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Eli Wallach, prolific U.S. character actor, dies at 98

(Reuters) - Eli Wallach, an early practitioner of "method acting" who made a lasting impression as the scuzzy bandit Tuco in the film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," died on Tuesday at the age of 98.

Wallach appeared on the big screen well into his 90s in such films as Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," and Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel, as well as on the stage in more than two dozen Broadway shows.

"It's what I wanted to do all my life," Wallach said of his work in an interview in 2010.

Theater marquees on Broadway will be dimmed on Friday for one minute in memory of Wallach, whose first love was the stage.

"Eli Wallach was one of the great talents of our time whose prolific acting career spanned more than six decades. His notable presence on the stage and on screen was both memorable and moving, always," Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, said in a statement.

"Through the expertise of his craft, he was a storyteller in the most specific yet subtle ways," she said, adding that Wallach was a founding member of The Actors Studio and had studied method acting with legendary teacher Lee Strasberg.

Having grown up the son of Polish Jewish immigrants in an Italian-dominated neighborhood in New York, Wallach might have seemed an unlikely cowboy, but some of his best work was in Westerns.

Many critics thought his definitive role was as Calvera, the flamboyant, sinister bandit chief in "The Magnificent Seven." Others preferred him opposite Clint Eastwood in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," in Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti Western.

Years later, Wallach said strangers would recognize him and start whistling the film's distinctive theme.

Wallach graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he picked up the horseback-riding skills that would serve him well in later cowboy roles, the New York Times reported. He later studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse Actors Studio in New York before World War Two broke out.

After serving as an Army hospital administrator during the war, he found work on the New York stage and took classes at The Actors Studio, which used Method acting in which actors draw on personal memories and emotions to flesh out a role.

He appeared in "This Property Is Condemned" and ended up marrying the show's leading lady, Anne Jackson - a marriage that also led to several stage and screen collaborations.

Wallach made a name on Broadway with roles in two Tennessee Williams' works, "Camino Real" and "The Rose Tattoo," for which he won a Tony in 1951, as well as a two-year run in "Mr. Roberts."

His first movie was another Williams work, "Baby Doll" in 1956. Other major films included "How the West Was Won," "Mystic River," "The Holiday," "Lord Jim," and "The Misfits," - in which he starred with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe with John Huston directing an Arthur Miller script - and "The Godfather Part 3."

"Wallach is the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gave him an honorary Oscar in 2010, wrote in a profile on its website.

Despite the notable movies, Wallach said it was his portrayal of the villain Mr. Freeze on the "Batman" television show of the 1960s that generated the most fan mail.

Wallach titled his autobiography "The Good, the Bad and Me: In My Anecdotage." He and his wife lived in New York and had three children.

He is survived by his wife, three children, five grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

(Reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Patricia Reaney in New York; editing by G Crosse, Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Heavens)

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