A never-before-seen video of Eli Wallach reading the award-winning screenplay Visiting Mr. Green presents, in the words of Jeff Baron, who wrote the play, “the best chance” to see this extraordinary actor “live.” The video will be shown January 10 at The East Hampton Library.
Wallach, who died on June 24, 2014, lived in East Hampton with his wife, the actress Anne Jackson. They were married for 66 years. A onetime lifeguard, Wallach “loved the water,” says his son Peter, and had “many friends in the arts in the Hamptons.” Wallach first rented near a marina and then moved to a bigger house near Main Beach in East Hampton. What was unusual about Wallach, Baron notes, was that this man who so loved the theater was loved back by directors, fellow actors, dramatists and screenwriters. “He took his talent and celebrity seriously and humbly. He always had time to talk to a stranger. He was always willing to donate his time for a cause he believed in, or to a first play by an author he never heard of,” as with Baron. A novelist and screenwriter as well as a playwright, Baron has met all manner of stars, and Wallach, in his opinion, was in a class by himself—a brilliant actor and a generous human being, “the most respectful collaborator I’ve ever worked with.”
It’s fitting that the video by Peter Wallach, shot October 3, 2003 with three cameras, will be shown at the library, Eli Wallach frequently gave his time and energy to library events. The tribute, organized by library director Dennis Fabiszak, will feature the video and Baron, who will give the behind-the-scenes story of Visiting Mr. Green. The play premiered with Wallach June 20, 1996 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and so far has had over 400 productions in 45 countries…and counting (it’s now playing in Paris, Prague and Bucharest). As far as Baron is concerned, the play could have run forever at the Union Square Theater in the city, but Wallach, a devoted family man, wanted to spend time with his wife, and the play had no part for her. It has only two male characters: Mr. Green, an 86-year-old widower, who narrowly escapes being hit by a car driven recklessly by a young corporate executive. The court orders the executive to make weekly visits to Mr. Green for six months, appointments that begin with comedic overtones (Wallach had a gift for being funny, Baron points out, and perfect timing), but soon develop into moving revelatory exchanges.
Wallach preferred theater over film and particularly enjoyed performing in plays by Tennessee Williams (Wallach’s Broadway debut was in The Rose Tattoo) and Arthur Miller (Marilyn Monroe adored Wallach and would sometimes babysit for him and Jackson). Baron cites Wallach’s rare stage ability to listen. In a movie, as he points out, the camera cuts to an actor on the director’s command, but on stage, an actor is on view all the time. Only a real pro, like Wallach, knows how to project listening when it’s not his turn to recite lines. Of course, Wallach’s film career, which began in 1956 with Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, has become legendary and includes over 90 films and as many TV dramas, like Wallach’s role as Mr. Freeze in the Batman series in the ’60s. There typically comes a time in a stage actor’s career, Baron observes, when L.A. beckons. Most go. Not Wallach, who saw such a move as personally and professionally disruptive to the life he loved in New York. Wallach was an unusually versatile character actor, meaning “you look like a leading actor but you don’t have the classical good looks.” The best roles, Baron adds, go to character actors.
Baron has written a follow-up to Visiting Mr. Green called Mr. Green Opens the Door. Set six years after the first play (Mr. Green is now 92) and featuring other characters, the play has just opened in Munich. No Wallach, of course, but certainly, Wallach-inspired.
East Hampton Library Remembers Eli Wallach will take place on Saturday, January 10, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Free, but reservations a must: call 631-324-0222, extension 3.