I corresponded with Eli Wallach (1915 – 2014) in the summer of 1975 with the hope of securing an interview to help augment my Master’s Thesis on the films of Sergio Leone. He very graciously agreed and as I could not afford the trip to New York City at that time, I sent him a list of questions and he answered via an audio cassette tape that was recorded at his home in Long Island. I used his answers within my 400-page thesis and I happily graduated from the University of Kansas in 1978. I was never able to meet Eli in the years following, but was deeply touched by his generosity and enthusiasm for the subject plus his strong wish that I receive a degree for my work. I have always heard great stories about Eli Wallach and can readily attest to the wonderful, generous man that he was. I think he was surprised that Tuco became the iconic role of his long career. Bill Shaffer, December 2017.
Eli: Quite a number of years ago, I was playing in a theater with my wife in Los Angeles. My agent, Paul Kohner with Peter Witt called and said, “would I be interested in making an Italian western?” I’d never heard of an Italian western – it’s like Hawaiian pizza, but I agreed to meet with Sergio Leone, the director who said, “just let me show you one of my films.” I saw about five minutes of his second film, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and I said, “just tell me where you want me to be and the date and I’ll be there.”
Bill: Now, did the Italians choose you for the part of Tuco?
Eli: I guess the Italians did choose me. I don’t know how I got chosen for the part in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), but I guess they did see me in The Magnificent Seven (1960). I had also done a few other westerns like How the West Was Won (1962) so they thought I would be right.
Bill: What were the early stages of production like?
Eli: The script was quite interesting when I read it, quite an adventure tale. My first impressions of making an Italian movie was (it’s) very disorganized, that the costume people didn’t know what the make-up people were doing and so forth. The make-up man was an expert, the chief of photography, Tonino Delli Colli was wonderful and Sergio Leone knew each shot he wanted. Working with Clint Eastwood was a pleasure. He was a professional, who had been through two other Italian movies who took me by the hand and led me through it all – told me where the rough spots were and the smooth spots were and helped me.
Bill: Was there a different title at the beginning? You know Leone’s other films always had Dollars in the title. I wondered if there was a different title on this picture.
Eli: There was no other title as far as I can remember.
Eli: My first impressions of Sergio Leone? When I first saw him in Rome, he was wearing suspenders and a belt and I thought, “my God! There’s a sure way to hold your pants up” and I said to him, “I’d like to use that for the character, for Tuco I’d like to wear suspenders and a belt.”
“Fine”, he said, “but I don’t want you to have a holster … a gun holster”.
I said, “how am I going to carry the gun?”
He said, “carry it in a lanyard around your neck. Carry it in a lanyard and let it dangle between your legs.” I guess that was some kind of Freudian symbol.
Anyway I said, “how do I get the gun in my hand?”
He said, “just twitch your body and the gun’ll be there.”
I said, “you show me.”
He did and the gun hit him in the groin so I used it from then on, putting it in my pocket.
Eli: I also got along very well with Sergio. I found that he and I communicated on some other wavelength. We communicated in French mostly. If I was in any real difficulty as far as language was concerned, we straightened it out in French. The script girl was very good and she understood enough English to get me through.
Eli: Clint … I can’t say enough about. He seems quiet. He’s a real western star and … I enjoyed working with him. I found him to be … a good, talented craftsman and I had a lot of fun with him.
Eli: Hanging episodes? Scenes in the desert? The graveyard scenes and the final showdown scenes were all done … physically rather exhausting.
Bill: I know you’ve previously told the story about the bridge accidentally being blown up during the Civil War scenes and then having to reshoot the whole thing later on.* What other things happened during production?
Eli: I nearly died on that film because they used a certain acid to weaken the pouch where the money was and it also was contained in a bottle (similar to) the one that I liked drinking from of Spanish Lemon Soda and the idiot prop man had put the acid in that bottle so I took a sip of it. Soon as it hit my mouth, I knew it was acid and spit it out so … I was lucky.
Eli: After finishing the film – the film went on for hours and hours, weeks and weeks, months and months, but somehow, something inside me told me it was going to be a damn good movie, that Sergio Leone knew what he was doing and was capturing a flavor. He’s a meticulous craftsman. He used the Matthew Brady prints of shots (and) poses from the Civil War. The costumes were all authentic, the cannons and machine guns were from the military museum in Spain and it was a damn good piece of work.
