FAMOUS ACTOR BEGAN HIS INTERVIEW TALKING ABOUT THE 1950S AND THEN RETURNED TO HIS MEMORIES OF RED HOOK BROOKLYN WHEN HIS WAS THE ONLY JEWISH FAMILY IN AN ITALIAN NEIGHBORHOOD.
Eli Wallach Interview
June 1st, 2009.
ELI WALLACH: I was born in Red Hook, Little Italy, Brooklyn on Union Street. I wrote a book and the first chapter deals with a man named Albert Anastasia who was the head of the gangs. And, I was asked to play it on television, to act Albert Anastasia and I kept thinking, “I don’t know how to play this man. I really don’t know.” But, I went to California and the man in charge of costumes said, “I have some film on his brother being questioned by the Kefauver Committee. So, would you be interested?”
I said, “Yes, it will help me play that part.” So, they put on his brother, Tony Anastasia who was the head of the longshoremen. And they said, “You’re name?” He said, “My name is Antony Anastasia. And remember, I’m gonna tell you something, I’m answering no questions that I don’t like.” He said, “All right. Where do you live?” He said, “I live 167 Union Street, Brooklyn.” I said, “Shut off the machine. I was born at 166.” So, I was able to do that.
The old neighborhood was all Italians, so I grew up watching Italians. And, in the first movie I did, the Western, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Sergio Leone said, “You have to pray in here. Cross yourself. You know how to cross yourself?” I said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I learned how to cross myself because the Italians did it every day 30, 40 times a day, crossing themselves.” So, they crossed themselves this way. I did the initial thing, but then I flicked my hand three or four times this way. He said, “That’s very interesting. Keep doing that in the movie.” So, I kept crossing myself as Italians would. My mother learned a little Italian, my father, my brother Sam was the oldest, and my sister Sylvia, they’re both gone now. And, I have a younger sister. The two of us are the last survivors. They’re all gone now. But here I am at age 93 and my birthday is Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1916.
The 7th of December. I got the lowest number in the draft in World War II, the lowest number. I was going with a girl who was a doctor and she said to me, “I’ll keep you out of the Army.” I said, “How could you do that?” She said, “I’ll do an artificial numa thorax.” I said, “What is that?” She said, “I’ll stick a needle in your back, I’ll pump in air and I’ll collapse a lung and no one will know.” And I looked at her and thought, “Either she loves me so much she’s willing to risk her career as a doctor, or she wants to kill me.” So, she didn’t kill me, but I said, “No, I’m going in the Army.”
My parents both came from Poland. My father came to America to see if he could start a new life in America. He came first and then he went back to Poland and found a woman and married her and she had a child, my brother was born in Poland in 1911. So, they came here and he was gonna have some other business, but then they bought a little candy store on 166 Union Street.
Union Street went right down to the water. And, I used to go down to the water, long before the Expressway was built. . Sometimes I go past in Brooklyn, and I look down and I think, “That’s where I was. That’s where I grew up.”
My parents had a candy store. And once in a while, my father would take me across to Manhattan to shop for stuff for the candy store. They used to eat Indian nuts. Indian nuts are tiny little nuts. And, one of my jobs as a kid was to go clean up after the – longshoremen used to come to the shop and order tobacco, cigarettes, all that. But, they all ate Indian nuts and threw them all over the floor and I had to clean up after them.
Somehow he found the store. And bought it and we lived behind the store. The store was right on the ground in the front. You went in, there was a candy store. So, my brother and I had one little room, my sisters had one little room and my father and mother had the other room. That was the luxurious way we lived.
I remember in the candy store my father used to say, when the cigarettes were getting flat and no good, he said, “Eli, take them out and dump them somewhere.” And me and my gang would take them out and we smoked them.
My parents could speak Yiddish and they spoke Polish. And, my mother learned a little Italian. But, I’ll never forget, I used to play stickball with my gang..I was the only Jewish guy in the gang.. The gang was on Union Street. We played on Union Street, but we’d wait ‘til the streetcar went by.
There’s another story that has to do with it. We learned that if you took a penny and put it on the track and the streetcar would flatten it a little bit, it became a nickel, so that’s what we did. And also, there was always the thing of the wires ran above it. And a lot of time, something would happen and the conductor would have to come out and pull it because it would come off the wire, the streetcar couldn’t go. But, we liked the streetcars because we could raise it a penny to a nickel.
