Like many men his age, Eli Wallach has become anecdotal, as he
freely acknowledges in his subtitle. This autobiography, therefore,
isn't one of those arrogant books that bully you with pushy claims
that "you can't put it down," books that demand grueling hours of
sustained reading when you might prefer to take a break now and
then to watch the news or have a sandwich.
The high anecdote content of Wallach's book means that you can clap
it shut just about anytime you like, because anecdotes are meant to
be followed by a pause of a few moments' duration, like a tacit bar
in a musical score, allowing readers time to chuckle or reflect or
take a sip of restorative. Under no circumstances would anyone want
to interrupt the author in mid-anecdote. He's a richly gifted
raconteur who could draw a crowd just by telling about the last
time he had his teeth cleaned.
And of course, after an anecdote ends, it isn't long before another
one begins. (Brilliant!) Was it Wallach who said, "I got a million
Despite his long and successful career, Wallach is possessed of
sufficient humility to accept the fact that in some of his stories
he plays only a minor role. When he talks about working with
Charles Laughton, for example, he recognizes that it's Wallach
telling about working with Laughton, not the other way around.
Likewise, some of the most entertaining bits are his recollections
of Tennessee Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Yul Brenner,
Elia Kazan, and many others.
But he also knows when to focus on himself, as he does in a story
about Eva Le Gallienne's Broadway production of Alice in
Wonderland. She had chosen the young Wallach to play the role
of a duck --- not a part that he had coveted, though he was
following in the webbed-footsteps of Burgess Meredith. Nor was he
reconciled on opening night as he watched fellow actors who were
more comfortably costumed and had speaking parts, while he could
As often happens in such situations, things took a turn for the
worse. The caterpillar around whose mushroom Alice would dance and
sing in an upcoming scene had failed to report for duty, and Miss
Le Gallienne elected to sacrifice the duck in the interest of a
creature with lines. Though he was unhappy as a duck, Wallach
balked at the change, so she ordered the stage manager to wrestle
him out of the duck costume, stuff him into the caterpillar suit,
and push him back onto the stage. From the wings she commanded: "Go
out and play that caterpillar!" Wallach remarks a bit
anticlimactically and perhaps unnecessarily that Miss Le Gallienne
never thanked him for his "courageous" performance.
Arthur Miller called Wallach "the happiest good actor" he'd ever
known. He was, after all, a kid from Brooklyn who wound up with the
girl of his dreams, the actress Anne Jackson, and the only job he'd
ever wanted. His book is so thoroughly permeated by his
good-natured outlook on life that it might be a '30s musical.
Reviewed by H.V. Cordry on January 22, 2011