Eli: While we were filming in the first few days, I looked at the other end of this street, of this movie western street and I saw people wearing fairly much the same costumes that we were using and I asked Leone about that and he said, “Oh, when you’re a success in Italy, everybody imitates and they’re imitating me, just as I took from the Japanese (for my first movie).” You know he had to pay a heavy fine. His first film was based on Yojimbo (1961), frame by frame, reel by reel, but he loved the west. He sharpened his teeth working as a first assistant to Fred Zinnemann and to Robert Aldrich and several others in Africa and in Italy so he was dying to do a western. As a matter of fact, he didn’t use his own name on the first one and most of the crew were called western names just as I made a film [Giuseppe Colizzi’s Ace High, 1968**] with two men who are called Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. They are (actually called) Carlo Pedersoli and Mario Girotti.
Eli: The Italians are innovative, unafraid to dare and try and they’re fun to work with. You must not be disillusioned if you ever watch a film being put together by the seeming anarchy, the seeming aimlessness or the lack of organization. The real man with his hand on the tiller in Italian films is the director. He’s the one who guides it and Leone is all movie man. He sleeps it. He eats it. He’s nervous. His hands are open and shut … constantly while he’s filming. He’s tense, but he has some kind of magical touch. All I know is as an instrumentalist, I enjoyed having him wave the baton. I knew what he wanted and I was able to deliver … and I’m pleased that you liked Tuco. I think it’s … one of the best performances I’ve done in the movies.
Bill: How about the hanging scenes and the graveyard scenes for you?
Eli: The hanging episodes: The first time I got on the horse, they had in the rope hanging me a little charge of dynamite and I asked the special effects man, “don’t you ever put cotton in the horse’s ears because this’ll make an explosion…?” and he said “no, no, don’t worry about it.” Anyway, he put in an extra heavy charge. I was half deaf for half the day after that … and I never trusted that man again.
Eli: The graveyard sequence: It took several weeks to build that graveyard. It wasn’t there. They built it. They had forms and mounds and signs and I suggested to Sergio Leone a shot that I remembered from the film, Great Expectations (1946) and I also asked Kazan to use it in the film, Baby Doll (1956) – that is, I became the camera as I was running around in that thing. Well, he ran me – I tell you I felt like I was a marathon runner, running from Boston all the way to New York City, but you had to be in good shape to do this movie and Leone took advantage of it.
Eli: The final showdown: I was standing up on that cross and it really was rickety. The idea was for me to jump off and chase him after he shot me down and as Clint Eastwood rides away, Leone wanted very much to have a helicopter shot with the camera pointing down, pulling up, pulling up, pulling way up and disappearing and leaving me as a tiny, ant-like figure in the middle of this cemetery. Well, (they) couldn’t get the helicopter camera to really work because it shook. Now, they can do it better. They’ve gotten technically much more efficient and proficient so they could do it, but then they weren’t able to do it, but Leone was able to make do with what he had. After that (accidental) bridge blow-up. I thought he’d lose his mind, but he went right on shooting.
Bill: Were there any deletions or cut scenes from the movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?
Eli: When I finally saw the film – I’ve seen it in various versions, once in French, once in Italian and a couple of times in English. I don’t know about the deletions. I’m not aware … I know that certain scenes that we did shoot, one in a cave and certain scenes in the desert where I had my shoes off were cut for the sake of time. Sergio didn’t want to cut any of it, but United Artists when they released it in America insisted because otherwise it’d be a three-and-a-half-hour film and that’s too long.
Bill: What did you think of Leone’s visual style?
Eli: My impressions and personal opinions on Leone’s visual style? Well, here’s a man who leans on the painters. He’ll say I want to use lighting like Vermeer with the light coming from a window source or I want some dark colors like Rembrandt so the man knows what he wants the picture to give. For example, there’s a lovely scene where the Union soldiers are covered with dust so they look like the (gray) southern Confederacy and when they dust it off, they become very blue and where we wind up in jail. Now the whole scene of marching in lock-step was something I didn’t believe and he put it on a swinging bridge so as we marched across the bridge, it swung in tempo. It was all given a hazy glow, hot light in the outdoor sequences, especially in the torture and the prison scenes and the other scenes indoors were done with very subdued light.
Bill: How about his use of close-ups?
Eli: His use of close-ups? He uses that as a dramatic style. He used three lenses a lot of the time – one for a medium shot, one for semi-medium and one for close-up … right into your eyeballs as a matter of fact. Uh … color, close-ups, the music … I wish I had heard the music before. I once did a movie called The Magnificent Seven and if I had heard the music, I would have ridden my horse differently. I never heard (Ennio) Morricone’s music until the film was released. I think it would be a great help to an actor to play some of that music while he’s acting. They used to do it in the silent days and it could be done in Italian films because … all of it is dubbed. I spent seven days with Sergio Leone standing alongside of me – each line that I said he checked on, even though he spoke no English, but Mickey Knox, a friend of mine stood with me and we worked for seven straight days on dubbing it. It was a very difficult thing to recapture the outdoors, the shouting, the battle sequences, the scenes on the train, the hangings and do it in a movie studio in a dubbing room.