There were no other Jews there. We played stickball and Friday, one night it was my stick. The baseball area was laid out on the street and so one night on a Friday I took the thing and I said, “I gotta go home fellas. I gotta go home.” They said, “Why you going home? It’s the middle of the game.” I said, “Well, it’s Friday night, my mother says prayer.” So, the guy says, “Oh, you don’t know. What are you talking about? You want to go, we don’t trust you anyway ‘cause you killed Jesus.” I said, “I had nothing to do with Jesus. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So, anyway, they said, “And beside that, you’re missing a part of your prick.” So, I didn’t know what to say. I went home and my mother was there and she was bentshn likht which means – lighting the candles.
And, my heart was pounding because I kept thinking, “Ma, I don’t know what to say. The guy said I killed Jesus.” She said, “Who told you that?” I said, “The gang.” She said, “No, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Beside, we did not kill him. That’s an old wives’ tale.” I said, “Oh.” And then, I finally got up the courage to say, “Ma, am I missing a part of my penis?” She said, “Who told you that?” I said, “The gang told me that.” She said, “No, all good Jews are missing a part of their penis.” That’s my mother’s story.
At that time I understood a little Yiddish , but I understand more Italian than Yiddish.
When I was 5 my mother said, “I’m gonna take you across.” I said, “I
don’t want to go across. I don’t want to be in school. Please.” She took me and I went. And I went to P.S. 46. But then, I did well in school. The school was right across the street from where we were. And my gang all went there. There was a police station – on the same block as the school and my house. Same block.
After PS 46 I was sent to P.S. 6. It was a junior high school.
I had to take the street car to get there. I didn’t know how to do that, but they showed me how. And it was closer to Flatbush Avenue somewhere. The trolley, ran on Union Street,
The old gang is all gone now and anyway we moved. Finally, the mafia people said to my father, “Mr. Wallach, you have to move. It’s getting very dangerous here.” ‘Cause the mafia ran it. Al Capone lived there. So, we finally moved. We moved from there to Bedford Avenue, 2301 Bedford Avenue, in Flatbush. I was about 12 my father bought a house. He rented the bottom floor to people and the top floor to people, but we had an apartment, each got a room. I got a room, Sam and I got a room, Shirley and Sylvia got a room, and my father and mother had their room.
My father sold the candy store and that was it, he retired. What I loved about him is – I like to watch baseball now. We used to go –
Sometimes he would take me to Ebbets Field which was not too far away on Bedford Avenue. I remember Dazzy Vance a good player.
Years and years later, I’m gonna jump now because there’s a connection.Danny Kaye was a good friend of ours.I did a TV thing with him. And he used to say, “All right, I’m gonna take you to the ballgame.” In California because they moved. They left Ebbets Field and – they moved to Los Angeles. So he’s a friend of mine, the son of the original owner, his son is running the team. His name is: O’Malley. So, we get there and Danny says, “We’re gonna sit in the box with him. And he’d like to hear you.” So I go and I say to him, “You know, Mr. O’Malley, my father used to take me to Ebbets Field and when you left Ebbets Field and went out here, he didn’t want to have anything to do with your team.” So, I said, “That’s it.” So O’Malley said, “Listen, I’ll tell you something. We moved here, yes, and Danny brought you here today.” That was the first time. “If we win, you’re welcome back to come sit in the box with me any time you want. If we lose, it was nice meeting you.” So, I had eyeglass things with binoculars that kept scratching these eyeglasses. And, I kept thinking, “Oh God, we’ve gotta win.” Well, they did win, so I came back. But, he never – Danny Kaye never stayed beyond the seventh inning ‘cause he said, “No, we’ll get in the car and drive home now and turn it on in the radio in the car.”
Later my father would sit with me and we’d watch the baseball on the television. But that was much later in the 50s. He’d say to me, he’s watching the picture and then he’d say, “All right. Take him out.” And the manager would get up and walk out and take him out. I said, “How did you do that Pa?” He says, “I know this game. I know this game.”
There’s another one about my father-. on the radio, they used to broadcast the prize fights. So, I’d sit with my father and my father said, “You know, when the boxer finished the fight and he’d go to the microphone, they’d stick a mike in front of him and he’d say, ‘[BREATHING DEEPLY] Hello Ma, hello Pa. I won.’”
