Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” is a landmark Western film, and like any classic piece of cinema with a meticulous director, the quintessential spaghetti Western had its fair share of on-set issues (see: “Apocalypse Now”). Eli Wallach, who played the titular “Ugly” character Tuco Ramirez, shared some of the most dramatic stories from the shoot in his 2005 autobiography “The Good, The Bad, and Me.” Namely, the celebrated actor recalls his near-death experiences during his performance.
Tuco has noticeably more backstory and dialogue than his mysterious and brusque supporting co-stars, his impulsivity and motormouth creating a foil for both Clint Eastwood’s Blondie (“The Good”) and Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (“The Bad”). The buffoonish yet cunning Mexican bandit often found himself in embarrassing and difficult predicaments, while Wallach was at the mercy of his character’s follies and almost died not once, not twice, but three times over the course of the shoot.
We first meet Tuco and Blondie in the midst of an ingenious con they seem to have cooked up. Blondie delivers the wanted Tuco to a sheriff and collects the bounty, then uses his supernaturally accurate gunslinging skills to shoot the noose off Tuco right before the execution. They then share the bounty money and repeat the process in another town, perfectly establishing the questionable morals of our two main characters.
Tuco, of course, doesn’t enjoy this game as much as Blondie does, since he’s subjected to the possibility of death and a wild horseback ride. Likewise, Eli Wallach was subjected to the same treatment since his hands were actually tied behind his back. A special effects artist detonated a small explosive in the noose so that the rope would drop, but Clint Eastwood’s rifle firing spooked the horse, and Wallach was sent helplessly galloping off. In his autobiography, Wallach gives a sense of how trying to control his steed was impossible while he was bound and tied up:
“…the horse took off like a bat out of a hell while my hands were tied behind me. I kept yelling at the horse to stop, us ing my knees to try to control him, but it was no use. It took about a mile before the horse stopped.”
Wallach almost met a painful end when, ironically, Tuco joyfully uncovers the gold he’s been searching for the entire time at the very end of the film. The crew had sprinkled an acidic compound on one of the money bags so that when Wallach smacked it with his shovel, it would split open upon first contact. However, a prop technician had stored the acid in the same bottle of lemon soda that Wallach enjoyed drinking in between takes. Wallach picked up the poisonous liquid, took a sip, and, able to tell the difference between a corrosive liquid and a delicious carbonated beverage, immediately spit it out. The actor chugged milk in an effort to neutralize the acid, but he still walked away with sores on the inside of his mouth. Wallach tells of Leone’s reaction to the incident in “The Good, the Bad, and Me:”
“Leone was shaken but philosophical about it. ‘We didn’t know,’ he said apologetically. ‘He [the prop man] never should have left it there, but accidents happen…'”
Tuco shows off his resourcefulness in a scene when he outsmarts his Union army captors and escapes from a train bound for a prison camp. He manages to kill the soldier he’s handcuffed to, but he has to wait for the next train to come by before he can use the moving vehicle to cut off the chain tying them together. The fact that Wallach was so close to a moving train was daring enough, but the train cars also had attached metal steps that jutted out. Leone asked Wallach to turn around and look at the camera in order to emphasize that it was Wallach himself and not a stunt double that was laying right next to the railway tracks. Those steps, however, posed a serious threat of decapitation, and Wallach almost lost his head. The actor attempted the scene two times before refusing to go on any longer (it wasn’t the only time a delicately set up scene had to be shot twice). He recounts in his autobiography:
“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.'”
Despite his brushes with death, Eli Wallach respected Sergio Leone and got along with him well during production. In fact, it wasn’t the acid, the horse, or the train that killed the relationship between the two, but a contract dispute. Due to studio politics, Wallach never ended up returning for Leone’s film “Duck, You Sucker,” a phrase the actor was probably repeating to himself as sharp, metal steps flew over him.