Bill: Have you seen Leone’s other films?
Eli: I’ve seen the other Leone films – the first two. Um … he certainly is a stylized man. I mean for example, what he did with Clint Eastwood – the poncho, the cigar, the hat. You know he did like a triptych – three films back to back to back. In the first one, he stressed Clint. In the second one, he worked on … Lee Van Cleef and you got to know him. In the third one, it was me … Tuco as the Mexican bandido so I was the character who was brought into focus, but it was all part of a master mural that Sergio Leone painted.
Bill: How about working with Eastwood or Leone again?
Eli: I’d certainly work with Clint Eastwood again, both as actor and director. I’d be delighted to. About Sergio Leone, he and I had a bit of a falling out as a result of a film called Giu la testa, uh, Duck, You Sucker (1971). It’s a contractual disagreement and neither one of us has gotten to the point – it’s like the Israelis and the Egyptians, they’ve got to sit down with somebody, some outside party has to bring us together.
Bill: How about your career after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?
Eli: I like doing westerns. I’ve done three or four more since The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but I think I’m moving out of them. I’m parking my horse and my gun and now I’m going to start doing – the last picture I did in Italy was called Attenti al buffone (Eye of the Cat, 1975) with Nino Manfredi. It’s a modern picture set in Rome and I think it moved me into another category, another type of film. This one’s more psychological and it’s a modern film, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the westerns because they are real morality tales. The good … and the bad … they tell a story. It’s like Anderson’s Fairy Tales. Of course, people can for the price of a movie ticket ride a horse, be hanged, I don’t know – lately, you can go get bitten by a shark as in Jaws (1975) or you can be up in a Towering Inferno (1974) or falling down in an airplane. I don’t know what the movies are coming to. I’d like to do a good mystery movie and again a good western. I’d love to work with Sam Peckinpah. I’d love to work with Robert Altman. I’d love to work with Mike Nichols, with Elia Kazan, with Arthur Penn. I could go on and on. I just like to work.
Bill: Any last comments about working with Sergio Leone?
Eli: I enjoyed working with him and especially with Clint and with Lee Van Cleef. Uh … of course, it’s funny, you know, the Italian actors sometimes didn’t know their lines and the script girl would be standing off to my right throwing them the lines so they always sounded fresh and as though they just thought of it. It’s difficult with people hammering, banging nails and talking, airplanes flying overhead, but the Italians are used to it because it’s all dubbed later anyway.
Eli: As I said before, the working rapport with Sergio was wonderful. We communicated by some kind of ESP. He let me have my head. It was like a good horse race. He was the marvelous jockey. He knew when to let me run. He knew when to pull the reins in. If I overdid (it), he’d scowl a little and he’d pull it down, but each scene tells a story. Each scene is like a thread being played out. It gave me an opportunity to continually paint – to make the man (Tuco) petty when I wanted him petty. You see, in all these westerns where they’re searching for the gold or the treasure or what, you never see what they do with it. You always see them in dirty clothes, filthy, killing one another, shooting, etc, but you never see the effects of what they gain and I wanted to show that Tuco in places would accumulate jewelry. He was a vain man and he was also a vengeful man (as in the desert scene).
* For Eli’s account of the bridge being blown up prematurely see Stuart M. Kaminsky’s book Clint Eastwood (New American Library, 1974).
** For a detailed analysis of Giuseppe Colizzi’s Ace High see Lee Broughton’s book The Euro-Western: Reframing Gender, Race and the ‘Other’ in Film (I.B. Tauris, 2016).
Bill Shaffer has had a long career as a Public Television Producer/Director working in the United States. During his tenure, he produced documentaries on Carnival of Souls (a cult film produced in Lawrence, Kansas in 1962) and Kansas City Jazz (an immense project on the lives of KC Jazz artists including Count Basie and Charlie Parker). He is also the director of the Kansas Silent Film Festival, now entering its 22nd year. He’s also had the privilege of presenting talks on Sergio Leone and his first Italian western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), as well as advising on and contributing to the special features that appear on several DVD and Blu-ray releases of Leone’s films.
Eli Wallach interview © Copyright 1975, 2018 Bill Shaffer.