Now years later, I’m playing a boxer on television and I boxed three rounds. And, when it was over I ran to the phone. I picked up the phone and I called my father. I said, “Well, Pop, did you watch it? Did you watch this, the boxing? Did you see me?” There was a long pause and he finally said, “You couldn’t say hello?”
After I went to P.S. 6 and I went to Erasmus Hall High School, but I didn’t like that. I didn’t like Erasmus. The only famous person from Erasmus Hall was Barbra Steisand but she he was there much later.
But during that time there was a Boy’s Club, the Flatbush Boy’s Club which was a block and a half from our house. There was a pool there too.
And, one of the guys there put on plays. So, they said, “Will you be in a play?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be in a play.” So I played an old man. And, I went and the three of my buddies who lived near me in Bedford Avenue were sitting in the front row. And I was playing an old man who was angry at God because he had lost a little child, he lost a child. And I had things saying to God, “I can’t forgive you because what you did is not right. I lost my beautiful child. And, I’m an old man. I might as well” – I was 14 years old.
And the three guys in the front row said out loud, “That’s no old man. That’s Eli pretending to be an old man,” and then, loud enough for me to hear it. I wanted to jump off and say, “I’ll fight you and everyone.” And then I thought, “No, it’s better that I stay as an old man.” That was my first play.
Oh, I was about 15 years old. It was about 1930, the beginning of the Depression. But my father had a little money from having sold the store. So, he wasn’t in too bad shape. And my brother Sam got a job. Well, first he went to City College. He did very well and then he got work. He worked for the City running a playground. Later on, I worked for the summer in the playground near the Navy Yard in Brooklyn. Then he became a teacher brought in some money. And my other sisters, my youngest sister became a Kindergarten teacher .– And the middle sister was also a teacher.
All I wanted to do after that play at the boy’s club. I wanted to be an actor. That was the big drive for me. That was in the early thirties.
Now, I could not pass to get into City College for some reason and my brother said, we worked it out, “Work it out. I found a school for you to go to and you won’t have to worry about it. The tuition is nothing practically.” I said, “Where?” He said, “The University of Texas.” I said, “Texas? Am I going to Texas?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “But your sister Sylvia is going to go with you for the first semester and she’ll come home. But we want her to take you there.” And it was like being on another planet.
I had never been out of Brooklyn except to go to Manhattan and I spent summers at a camp called the Life Camp. Life Magazine, had two camps – one for girls and one for boys. When I was a kid, in Brooklyn, my father said, “You gotta go. We’re gonna send you to camp.” I said, “What is camp?. He said, “It’s a camp where they all have Indian titles.” So, I went and I was homesick. I couldn’t stand it, but I began to like it. It was in New Jersey. I was maybe 12 when I went away, 10 or 12.
So I went. I went to learn how to be in the camp. And, I began to like the camp because I could act in the camp as an Indian. We all belonged to tribes. And as I grew older, I went back as a counselor to that camp and for years I was on the board of the camp and every year I sent them enough money to keep that camp going.
Later when I went back I’d tell stories about acting. And then, yes, I would do plays with them.
But anyway I was telling about Texas. I arrived. I knew nothing about Texas or Texan. I did learn that from the eastern part of Texas to the western –El Paso, From the first part to El Paso was almost 1,000 miles. And I thought, “That’s amazing.” Also, I didn’t know anybody there except my sister went to one other place and they put me in a house, they paid, the rent was not much.
And they rented you a room. Also, I had no money, but the money was for one year was $30. I thought, “Oh, that won’t be hard.” But, I had no money. After that, every time I went back, I stayed four years, I would hitchhike. New York to Texas with my thumb.
Well, the second year I went back, they said, “For out of State attenders, whoever attends the University, we’ll charge you, an out of stater the same price you would charge a Texan if they went to school in New York. And, it’s $100 a semester.” And I said, “Well, I haven’t got the money. So, I’m sorry. I have to go home again.” They said, “No, we’ll get you work. We’ll get you a job.” So, we got jobs.
.At that time Lyndon B. Johnson was the head of the youth something like: National Youth Administration. And so one of the guys down there, wonderful old man said, “We’ll give you jobs to keep you here. So, we’ll get you a job, you’ll clean the student union building, mop the floors, clean, sweep.”
