Friday, August 28, 2009

Eli in danger

From THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND ME In My Anecdotage
by Eli Wallach
There were two incidents that brought an end to our game playing. In one scene I board a train en route to a Union army prison camp. I was handcuffed to a giant of a soldier who kept pulling at me. In the scene I ask him if I can take a piss. The guard slides open the train door to let me pee. "I can't while you're watching me," I say. As he turns his head, I jerk on the handcuffs, jump, and pull him off the train with me, then bludgeon him to death.
Handcuffed, I'm unable to get away, but in the distance, I hear a train whistle. I pull and push the dead guard (actually it was a dummy) between the tracks and lay my handcuff on the rail. Our great special effects team had created soft handcuffs that could easily be cut as the train ran over them. I watched Leone twitch his hands with excitement. "As the train approaches, I want you to turn around so your face is to the camera," he said. "I want to know that it's you and not a stunt man or a double."
I began to follow Leone's direction, but noticed as the train went past that each car had a small iron step leading to the door of the train car. And if I had raised my head from the ditch where I was lying just a few inches higher, I would have been decapitated. After the train passed, Leone sat beside me and told me he needed to redo the scene.
"Not with me," I said. "I'm not doing it again."
"I need the shot; it's important," Leone said.
"All right," I said, but insisted that the ditch in which I was lying be dug deeper. The train went into reverse, I settled back into my hole, laid the handcuffs on the track, and waited for the scene to start over. As directed, I turned my head to face the camera as the train passed. When the scene was over Leone approached me with Tonino Delli Colli - the expert cameraman who shot all of Leone's films. The huddled together, gesturing and arguing. Finally, Leone said that the cameraman couldn't see my face because I was too far down in the hole.
"Did you see that goddamn step on the train?" I asked. "Do you want me to finish the movie without a head?" Leone stopped and stared as the train disappeared in the distance.
"All right," he said. "We'll use the first take."
The second incident took place in a cemetery, where I was supposed to use a shovel to break open a leather sack of gold. It was rather tough leather, so the prop man had put some acid on the sack to make it easier for me to crack it open. I remember that it was hot as hell in the cemetery, and in the heat, I usually drank lemon soda that came in special bottles with a little porcelain cap and wires to hold it in place. Taking a break from the scene, I saw a little bottle, flipped back the lid, and started to drink. I got a mouthful of acid. As soon as it hit my mouth, I spat it out and the whole crew stopped chattering. Leone handed me a bottle of milk - "Drink, drink," he said, "it will help you."
"Goddamn it," I thought. If I had swallowed some of the acid, it would have destroyed my vocal cords. Leone was shaken but philosophical about it. "We didn't know," he said apologetically. "It's terrible. He never should have left it there, but accidents happen."
(Of course Eli is incorrect regarding Tonino Delli Colli shooting all of Leone's films. He only shot THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.)


  1. You'll also notice when Angel Eyes shows up at the cemetery, he throws a shovel towards Eli and barely misses his head. This was no rubber shovel but a real spade. Curious what Wallach's thoughts were during that scene.

  2. It would seem that the memory wasn't strong enough for him to include it in his book.