"Now I'm going to say something, and I hope you understand it," Anne Jackson gingerly announces as she shoots a look across the dining room table at her husband, Eli Wallach, giving him a chance to gird himself or not. The topic, she tells a reporter sitting between them, is a laugh early in the Anne Meara play they're doing, Down the Garden Paths.
"Eli thinks he gets that laugh," says Jackson. "I was positive I got it because I do a take. I didn't even know he did a take until somebody said, 'When you and Eli do that take...!' I had no idea. She said, 'The timing on that! — and you're not even looking at each other!'"
Yes, it's come to this. America's premier acting couple has been performing together so long, so artfully, so seamlessly, they now do a Wallach-to-Wallach assault on the senses. It's an acting class — Advanced Chemistry — seeing the two doin' what comes so naturally.
Here they're Sid and Stella garden, a seasoned comedy team not unlike [Jerry] Stiller and Meara, who, it happens, live only three Riverside Drive blocks away from the Wallachs in real life. Both families have daughters playing Garden girls in the show — Amy Stiller and Roberta Wallach — and Stiller himself contributes recurring gag appearances on video.
It's a family affair, but Wallach opts for the long view. "Theatre is family," he says." "I got a sweet letter from Elizabeth Wilson, who said 'Lately, I've been thinking of giving it up, but I went to your show the other night, and now I feel renewed because you're still up there with Annie after 54 years, trouping along.' There is no greater satisfaction than to be acting onstage. I've done 50 or 60 movies. I can remember maybe four I enjoyed."
At 85, Brooklyn-born Wallach has 65 years of performing to look back on — from Liliom at his improbable alma mater, the University of Texas, to Down the Garden Paths, now at the Minetta Lane. Anne Meara's play after After-Play (her 1995 playwriting debut) is some sleight of hand, pondering paths taken and not taken; these Gardens are viewed in three scenes, or "realities," each determined by the outcome of a single event. Plays, and lives, have hinged on much less.
What if, for handy example, Wallach had not walked into Equity Library Theatre that day in 1946 and gotten himself cast opposite a beautiful young redhead named Anne Jackson in a one-act Tennessee Williams opus, This Property Condemned? "I'd have found her anyway," he insists. "The chemistry we have as actors would have brought us together."
She was a little surprised he got the role. "I thought he was too old for the part because I was reading with actors who were juveniles with cracked voices — he was playing a 15-year-old, and I was playing a 13-year-old — but Terry Hayden, the director at ELT, said 'No, no. He's a wonderful actor. He's going to do it.' Eli was still in uniform when I met him and very handsome. I fell in love. I don't know about him, but I was mad for him."
For the next few years, they did nothing but Tennessee Williams. She was Miss Alma's piano student in the original production of Summer and Smoke, and he was Serafina's swarthy swain in The Rose Tattoo (winning Tony and Donaldson awards for it). They did a tour of The Glass Menagerie, and Wallach made his movie debut, directed by Elia Kazan, in 1956 in "Baby Doll" (one of the four he likes).
He almost entered movies three years earlier, but that's a path not taken. "Kazan directed a tiny scene from Camino Real and showed it to Tennessee, who said, 'Oh, my God! I'll enlarge it to a full play, but meanwhile I'd like to use him in Rose Tattoo.' That's how I got Rose Tattoo. So I felt an affinity for Camino." But when the money fell through for Camino, he auditioned for— and got‚ the much-coveted part of Angelo Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." Then the Camino money surfaced, and Wallach honored his original play commitment, in effect giving Frank Sinatra (who went on to win an Oscar for "Eternity") the comeback role of a lifetime. The Wallachs always leaned more to theatre than to film — and to one theatre more than others. "I love the Martin Beck, and I knew Mrs. Beck," he says. "I was at the Martin Beck in Rose Tattoo when we had our first child and doing Teahouse [of the August Moon] at the Martin Beck when we had our second child. When she got pregnant a third time, we were booked into the Beck. She said, 'Stay the hell away from that theatre!'"
Firstborn Peter Douglas Wallach is an artist/animator and supplied the equipment used in Off-Broadway's Tabletop. The Wallach daughters are actresses and appeared with their parents — to moving effect— in an Off-Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Other Wallach pairings: Major Barbara, directed by and co-starring Charles Laughton; The Waltz of the Toreadors; three Murray Schisgal plays (Luv, Twice Around the Park, The Typists and The Tiger) and an autobiographical homage, Tennessee Williams Remembered.
"I used to feel sorry for the stage actors because they never got to do the movie versions," says Wallach, "then I realized they had the cream. They had quality writing. They worked on plays as they came together. That's more gratifying for actors than doing the film."
"Except when time goes by," postscripts Jackson. "When time goes by, you can always go back to the film and see what you've done. Doing a play is like building sand castles."