A recognizable screen presence since the 1950s, Wallach had beginnings that were anything but star-studded. He was born Dec. 7, 1915, and grew up Jewish in a mostly Italian Brooklyn neighborhood.
His immigrant Polish parents pushed him to become a teacher – he received his master's in education from the College of the City of New York – but the acting bug bit him. He studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan, where one of his classmates was Tony Randall.
After two years of Army service during World War II, Wallach debuted on Broadway in 1945 and won a Tony Award for Tennessee Williams's 1951 The Rose Tattoo. Williams also wrote the script for Wallach's movie debut, the 1956 Baby Doll, costarring Carroll Baker and Karl Malden and directed by Elia Kazan.
Oddly, Wallach often played Mexican bandits in movies, most memorably in 1960's The Magnificent Seven, in which his ornery character threatened Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner.
Wallach also graced TV with various roles, both on dramatic specials and such series as 77 Sunset Strip.
Special Oscar in 2010Honored with a special Oscar in 2010, Wallach noted in his acceptance speech, "As an actor I've played more bandits, thieves, warlords, molesters and Mafiosi than you could shake a stick at." But, he noted, as a civilian his hobbies included quietly collecting antique clocks and watching tennis.
He also said that he had recently received a letter from the Pope, who told Wallach his favorite movie was The Magnificent Seven.
Two years before his Oscar, when he was honored in New York, one of his costars, Kate Winslet, told the crowd, who included Wallach and his longtime wife (since 1948), the actress Anne Jackson, "Eli Wallach is my very own Sexiest Man Alive! The truth is, Annie, if I had been around 60 years ago, you would have had some tough competition!"
Jackson, 87, survives Wallach, as do their three grown children: Peter, a film animator, and daughters Roberta and Katherine, both actors like their parents.
At the 2008 tribute, Winslet also went on to say, "He's always smiling, always chatting, always concentrating, and always telling stories. … He could go take after take after take."
And he never seemed to quit. "There were days, I must confess, when I'd worry about him getting tired. But not Eli," said Winslet. "I'd say to him, 'Eli, please, would you go home now ... We've been here for 20 hours and it's nearly midnight and you've done your closeup!' But he'd look at me, almost offended, and say, 'Oh no … I'm not going home. Not when I'm playing with you!' "