It didn’t.have any Indian nuts [LAUGHS] But then they said, “Also, beside that, you will be able to sell soda at the football game.” I said, “How am I gonna sell soda?” They said, “You go to the park and you go out and you say, ‘Coca-Cola! Coke!’” And I was shy about it and I thought, the first day I went out on a Saturday – the game was always on Saturday – I said, “Coke, Coke.” I was too shy to say it out loud. But, after a while, I got into it and I’d begin yelling.
Now, every Saturday night in Texas they had what they called The German. The German was a dance. For a dollar people could go in with their girlfriends. I didn’t have the dollar and my sister had taught me a lot of dance steps in New York. So, I’d wait until the intermission, the half of the dance. Guys would take their girls and go out and I would wait outside of the door as they came out and I’d say to the guy, “Can I have your stub?” Their little ticket – he’d say, “Yeah, ‘cause I’m not coming back. I’m gonna go out with my girlfriend. We’re gonna lie on the beach and then – no, you could have the ticket.” So, I go in the last half, I would tap the guy on the shoulder and take the girl and dance. I’d break in. And I was dancing, all these girls would say, “Where were you at the beginning of the dance?” I’d say, “Well, I was busy. I had other things. But here I am.” And I would dance with all these girls. That was my experience. And, there was one organization, a church where they had dancing once a week. And I’d go there even though I was not of their religion. But, I’d dance with the girl and go past a light switch and turn out the lights.
There was a Jewish group – Hillel but I didn’t go to Hillel ‘cause they didn’t have the light switch.
But while I was at Texas, I wanted to act some more. So, I went to the – in the town of Austin, a dentist, a doctor, a lawyer, all the different people there would go and they’d put on a play four times a year or something. So they said, “Sorry, you can’t. You’re a student in the school, we won’t take you. We’re gonna take people who live in Austin.” I said, “Well, how am I gonna act” – they said, “Well, go and join the Curtain Club.”
So I went to join the Curtain Club and the first thing they said to me is, “You gotta sweep the floors. You’re not gonna act for the first semester you’re here. You’re not. You’re an apprentice.” And, after a while my big, big treat came when I was in a play in the Curtain Club. Also, in that play was Walter Cronkite, the great newscaster. I’ll tell you why I got to know him. Walter came on stage with a little black suitcase, he was a doctor and a policeman, He already said to the woman, “where’s the body?” And the woman said crying, “He’s there in the closet. He’s in the closet.” And Walter Cronkite would say, “All right. I’ll take care of it.” And he walked over, opened the door, and I was the body and I fell on him. That was my baptism.
In the fourth year, I played Lilion in a play. It’s a wonderful, wonderful play. I can’t think of who wrote it, but wonderful.
After college I came back and I said, “I want to be an actor.”
My brother said, “Eli, it’s the Depression. Here, at least, if you go into the school system, you’ll get a job. You’ll get a pension, you’ll get to be a teacher.” But, in order to teach in New York, you had to have a degree in education a Master’s Degree. So I said, “So what am I supposed to do?” He said, “You’ll go take the test. Go to City College. It’s a two year course and when you’re through with that, you take the teacher’s exam and you’ll be a teacher.” I said, “Oh, I really want to be an actor.” He said, “No.”
The family generally – mother, father – my father said, “How can you make a living acting? They don’t make a living.” He said, “You don’t know, you want to be an actor, you’ll never know. You’re gonna be a teacher.” I finally had to give in. I started going to City College for two years. So, I went.
Now, there you had to read four books and then you had to take a test on those four books. This was at City College at 23rd Street or then up at Convent Avenue. So I went. I wasn’t happy with going there, but I went to take the teacher’s exam. I don’t remember any of it. I do know that my hands were shaking, I was terrified, I didn’t know. But finally, about a month – no, two weeks after I finished the teacher’s exam, I got a letter saying, “Dear Mr. Wallach, unfortunately we have to tell you that you didn’t pass this test.” And I thought, “Thank God.” And my sister, my oldest sister said, “Eli, I’m going with a guy who’s a conductor of music and he knows somebody from the Neighborhood Playhouse.” So I said, “What?” She said, “I’ll arrange it.” So they arranged it so I could go to the Neighborhood Playhouse and become an actor –See if they’d give a scholarship. I lived in Brooklyn, in Flatbush and I used to take the BMT and take it all the way to 46th Street I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse. That was maybe ’38.
