Stephen McGinty: Metallica and Eli Wallach

Bringing back memories of Eli Wallach as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Picture:  Kobal
Bringing back memories of Eli Wallach as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Picture: Kobal
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WHEN Metallica step on to the stage at Glastonbury this weekend, Stephen McGinty will be thinking not of the mud but of the passing of an actor who played the good, the bad and, of course, the ugly

There will be no wellies – Hunters or otherwise – in my weekend. No liquid suck of mud, multi-coloured ponchos, controlled substances, wheat grass shoots or tinnitus.

I will not be attending Glastonbury this year, a statement which makes it sound as if I was in attendance last year or perhaps the year before when work and an available ticket permitted me to join the throng at the world’s largest music festival and dance my small calcified heart out while waving a pair of yellow neon glow sticks. Yet this would be wrong. I have managed to reach middle age without gracing Glastonbury with my attendance, for which I’m sure the festival and its soaring credibility is rather grateful.

As a dutiful contributor to the BBC licence fee, along with the rest of you, I have instead dispatched a small army of presenters, cameramen, boom operators and technicians to ensure that I don’t miss a minute, if, that is, I wish to switch on for a minute. So comprehensive is the BBC’s coverage that whatever random minute I wish to watch, this small battalion will be ready and waiting to show me exactly what I want to see, and this year I want to see Metallica. There has been some controversy about this weekend’s headline act for two reasons: 1, They are the first thrash metal band to headline, and 2, James Hetfield, the lead singer and guitarist, likes to shoot bears with what little free time an international metal head has at his disposal in these financially troubled times.

While Glastonbury has long prided itself on its musical diversity, embracing all branches of sonic interests, regardless of how obscure or deafening, the festival’s attitude to hunting is probably more restrictive. Bears are there to be seen, not shot and skinned, but given this column’s defence last week of Jeanette Winterson, the literary bunny boiler, this is a cul-de-sac into which it is best not to reverse.

For, in fact, Metallica are not even the subject of this week’s musings, though they do provide a contemporary link. It’s been 25 years since I last saw the band play live at the Edinburgh Playhouse on their “And Justice For All” tour, and when they stride on stage tonight, I’ll be hoping that they still use the same entrance music as before. I was in the second row of that darkened auditorium and when the distinctive opening chords began to drift from the cliff face of Marshall amps a few feet before me, I felt both a curdle of excitement in my guts and a specific memory. For the music that Metallica used to pump up the audience and herald their arrival onstage was a strange choice: Ecstasy of Gold by the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

For anyone familiar with this glorious, exhilarating score, the Ecstasy of Gold begins quietly and builds to a manic crescendo and it is impossible to hear it without seeing the sweaty, stubbly, crooked-toothed face of a man, and that man is never James Hetfield but Eli Wallach.

The actor, who died on Tuesday at the age of 98, was a giant of the American stage who starred in almost 100 movies, but for me he will forever be Tuco Ramirez, the cunning Mexican bandit who slotted into the latter of the title’s three roles and the scene that always comes to mind is the one accompanied by Ecstasy of Gold. Tuco knows that $200,000 of stolen Confederate gold is buried in a coffin in a graveyard and begins to search. The music begins softly on the piano as he realises the vastness of the Civil War dead, and then he starts to run from grave to grave and the music rises almost manically, with a combination of brass, horns and then accompanied by a haunting female voice, as he begins to run from one to another, becoming increasingly intoxicated by his capricious desire. Look it up on YouTube and you won’t consider the three minutes 15 seconds wasted.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly remains one of my favourite movies, and while Clint Eastwood in his persona as the Man With No Name was the principal draw – and who couldn’t love the hawk-faced malevolence of Lee Van Cleef – over the years and repeated viewings, the performance I’ve enjoyed most is that of the conniving, quick-tongued Tuco. It might have been a different movie had Sergio Leone’s original choice not been unavailable. The Italian director had wanted Gian Maria Volonte, the villainous Mexican – not that there was any stereotyping – in A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More to climb up into the saddle for a third time, but when this plan was foiled, he called Wallach. Previously, he had starred as Calvera, the villainous Mexican gang boss in The Magnificent Seven and so was soon risking his life for a small fee in Spain where the movie was shot.

Twice he was almost killed – once when the horse on which he was sitting with his hands behind his back and noose around his neck bolted prematurely, and a second time when the train running over his handcuffs almost decapitated him. The budget was also so small that Wallach and Eastwood had to share a bedroom. Fortunately, they became close friends and when Eastwood required a small role to be filled in his Oscar-winning drama Mystic River, Wallach stepped in.

The actor’s relationship with Leone never recovered after the director reneged on what Wallach thought was a cast-iron assurance to cast him in A Fistful of Dynamite, but instead the role went to Rod Steiger. After a bad-tempered phone call, the pair never spoke again, which was a pity as I’d have loved to have seen what role Wallach might have played in Once Upon A Time in America, Leone’s masterpiece about Jewish gangsters.

A Polish Jew who served during the Second World War, among Wallach’s greatest treasures was a collection of black and white photographs of German prisoners of war he obtained while in Berlin and which he had studied over the years as a means of tapping into the banality of evil of many of his characters. “This is how I learned,” he once told an interviewer.

His other memorable role for me is as the aged Mafia don Ozzie Altobello in The Godfather Part III. He’s wonderful in the part, but again he’s memorable to me for the wrong reasons. Every time I have the cannoli at Sarti’s restaurant in Glasgow’s Bath Street – check them out; you won’t consider your £3.50 wasted – I can’t help but remember Wallach in the box at the opera in the film’s finale force-feeding them to Talia Shire to check that they aren’t poisoned (which, of course, they are).

It’s strange how we become emotionally connected with certain actors and certain roles. Wallach insisted his most famous role was as Mr Freeze in the Batman TV series of the 1960s, and he never failed to point out that his fee was $200 while Arnold Schwarzenegger received $20 million for the same character in the later Hollywood movie. But for Wallach, it was never about the money, but the role. He turned down the role of Private Maggio that won Frank Sinatra the Oscar in From Here to Eternity to appear in Tennessee Williams’ play Camino Real on Broadway.

The curtain has fallen on Wallach’s long career, but before it rises on Metallica’s set tonight, it would be a fitting gesture if, as Ecstasy of Gold begins to drift out across the vast expanse of people, the screens showed Eli as a younger man running from grave to grave, forever in search of the unobtainable.