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Eli Wallach, versatile actor of stage, film; at 98

Eli Wallach with his wife, Anne Jackson, and daughters Roberta and Katherine at a theater production at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.Huntington Theatre Company/file 2010/Huntington Theatre Company

NEW YORK — Eli Wallach, who was one of his generation’s most prominent and prolific character actors in film, onstage, and on television for more than 60 years, died Tuesday. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Katherine.

A self-styled journeyman actor, the versatile Mr. Wallach appeared in scores of roles, often with his wife, Anne Jackson. No matter the part, he always seemed at ease and in control, whether playing a Mexican bandit in the 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven,” a bumbling clerk in Eugène Ionesco’s allegorical play “Rhinoceros,” a henpecked French general in Jean Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors,” Clark Gable’s sidekick in “The Misfits,” or a Mafia don in “The Godfather: Part III.”

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Despite his many years of film work, some of it critically acclaimed, Mr. Wallach was never nominated for an Academy Award. But in November 2010, less than a month before his 95th birthday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar, saluting him as “the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role.”

His first love was the stage. Mr. Wallach and Jackson became one of the best-known acting couples in the American theater. But films helped pay the bills.

“For actors, movies are a means to an end,” Mr. Wallach said in an interview with The New York Times in 1973. “I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play.”

Mr. Wallach, who as a boy was one of the few Jewish children in his mostly Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, made both his stage and screen breakthroughs playing Italians. In 1951, six years after his Broadway debut in a play called “Skydrift,” he was cast opposite Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” playing Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a truck driver who woos and wins Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian widow living on the Gulf Coast. Both Stapleton and Mr. Wallach won Tony Awards for their work.

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The first movie in which Mr. Wallach acted was also written by Williams: “Baby Doll” (1956), the playwright’s screen adaptation of his “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Mr. Wallach played a Sicilian émigré and the owner of a cotton gin that he believes has been torched.

Mr. Wallach never stayed away from the theater for long. After “The Rose Tattoo” he appeared in another Williams play, “Camino Real” (1953), wandering a fantasy world as a young man named Kilroy. He also played opposite Julie Harris in Anouilh’s “Mademoiselle Colombe” (1954), about a woman who chooses a life in the theater over life with her dour husband, and in 1958 he appeared with Joan Plowright in “The Chairs,” Ionesco’s farcical portrait of an elderly couple’s garrulous farewell to life.

In another Ionesco allegory, a 1961 production of “Rhinoceros,” Mr. Wallach gave a low-key performance as a clerk in a city where people are being transformed into rhinoceroses. The cast also included Jackson and Zero Mostel.

By the time “Rhinoceros” came along, Jackson and Mr. Wallach had been married for 13 years. They met in 1946 in an Equity Library Theatre production of Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned” and were married two years later. A list of survivors was incomplete.

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The Wallachs went on to become stalwarts of the American stage, evoking memories of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, thanks to their work in comedies like “The Typists” and “The Tiger” and a revival of Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors” (1973).

In a joint interview in The Hartford Courant in 2000, Mr. Wallach and Jackson said they had sought out opportunities to work together. “But we’re not the couple we play onstage,” Jackson said. “For us, it’s fun to separate the two.”

The couple appeared in a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1978, in a production that also featured their daughters Roberta as Anne Frank and Katherine as her onstage sister.

He continued his film work well into his 90s. He was a disillusioned screenwriter in “The Holiday” (2006). In Roman Polanski’s “Ghost Writer” (2010), Mr. Wallach played a mysterious old man living on fog-shrouded Martha’s Vineyard. And in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010), which marked the return of Michael Douglas as the greed-stoked investor Gordon Gekko, Mr. Wallach hovered at the edge of the action like Poe’s sinister raven.

More often than not, his film roles required him to play mustachioed characters who were lawless, evil or just plain nasty, which puzzled and challenged him.

“Actually I lead a dual life,” he said. “In the theater, I’m the little man, or the irritated man, the misunderstood man,” whereas in films “I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.”

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His villain roles, he said, tended to be “more complex” than some of his stage roles.

Even so, the theater remained his home base, and he said that he could never imagine leaving it.

“What else am I going to do?” he asked in an interview with the Times in 1997. “I love to act.”