"Blondie" Actor Eli Wallach died Wednesday. He was 98, an age at which it's safe to say someone has had a damn good run. Wallach's career stretched across decades and mediums. He appeared in classic Westerns like How the West Was Won and The Magnificent Seven and on countless television shows, including everything from ER to Adam West's Batman, on which he played Mr. Freeze. I believe that's what they call range in the biz.
Wallach's lengthy C.V. makes me hesitant to boil his career down to one part. On the other hand, when I heard he had died, this one part was all I could think of.
But let's take a step back first.
I've championed the Western around these parts since this blog's inception, but its entire history is contained in a few short years. I've done this even as the entire genre appears to search for an existential purpose. But go back a few more years, and you wouldn't be hearing the same exhortations from me.
Maybe a decade ago, I popped The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in to my DVD player for the first time and that all changed. I've come around to the genre late, and the only reason I've come around at all is because of that film, in which Wallach portrays Tuco -- "The Ugly" -- one of three bandits searching for Confederate gold.
It would be selling Wallach's co-stars Clint Eastwood -- "Blondie" as Tuco calls him over and over again, the Man With No Name as he is more properly known -- and Lee Van Cleef short to say that Wallach carried the film. There's so much that's great about this quintessential Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western that it would be quite foolhardy indeed.
But it is not unreasonable to say that he is the voice of one of the all-time great Westerns.
Eastwood and Van Cleef say so little in the film. Leone uses Ennio Morricone's unforgettable score and tight, steady shots of Eastwood and Van Cleef to build tension. But he also uses Wallach's Tuco -- his broken English, his humorous scoundrel's desperation, his "Blondies" -- to propel the film forward at certain moments and to provide some much-needed levity at others.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly isn't half the film without Wallach. Read a little bit about the actual history of the American West and you also might begin to understand that Tuco -- stuck somewhere on the spectrum between Eastwood and Van Cleef -- is also probably the most real-to-life character in the film.
Wallach had an illustrious career, but it's no discredit to him that all I can think of today is Tuco saying "Blondie."