PG Cooper: What A Character: A Tribute to Eli Wallach

Posted: September 22, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Commentary

You gotta love a good blogathon, and thanks to Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, I find myself in the fortunate position of being able to participate in another fun blogathon. The “What A Character!” blogathon is designed for several different bloggers to help bring attention to their favourite character actors. I was lucky enough to get the great Eli Wallach.

Unfortunately, my exposure to Wallach’s body of work is very limited. I did greatly enjoy his cameos in Mystic River and The Ghost Writer, but there isn’t enough in either of those films to really write about. But there is one other Wallach film I’ve seen. It’s a Western classic, arguably Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and one of my favourite films of all time, it’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly tells the story of three men all seeking buried gold. Two of these men, the “Good” and the “Bad” (Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef), are characters of mythic status. The two characters’ pasts are wrapped in enigma and they both feel like archetype legends. It’s Clint Eastwood at his most badass and Lee Van Cleef makes for a scary villain. Both give top notch performances, but it’s Eli Wallach’s turn as Tuco (or the “Ugly”) that not only steals the show, but also elevates the film to a higher plane.

In a way, I feel like I cheated in choosing Eli Wallach. The man is described as a character actor, but I find Tuco to be the most compelling character of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Unlike the quiet power displayed by Eastwood and Cleef, Tuco is loud, brash, and fast-talking. Tuco is bursting with character and personality, and he’s always incredibly fun to watch. The character himself may be a bit of a dirty scoundrel, but Wallach brings so much energy and charm to the part one can’t help but love him.

Tuco is also the most complicated character in the film. The reason he’s called the “Ugly” is because he’s neither good nor bad. He can be very selfish, but he also has a family and there are hints that he had a difficult childhood which lead to him being a bandit. Instead of fitting an archetype like Eastwood and Cleef do, Wallach’s Tuco feels like a real human. I’m not saying most people should be described as ugly scoundrels, but most people don’t conform to being either good or evil. Instead, most people fall in the middle, just like Tuco. Wallach brings humanity to Tuco and in doing so makes Tuco the most relatable character in the film. This is important because it gives the audience a character they can really connect with, something that is lacking in Leone’s first two films in the “Dollars” trilogy. This is ultimately what makes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a true classic. Without Wallach’s incredible performance, I’m sure the film would still be very good, like For A Few Dollars More and, to a lesser extent, A Fistful of Dollars, but it would not be the masterpiece it’s known as today.

I don’t mean to undersell the other attributes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or claim that Wallach is the sole reason the film works. Make no mistake, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a brilliant film that works on a number of levels. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge just how important Eli Wallach is to the film’s quality. His performance is incredible and has cemented Wallach’s name in film history. I think that more then warrants his inclusion the “What A Character!” blogathon.

“Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. Nothing!”

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Great, great selection, Daniel. Fine piece.

  2. vinnieh says:

    Great post, keep up the great work man.

  3. Nice write-up. If you’re looking for more Eli Wallach movies to check out, I would suggest Don Siegel’s “The Line-Up” (one of Wallach and Siegel’s first films; Wallach plays a psychopath gangster trying to retrieve heroin), John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” (where he plays the bad guy), Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriends” (as a rabbi), William Richert’s “Winter Kills” (in a small but crucial role as an assassin), the made-for-TV movie “The Executioner’s Song” (where he’s Gary Gilmore’s uncle), “The Godfather Part III” (yes, I like that movie; he plays a Mafia don), and the made-for-TV movie “Monday Night Mayhem” (as Leonard Goldenson, the then-president of ABC). I haven’t seen “Baby Doll”, and I am not a fan of “The Misfits”, but those movies have a lot of fans.

  4. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, PG Cooper and company:

    First time here. Great looking site!

    Excellent choice in Eli Wallach. Though his earlier stuff (‘Baby Doll, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ ‘The Misfits’, ‘Winter Kills’) shows how comfortable he was within his own sweaty and sometimes creep character’s skin.

  5. ianthecool says:

    You think Fistful of Dollars is lesser than Few More?
    Yeah, Tuco really does add a lot of spice to the movie for sure.

  6. Paula says:

    I’ve seen THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY 3 or 4 times. I never thought of Tuco as the only non-archetypal character, but I think you’re completely correct…I also prefer this one to FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Thanks for this PG :)

  7. brikhaus says:

    I agree with Sean, you should check out Wallach’s performance in “The Magnificent Seven.” Also, there’s no way “For a Few Dollars is More” is better than “A Fistful of Dollars.” They’re both good, of course, but for the trilogy, my ranking would go: 3>1>2.

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      A Fistful of Dollars is note for note the exact some as Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. So similar that it means A Fistful of Dollars offers very little, especially when Yojimbo does everything better. If Yojimbo didn’t exist, I might look at A Fistful of Dollars more favorably, but the similarities are way too distracting.

  8. Le says:

    Eli Wallach is great in this western, for sure he steals the scene whenever he appears. I also enjoy his performance in Baby Doll, 1956.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  9. Aurora says:

    Nice job and tribute to Wallach – what a powerhouse actor! Always so memorable. You covered the Good, Bad… beautifully but even in small parts like the one in Mystic River (an astoundingly well-acted film) he leaves a strong impression. KUDOS to you – great choice and addition to the blogathon!


  10. Tuco makes “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” worth the price of admission.

    For a more recent excellent performance from Mr. Wallach check out “The Wrap Party” episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” where the then 90 year old knocks it out of the park!

  11. Dixie Burge says:

    Forgive my lateness to this blog, but I became an Eli Wallach fan only last June. Now he is my favorite actor of all. I’m glad I found other fans of his!

    PG, you really should watch Baby Doll if you ever have the opportunity. I didn’t believe Wallach had it in him to be the sexy, sleazy seducer, but he pulls it off beautifully! You would see him with a new pair of eyes.

    Also not to be missed is his performance as the bandit leader Calvera in The Magnificent Seven. Yet ANOTHER facet to his abilities as an acting chameleon. He is a Mexican in that mivie as well, but make no mistake, Calvera is NOTHING like Tuco, neither in his appearance, speech or personality. I see a familiar name here from another blog I commented on here a while back: le0pard13!

    • Baby Doll is on my watch-list. I’ve grown to really admire Elia Kazan’s films. I’m also really fond of Wallach’s performance in The Magnificent Seven. He’s easily my favourite part of the film. Thanks for commenting.

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