So, I went to audition to get into the Neighborhood Playhouse and the teacher, the head of the acting department was Sanford Meisner who was a brilliant, brilliant director. He also was an actor. He was in the Group Theater. So, he said to me, “You want to be an actor?” I said, “Yes, I want to be an actor.” He said, “All right, do something.” So, I did a poem, it’s called “On the Wire” about an old soldier caught on the wire, “Oh God, take the sun from the sky. It’s burning me. It’s driving me crazy.” Very dramatic, and I was tearful. When it was over Mr. Meisner said, “All right. We’ll give you a scholarship. You’ll get $5 a week to take the subway to come here. But it’s going to take you 20 years to become an actor. I said, “20 years? Does he realize that I played Lilion in the University of Texas?” He didn’t realize any of that, but I was accepted. In my class was Tony Randall, and others. It is a two year course. In the second year, by the second year they threw out a lot of actors, but I held on and in the second year was Gregory Peck coming as a young student.
Now a story about my father- the Yiddish theater. My father used to take me to the Yiddish Theater to see a play on Second Avenue. So, I went, I sat with him. This was after I finished the Neighborhood –Anyway, I’m sitting there with my father and the man comes out and he’s going into the Army and the rich, wealthy girl is gonna be marrying him. And the poor girl, standing alongside started to cry because she really loved him from the bottom of her heart she loved him. So, I waited. The intermission, the guy comes back from the War and he comes like this. (He’s got an empty sleeve).An empty sleeve. And, the rich girl says, “I don’t want him. He’s not whole. I don’t want that man because I just feel that I loved a man with two hands.” And the poor girl says, “I love him. I’ll take him. I don’t care that he has” – and the guy from the Army went like, [SCREAMS] and he stuck his hand out with his full hand. And I said to my father, “You see, that’s theater. That’s theater.” And then I fell in love with the Yiddish Theater. I didn’t understand Yiddish much but I saw what he did with his hand.
So I graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse. As a matter of fact, my wife and I just spoke at the graduation of this year at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She went there for one year and then left the theater, left the Playhouse and went on the road with Katharine Cornell.
When my parents came to the theater to see me do a play, then my father was –very proud.
As I’m leaving the Neighborhood Playhouse , I said to Martha Graham who taught movement and dance, I had seen a painting by James McNeill Whistler – he did Whistler’s mother. And he used to sign it at the top, “James McNeill Whistler,” in big letters. And nobody wanted to buy his paintings. So he said, “The hell with it. I’ll never paint again.” Then he said, “Wait a minute, it’s silly. I know what I’ll do. I’ll put a little butterfly in a corner of the painting, a little butterfly like Hirschfeld does Nina.” So, he put that. So I said to Martha Graham as I’m leaving, “Ms. Graham,” I told her the story about McNeill Whistler and the butterfly, I said, “When I go onto stage, when I leave here, I’m going to make a Graham movement, a Martha Graham movement somewhere in the play or in the movie.” She said, “Oh, all right.” So, now I get out and I say, “Broadway, here I come.” This was still before the War, in 1940. I come home one day and there’s a letter, “Eli Wallach, : “Greetings, this is your number, I had the lowest number in the draft.”
So, I have to go for a physical. That’s when I told you that I was going with the girl who was a doctor who said she was going to stick a needle in me. But now, so I go and the doctors examining the soldiers, guy with low numbers. I’m standing behind the guy and the doctor says to the man in front of me, “Did you hear me?” And the guy says, “No, I didn’t hear you.”
He says, “Oh, well then you’re out. Get out, get out, we don’t need you.” So, the next one was me, naked. I’m standing there and I said to the doctor, “Just a minute sir. I have flat feet.” And the doctor says, “So do I, you’re in the Army.” And I was put in the Army. As a matter of fact, when I got there and they gave me clothes, my mother said, “Don’t they give you clothes that fit?” These were clothing from World War I. The coats were that low.
In the book I wrote, The Good, the Bad, and Me, I had a dream that I was sitting in a movie house and looking at the thing and the man who spins the wheel where your number is stopped and looked at me sitting in the movie house, pointed at me and said, “You out there, you got a low number and you’re going into the draft.” And I woke up from this nightmare.
