An ability to project villainy or cynicism or worldly power, often while mounted on a horse, was Eli Wallach's calling card in the movies. But he also had a kind of stern, cerebral handsomeness.
For the film world in which he worked for more than half a century, Eli Wallach established his brand identity as "il brutto", the Ugly, in Sergio Leone's 1966 spaghetti western Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Lee Van Cleef was the Bad and Clint Eastwood, notionally, was the Good). He was Tuco, the duplicitous hatchet-faced gunslinger who we see announced onscreen with his Ugly moniker, just as he makes a hideous grimace, having been just rescued from a lynching, the rope around his neck. He makes common cause with Eastwood's Blondie as they search for hidden Confederate gold in the old west. Tuco is the predator, alternately cringing and contemptuously aggressive, raging at Blondie, sneering at others, shooting someone from his bubble bath who had come to kill him.
Wallach wasn't necessarily a bad guy and certainly not ugly in his other roles – in fact, he had a kind of stern cerebral handsomeness, and grew to resemble Sigmund Freud. But his ability to project villainy or cynicism or worldly power, often while mounted on a horse, was to be his calling card in the movies. He was a founder member of the actors' studio, and in the theatre was noted for taking leading roles of great subtlety, but in films he was in demand as a character player whose face lent gristle and presence. He was like Ernest Borgnine or Karl Malden but nearly always cast as the guy wearing the black hat.
Wallach was a generic baddie in the 1961 epic western How the West Was Won as outlaw Charlie Gant, who has a grudge against George Peppard's Marshal Zeb and plans rob a train with his gang (including the young Harry Dean Stanton). In The Magnificent Seven, in 1960, Wallace was Calvera, another grisly predator, the Mexican villain who with his gang of banditos is menacing the villagers who have hired the seven to protect them. Confronting Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, the slippery Calvera attempts at first to cut a deal, suggesting they go into partnership and then responds with jeering incomprehension to the mercenaries' honourable loyalty to their employers. He jibes: "If God didn't want them sheared he would not have made them sheep!"
In John Huston's The Misfits (1961) he is Guido, the questionable buddy of Clark Gable's puffy-faced old cowboy – Guido's designs on Marilyn reveal his role to be another in Wallach's gallery of rogues, and his robust "brutto" quality offsets the greater handsomeness of Gable and his co-star Montgomery Clift.
Wallach worked continuously almost to the very end with an almost unbroken string of credits, including a mafia don in the ill-starred Godfather Part III. His last feature was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which he played a boardroom patriarch who remembers the 1929 crash and looks old enough to have lived through it. One of his very last films was The Holiday, a treacly romantic comedy, in which for once he wasn't the bad guy. He played Arthur Abbott, a twinkly-eyed screenwriter from Hollywood's golden age who befriends the lovelorn Kate Winslet. In the noughties, Wallach was beginning to look like an icon of the golden age himself. On the stage, he was a subtle and complex actor; the movies really valued just one part of his acting persona, the dark and predatory part, but this powered a mighty career.