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Oscar Smackdown: Frank Sinatra vs. Eli Wallach vs. James Kaplan

Eli Wallach gets an honorary Oscar at the Governor's Awards on Saturday, but James Kaplan claims that Eli's agent screwed him out of the real Oscar that Frank Sinatra got for From Here to Eternity, in a role meant for Wallach. "They wanted $20,000," says Kaplan, whose new bio Frank: The Voice is an erudite, ring-a-ding must-read. Columbia wanted to play $16,000, tops. "Sinatra would do it for $1,000 a week" -- $5,000-$10,000 in total.  So did Wallach's ten-percenter make him wait 57 years for an Oscar just so the agent could pocket an extra $400?

"That's not true!" says Wallach. "It had nothing to do with that. I'd agreed to do a play [Camino Real]. They did not have the money [because it was an artistically ambitious stinkbomb Tennesee Williams' own agent advised against producing]. So I auditioned for From Here to Eternity. At last the money came through." So he did the play instead.

Kaplan says Wallach also lost the Oscar role by being a tall, handsome, great actor, while Sinatra was an untrained runt with a scarred face and a seared heart. "He hated the way he looked, " says Kaplan. "He lost his hair early, and had to pad his butt." But a misshapen loser was better for Maggio. Kaplan says Harry Cohn's wife, Joan, convinced him to dump Wallach after watching Sinatra's and Wallach's screen tests, both good. "He's a brilliant actor," said Joan, "But he looks too good. He's not skinny, and he's not pathetic, and he's not Italian." 

Ironically, Wallach played the Ugly role in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but he notes that the guy wasn't physically ugly. "He's ugly in what he does."

Wallach is good in what he does, a workaholic married 62 years to Anne Jackson. Sinatra was an alcoholic, professionally unreliable womanizer dumped by Ava Gardner, blind drunk nightly with co-star Montgomery Clift, bonding and feeding vampirically on Clift's self-immolating gift. Wallach wouldn't have done this. Eternity co-star Burt Lancaster chalked up Sinatra's Oscar to "his fervor, his anger, his bitterness." All Wallach had was a world-class talent for acting, and for happiness.

"Wallach would've been very good as Maggio," says Robert Horton, who wrote a classic Film Comment survey of Sinatra's films, "but I imagine him being more boisterous, where Sinatra had that strange tragic undercurrent." "Wallach would've been just another character actor," says blogger Anne Thompson. "He might have given a better performance, but Sinatra was born to play that role."

"Every time [Sinatra] saw me, he'd say, 'Hello, you crazy actor,'" says Wallach, "which was his way of saying, 'You had a shot at it and you didn't do it.'" Wallach did what he wanted. And besides his honorary Oscar, at 94 Wallach is in two 2010 Oscar hopefuls by genius directors, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.