Now, the first thing I found that amazed me was that I was a medic. I was put in the medical, I became a medical soldier. And I thought, “Jesus, they musta known I was going with this girl who was a doctor who wanted to stick me with a needle,” right? But, that wasn’t it. It was that for some reason they put me in the medics. By Pearl Harbor Day, I’m in Texas now way on the east end, near Galveston., I’m a Staff Sergeant, I’d gotten promoted.
Now the phone rings, I’m on duty, and I pick up the phone and the girl says, “Hello, my name is Jane. I’m a girlfriend of Freddy. Is he there?” I said, “No, he’s not in. He’s in town.” She said, “Well, I’m an operator on the phone. I’ll give you one free call. Who do you want to call?” I said, “I’d like to call my father.” She said, “Oh good, all right.” I told her the number. So, my father gets on the phone, he says, “Eli, you heard?” I said, “What?” He says, “The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.” I said, “Where is Pearl Harbor?” He said, “I don’t know, but there’s gonna be a War.”
I hung up after that and I thought, “Now I’m gonna be in the War.” A month and a half later, my birthday is Pearl Harbor Day, December the 7th, 1941. I see that my unit is now going to California, to San Francisco. I was in the 23rd Station Hospital. We get to San Francisco and I’m put on a ship. I don’t know where – I wound up in the island of Maui.
Seven months after Pearl Harbor, the captain calls me in and says, “We’re gonna send you to officer school in Texas, in Abilene, Texas and you’re going to medical administrative school.,” which meant I would be training to be a medical administrator, to run the hospital, admit, discharge, all of that stuff to free the doctors to do their medical work. So I went. I graduate and the first day when you come out, now, I have a second lieutenant bar.
The tradition was, the first American soldier, GI who comes has to salute because you’re an officer now. So, he saluted and I saluted and then you’re supposed to give him a dollar. So, I did it. I gave the guy a dollar, he thought, “This Army is crazy. I just saluted and the guy’s giving me a dollar.”
But anyway, I became an officer. And the second hospital was now the 69th Station Hospital. Now I get on another ship. My mother said, “Don’t they tell you where you’re going?” I said, “No.” And I wound up in Casablanca. But, I met the officers when the unit was put together, the 69th Station Hospital, I met the colonel who was in charge. He was a colonel and I became his adjutant. An adjutant is like a private secretary to the colonel, right? So anyway, that was –that was in ’42. I’m a second lieutenant. I go in and salute to the colonel and he looks at me and he says, “How is President Rosenfeld doing this evening?” I said, “I don’t think that’s funny sir.” I said, “He’s the commander in chief of the Army.” He said, “Oh, some of my best friends are Jews.” Anyway, I didn’t say anything.
Out of Spain came German planes. They flew down and destroyed a whole ship of English sailors. But a lot of the sailors were burned and were brought to the 69th Station Hospital in Casablanca.
So, the colonel said, he was not hearing well, “I’m doing this for you,” not hearing well, and my job was to stand alongside him and to repeat any questions a little louder. Now, the commanding general came down, flew down to where we were. I took the colonel and we marched with the general. And the general said to him, “All right colonel, what do you do about changing the sheets on burn cases?” So, before I could repeat the question a little louder, the colonel says, “Oh, of course we feed them. They get three good meals a day. There’s no problem.” And the general looked at me and looked at him, and it continued all during the interview with this man. Every time I’d start to say something, the colonel said, “No, no, no. We have jeeps. Each guy gets a jeep.” A month and a half later I come to his office and I put a letter down on the desk.
Now, I read the letter because I was the adjutant, I put it down and it was rescinding his job and sending him back to the States. And the colonel looked at that and he looked at me as though I had a hand in this. I didn’t say anything, but he said, “Get out! Just get out of the place God damn it. Get out.” And I walked out and I thought “I’m sure President Rosenfeld must’ve been amused by what happened.”
After that we went to Marsailles. I got on a hospital ship with big lights on the chimneys and all this and all the other ships were in – there were 30 other ships going to the invasion of southern France, and I thought, “Why do they light us up?” They’re going to blow us up.”
