What I Learned From Eli

By Jeff Baron
David Alan Basche and Eli Wallach in a scene from Jeff Baron’s play “Visiting Mr. Green” at the Union Square Theatre in New York. James Leynse

It was 20 years ago, and I had just written “Visiting Mr. Green,” my first play. The title character is an 86-year-old. Someone introduced me to Eli Wallach, 78 at the time, who without seeing the script or knowing me agreed to do a reading of it.

I was thrilled, until I was told that Eli wouldn’t rehearse the play before the reading. I didn’t know whether this was a star trip, or some kind of Method approach to a new play, but I wasn’t happy about it.

Nonetheless, I rented a theater, invited producers, and at intermission of the unrehearsed reading (Tony Goldwyn was the co-star), I got three offers to produce the play. The next day, Eli called me and said, “I think we should do another reading.”

I didn’t understand, given the response. It turned out that Eli hadn’t invited anyone, and in the course of the reading discovered that he loved the play, and now he wanted other people to see it.

Since that day, well over a million other people in 43 countries have seen this play, and some of them were lucky enough to see Eli Wallach as Mr. Green in the two pre-New York City productions and for seven months Off Broadway, or the one-night-only reading at Guild Hall in 2009.

Eli knew exactly how good he was, which is why he knew he could do a reading without a rehearsal. That is not to say he was arrogant. There could not have been a more generous actor, when it came to working with his co-stars, directors, and a neophyte playwright. He had strong ideas, but he was the most respectful collaborator I’ve ever worked with. His kindness extended to every single person on each production, whatever his or her status. Having worked with other stars since, I can tell you that this is not always the case.

Seven months into the Off Broadway run, Eli decided to leave the production. It was still selling well, but at that point in his life, he usually appeared onstage with his brilliant wife, Anne Jackson, and he couldn’t stand the fact that he was working every night while she was home alone.

Eli always put his family first. He had a wonderful film career, and maybe it could have been even bigger, but he thought his beloved wife and three children would be better off in New York and East Hampton.

Eli Wallach was part of the fabric of both places. He loved attending plays and other cultural events as much as he loved performing in them. He took his talent and celebrity seriously and humbly. He always had time to talk to a stranger. He was always willing to donate his time for a cause he believed in, or to a first play by an author he never heard of.

Jeff Baron is a playwright, screenwriter, and the author of the Sean Rosen book series, from HarperCollins. He lives in New York City and on Shelter Island.