wallach ran into Monroe in a hotel corridor. “Oh, you Jewish men,” she snapped, before slamming the door to her room. It was the last thing she said to him.

As with any good autobiography, the author tells stories on himself. Buoyed by a great laugh he got on stage in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, Mr. Wallach bragged about his comic expertise to the old pro Ernest Truex. The next night, the line died. Truex came knocking at his door. “Wallach,” he said, “you’re not the only one onstage when you get your laugh …. Your laugh came about because there are other actors skillfully setting up the situation for you.”

And, obviously, not setting up the situation if they didn’t feel like it.

Mr. Wallach reveals that John Sturges’ uncredited assistant director on The Magnificent Seven (1960) was Emilio Fernández, El Indio himself, once upon a time the director of such films as Maria Candelaria and The Pearl-perhaps the most rapturously photographed series of movies since Josef von Sternberg stumbled on an entertainingly insolent young woman named Dietrich. But Fernández had been temporarily blackballed from directing after shooting a critic in the balls-perhaps the ultimate example of man biting dog.

As you wend your way through the book, a theme gradually becomes apparent: What Mr. Wallach admires is professionalism combined with technique combined with … something else, something that can’t be completely explained, let alone analyzed-for lack of a better term, star quality. Henry Fonda tearing up every night at the same moment in the Broadway version of Mister Roberts might be ascribed to impeccable technique, but what about Fonda’s apparently effortless projection of integrity?

Mr. Wallach is blind in one eye, hobbled by hip replacements, but he goes on, and he respects others who do the same, as with his old co-star Clint Eastwood, who brought him back for one scene in Mystic River (2003). After saying hello, Mr. Eastwood’s next sentence was: “Any time you’re ready, Eli.” “Not one word of direction was given,” writes Mr. Wallach.

And always, there’s the animal vitality familiar from his acting. Mr. Wallach compares acting in the theater to sex: “curtain up, foreplay, excitement, then finally an orgasmic release, curtain down. In film, there’s action, foreplay, excitement, and just before you reach the glorious moment of release, the director yells ‘Cut! Let’s do this scene again.'”

As you might have guessed, there’s a lot in The Good, the Bad, and Me about working with Sergio Leone in the concluding film of the Man With No Name trilogy. The fact that a Brooklyn Jew became famous for playing Mexican bandits-in The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won (1962) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)-certainly speaks to the democratic Mixmaster nature of the movies.

I would’ve liked more about working with the underrated Richard Brooks on Lord Jim (1965), and perhaps a more searching appraisal of Elia Kazan, surely the movie and theatrical talent most in need of a great biography. But any book that takes in Huston, Leone, Mr. Eastwood, Monroe, Gable, Charles Laughton and Tennessee Williams, not to mention humanizing the legendarily explosive Henry Hathaway, has more than enough pillars to support a very pleasant edifice indeed.

Scott Eyman is the author of the newly published Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon and Schuster). He reviews books regularly for The Observer.