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Eli Wallach and Me

Actor Eli Wallach passed away at the age of 98 on June 24th, 2014. Eiji Yoshikawa shares his personal experience with Mr. Wallach here. (Click on images to see larger versions.)

Nov 16, 2014
Eiji Yoshikawa

Eli Wallach’s first movie role was playing a Sicilian immigrant in Elia Kazan’s 1956 award-winning film, Baby Doll.

Eli WallachIt was this very person, Mr Eli Wallach, who inspired me to write books and make movies. On July 6th, 2002, we were sitting at a table on a terrace under the bright comfortable sun in Sicily, Italy. He said to me, “Eiji, you've got to make a movie. Write a story. A story about a boxer would be good because you’re a boxer.”

Two months later, on September 10, 2002, the legendary actor awaited my arrival in front of his house in New York City, wearing a beautiful button up shirt. He opened the taxi door for me and informed the door men that I was the man from Tokyo that he had been waiting for. He said that he had turned down some business appointments in order to be free to spend the day with me.

Eli Wallach and Eiji YoshikawaUpstairs in his house, he told me to help myself from the fridge as he walked through the kitchen. He sat down and quickly read the pages of my script. Then, with the same voice and friendly grin as Tuco, his world-famous role from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, he said, “I like it! Now we must find a producer.”

He took me to a restaurant across Broadway where he ordered a sandwich for himself and a hamburger for me. As he munched on the sandwich he said, “The script is good. But you see, tomorrow is a year after 9/11. A year ago, you, an ex-boxer, flew from Japan all by yourself, to New York City, to dig in the wreckage to help find people, while everyone else was flying away from the city. I see humanity there. That will make a movie. You write that story, Eiji.”

He was going to play a role in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River a week later. Eli was also growing a beard and mustache. In a few weeks he was scheduled to play Freud, the psychoanalyst who fought Nazi Germany.

He said, “I fight this way, and Eiji you fight your way.”

He knew I talked a lot about Anne Frank to people in Japan, and kept visiting her hiding place in Amsterdam. Eli’s whole family performed in “The Diary Of Anne Frank,” on stage in 1978. His daughter, Roberta, who played Anne Frank, said, “It’s very interesting that you two get on well together because my dad was born on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, and you did humanitarian work on 9/11.”

In this multicultural city of New York, people seem to like what I do. Back in the Land of Sushi, when I say, “I just want to be useful to those who are suffering” and “I want to be friends with everyone, beyond borders” and “Better to support people who are struggling,” very often answers from folks there are, “Oh, I love Japan the best. I always support these great people” or “So, you are anti-Japan. Why?”

The conversation with Eli, on Broadway, went on to very interesting stories from the 1950s and ‘60s, about working with Elia Kazan, Henry Hathaway, and also Sugar Ray Robinson, the boxing legend. He also shared his experiences and very deep thoughts about WW II.

Eli WallachOn the plane from Tokyo to New York, I wrote down the names of movies he was in—at least as many as I could recall. It was about eighteen movies. Back then, I’m not sure if movie data or a Wikipedia filmography were available on the Net. I showed him the list, and asked, “Are there any other movies you were in?” He took the paper from me, lifted his glasses up to his forehead, looked at it from top to bottom in five seconds, gave it back to me and said, “Yes, that’s about it.” The fact is that he was in over one hundred films.

One thing he kept saying to me, each time we met, was that although he had such a big career in movies, he was “a stage actor.” When he said that, he meant that’s where he came from, and where he belongs.

To me, I understood his meaning as, “I love people. I love life. Do what you love to do.”

When he received the Honorary Oscar in 2010, presented by Clint, he said, “I don't act to live. I live to act.”

When Eli played a bandit, a thief or a villain, he brought a great sense of humor to the roles, and created very likable characters in each role. The humor came from who he was. He was the friendliest, most open-hearted and lovable person I've ever met.

After meeting him, I started visiting schools and towns, giving lectures about peacemaking, over one hundred times a year. I wrote books and made movies for fundraising, in order to serve children with needs.

I believe that he really was one of the greatest persons we’ve ever known, especially when I recall this quote from Mark Twain:

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
Photo property of Eiji Yoshikawa

Image(s) from Wikimedia Commons

Eiji Yoshikawa is a retired Pro Boxer who majored inFrench literature and did his thesis on Jean Cocteau and Cinematography. He founded the "Peacemakers", Japan's first neighborhood watch, and spends much of his time visiting schools and communities teaching children about non-violence. In 2004, Japan Inc. Magazine called him the "Compassionate Pugilist". We are proud to offer "Letters from the Compassionate Pugilist" as our first guestcolumnist. Contact Eiji at or via email.

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