And then, from Marseille we go to Nice. Now there we have a new colonel, another colonel who was a short man, bright, who said, “All right.” He told me things he wanted from me. He said, “When we move to Nice” – all the French had run away, taken cars with ‘em, you know. The French were also in footsies with the Germans too, The Vichy government.
So, the colonel said, “You’re going to be in the garage.” And I thought, “Oh God, I’m gonna be in a garage?” It was a beautiful garage. It had a whole floor and right now I was having a relationship with a nurse ‘cause she was also a lieutenant. Anyway, so we spent a good part of the time, and this is an interesting point, I went by car, by train, from Nice to the border between France and Italy. My job was to pick up the wounded on that border and bring them back to our hospital. The unit we were servicing was the 442nd Japanese American Brigade. As a matter of fact, the guy in the Senate. He lost an arm., Inouye, from Hawaii.was in that brigade.
My job was to give out Purple Hearts and they won more Purple Hearts than any unit in the whole Army.
PK: During your time of the War, did you do any acting at all?
ELI WALLACH: I did something very different. I put together with us, the GI’s, I was also the commanding officer of the soldiers. We developed a story. Irving Berlin wrote a thing called “This is the Army.” So we changed it to, “Is This the Army?” And I would summon the kids, the soldiers, we put together a show and in each one of those we’d play in different hospitals. And the colonel kept sending us to different hospitals because we could entertain the soldiers. And I played Hitler in each one of them. I dressed as Hitler. Okay, now the reason I tell that is I want to skip over, in 1945, in August 1945 I was sent on a mission to Berlin. Now I was a Captain in the Army, Captain Wallach. I have a picture of me as Captain Wallach. I get there and they assigned a Russian, a young Russian lady with a big pistol on her hip, an officer who spoke English and her job is to show me around ‘cause I was to plan how are we were gonna set up a hospital in Japan. They wanted to teach us in Berlin how they did it. I was the closest by. They flattened Berlin. It was flattened. It was decimated. It was absolutely just, no building was standing except the Ministry of Propaganda and also they showed me where Hitler’s bunker was. I walked around a lot .
And this was after five years. What happened was that I stayed there a week. August 1945 was two months after Hitler committed suicide and I was in Berlin for that two weeks. Finally, the bomb went off and they were sending me home now. And, I came home with the same nurse that was in the Army with me all this time.
The nurse, she was sent up to New York State as a nurse.
Now about that time I met and was introduced to Anne Jackson and I thought to myself, “Well, I had my first encounter with a doctor. I got in the Army. I spent two years with a nurse in the Army. I better get into the theater.” So, I found myself an actress. I met her in February of 1946.
I met a friend of ours, a friend I knew, founded what they call Equity Library Theater. She discovered that in the basement of all the public libraries in New York there was a small stage. So she said, “Come on, I’m putting on a play.” She said, “I want you to meet this young actress and I want you to be in it. It’s a one act play by Tennessee Williams called ‘This Property is Condemned.’”
I was living at home. So, I meet her and she leaned over and she said – I was still in uniform, I was allowed a month and a half to wear it. She said, “Who’s going to play the young boy in it?” And Terry Hayden said, “Him.” She said, “He’s too old.” I said, “I heard that.” And I thought, “Well, we’ll see about that.” But anyway, I played a 15 year old. We did the play. From then on we met and were together. She came from – Pittsburgh. but, her father moved to Long Island and then she stayed with her sister in Long Island and then she got an apartment, a one room flat on Fifth Avenue and 11th Street. And we began to live together. At that time Fifth Avenue was two ways still and it was a dime bus fare.The rent was $35 a month, beautiful. Well, everything was cheaper. The New York Times was 10 cents.
Anyway, then we started to do the plays of Tennessee Williams. We did five of his plays, and we spent the next the next 61 years together. We got married in ’48. We went down to City Hall.
Before that, one time Anne and I were in bed there and I came home, I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t find a play to do and I said, “Damn it. I’ll go back to my civilian skill. I can be an administrator of a hospital.” She thought I was a doctor in the beginning because all I talked about was hospital. I said, “So, I’ll just go back to become an administrator of a hospital.” She said, “I’ll be a nurse.” And I looked at her and Anne always says, “You looked at me as though, ‘What are you doing in my nightmare?’” So anyway, I said, “No, we’ll find a job.”
