Eli Wallach, “The Ugly” from the classic Leone western, has passed at 98. How old is that? You know the famous scene in The Godfather where the director gets a horse’s head in his bed? Well, that was supposed to be based on a real incident in which Frank Sinatra was cast as Maggio in From Here to Eternity. The details of that story have been debunked by everyone concerned, but the fact of the matter is that Sinatra was given a role that had already been cast – the original Maggio was Eli Wallach!
The Wikipedia entry on Wallach tells the story this way:
Wallach is central to one of the most infamous show business legends. In 1953 he was cast as Angelo Maggio in the film From Here to Eternity, but was abruptly replaced by Frank Sinatra before filming began. Sinatra went on to win an Oscar for the performance, which revived his career. Sinatra purportedly used pressure from his underworld connections to get the part, an incident that inspired the Johnny Fontane character in the classic 1972 film The Godfather. To spare Sinatra embarrassment, Wallach says he turned down the role to appear in a Tennessee Williams play, claiming: “… whenever Sinatra saw me, he’d say, ‘Hello, you crazy actor!'”
Wikipedia, as is its wont, is being less than encyclopedic, and is not sticking to objective fact there. To my knowledge, Wallach has never claimed that he received any incentive or pressure to drop out of the Maggio role. If there is a secret, he has kept it well. He simply says that he regretted dropping out of the movie to take a stage role.
Having dealt with some mob types during my years in the late Pinball / early Video Game era, I would say that intimidation, ala the horse’s head, was unlikely. The wiseguys know very well that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. Moreover, somebody who is threatened becomes an enemy, while somebody who accepts a lavish bribe becomes an accomplice who cannot ever tell the story without compromising himself. My guess is that if anything at all happened in Sinatra’s favor, it’s that Wallach was offered what seemed like a tremendous opportunity elsewhere, and the producer who offered him that opportunity was rewarded handsomely for doing something he was probably quite pleased to do, given that Wallach was already a Broadway star at the time, and possibly the single best interpreter of Tennessee Williams’ male characters. (He won a Tony in 1951 for The Rose Tattoo.)
But that’s just me speculating.
Anyway, how old was Wallach? He made his Broadway debut during WW2 – and he was a late bloomer. He was already 30 at the time!
How old was Wallach? A year and a half older than John F Kennedy.
How old was Wallach? He and Walter Cronkite were best buds as Longhorn undergrads at the University of Texas, where they appeared in a student play together, circa 1934. According to Wallach, as cited in the linked article, Cronkite played a coroner and Wallach was the corpse.