Finally I was in a play with Katharine Cornell in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Ann got work before I did. She made her first movie before I did.
But we did five years of Tennessee Williams’ plays. She was in Summer and Smoke, I was in The Rose Tattoo, I was in Camino Real which didn’t have a long life, but is my favorite play of his. And then we did The Glass Menagerie on tour. My first movie was written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Kazan called Baby Doll.
But when I was still acting on Broadway the theater was always the Martin Beck Theatre on 45th Street just off Eighth Avenue. Two or three years ago, a friend of ours was – they changed the name from the Martin Beck Theatre to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and my son who draws a lot, is painting, drew the whole marquee of that thing, and I showed it to Al Hirschfeld and he said, “Who did this?” I said, “Peter my son.” He said, “Can I meet him?” And Peter came. They fell in love with one another because Peter does a lot of drawings. That’s a self portrait of Peter right there. But those are some stained glass things he made.
Anyway, we didn’t live on Fifth Avenue very long. We lived in different places and then we moved to 76th Street – 77th Street, and Riverside Drive and then we moved to this apartment here. My parents loved Anne.
When we had our first child my mother went to Anne and said, “Anything you want and anyway we can help we’d be happy to do that for you.” Now, she’s not Jewish, but we brought up the children in ethical culture. Peter Wallach, my son was born 56 years ago, 57 years ago.
There was never any problem about you’re Jewish and I’m not. We just had dinner the other night here, sitting here with Jerry Stiller, Jerry and Anne Meara. And, she converted, Anne Meara. Annie and I and our daughter Roberta and their daughter, we did a play of Anne Meara’s for a year called Down the Garden Paths.
In 1947 Anne and I were asked to join a new thing called the Actor’s Studio. Kazan and Bobby Lewis founded it. Lee Strasberg didn’t join ‘til two or three years later when they let him come in. So, we’d been members, we’re both on the board of the Actor’s Studio. My youngest daughter just did a scene there last Friday. She’s an actress in that. And two of them, my older daughter is gonna be on the board.
It’s interesting. Katherine lives at 72nd and Riverside. I live at 81st and Riverside. Our middle daughter lives at 86th and Riverside. My son has a home in Bucks County, but he also has a studio at 24th Street.
So after Broadway I started making movies. I made 80 movies. I never unpacked when I made movies in California. Yes, I made movies all over the world except for India And Anne made movies. She was in the last movie with Ingrid Bergman in the Knesset in Israel in Golda Meir she played her private secretary. She made one of the last movies with Frank Sinatra.
I’ll tell you the story of Frank Sinatra, because there’s a relationship between the two of us. I wanted to do – I finished a year in The Rose Tattoo, a year and a half and I was scheduled to do the next play of Tennessee’s Camino Real which is a play I adored. They couldn’t raise the money for that play, but I auditioned and I got a job. And the job was From Here to Eternity and the money came through for the play and I had to choose, the movie or the play, I chose the play. The play lasted two months, two and a half months, the movie – every time Sinatra met me after that –He would say to me, “Hello you crazy actor.” But every time he came to sing in New York he’d invite Annie and me to sit in the box and he’d wave up to us and then we’d go out to dinner. I thought it was very sweet.
I was in a lot of movies. I remember Norman Mailer wrote a thing called The Executioner’s Song. It was to be shot in Provo, Utah in the Mormon country and I was to play – a young murderer, I played his uncle. I had a store, a shop of some kind.
I was the uncle of the murderer. It was very interesting. We shot it in the place where the murder took place where this man was sentenced to death. And in Utah they have a system, you can choose between hanging or the firing squad and this murderer chose the firing squad and we held it, filmed it in the same firing squad, the same place, the same, all that.
Anyway, each building in Mormon country at the base of the building it said the year it was built. So I was getting ready to go for work in this movie and I have my camera and I stop and I see the thing and I go, “I can’t believe it.” And I have my tripod. I set the camera up. I ran and sat alongside the sign when it was built and I look like this – and it said, “Laid, 1904”
I acted with Kate Winslet last year who won the Academy Award for The Reader, She was wonderful in it. I played an old film writer in California. The movie was called the Holiday. It was about two girls, one living in England and one living in California. You should rent it.
Oh I made a lot of movies and I’m still acting at 93.