Born: December 7, 1915; Died: June 24, 2014.

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Eli Wallach, who has died aged 98, appeared in some of the greatest films ever made and shared the screen with some of Hollywood's most iconic figures, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Clint Eastwood. And he held his own against them all.

Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (1966) - known to more casual film watchers as The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - plays for almost three hours and at the end of it all the three antagonists come together on a piece of parched, empty western landscape in a three-way stand-off.

And for five minutes not a single word is spoken, there is simply Ennio Morricone's music on the soundtrack, as director Sergio Leone cuts between Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Wallach, in increasing close-up, trying desperately to see into their souls.

Eastwood is impassive, Van Cleef inscrutable, but Wallach, as Tuco, the eponymous Ugly, is a sweaty, agitated bundle of drum-tight nerves, his eyes darting left and right between his two potential killers.

Wallach was a Polish-American Jew, but his battered features fitted into a string of nationalities and he repeatedly played Italians and Mexicans, including Don Altobello in The Godfather Part III (1990) and Calvera, the bandit leader in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Wallach's Calvera cannot understand why Yul Brynner's little mercenary troop would risk their lives to help a bunch of peasants. He considers them to be in the same "profession", sharing the same values. And that is his tragedy.

Calvera drives them out and even returns their guns, but they come back and as Calvera lies dying he says to Brynner's character, slowly, deliberately, desperately: "You came back. For a place like this. Why? A man like you … Why?" Brynner says nothing. Calvera dies. Wallach was brilliant at not understanding.

The son of a shopkeeper, Eli Herschel Wallach was born in New York in 1915 and grew up in an Italian-American neighbourhood of Brooklyn. He studied history at Texas University and acting at New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse School Of The Theatre. During the Second World War he was an army medic.

Subsequently, he was a founding member of the famous Actors Studio, where he immersed himself in The Method with contemporaries Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, who became a close friend, and Anne Jackson, whom he married in 1948.

In the mid-1940s Wallach started appearing regularly on Broadway, he won a Tony award for his performance in the original 1951 production of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo and won a Bafta award for his first film, another Tennessee Williams drama, the controversial Baby Doll (1956), in which he has designs on Karl Malden's teenage wife, played by Carroll Baker.

Wallach had been offered the role of Private Maggio in From Here To Eternity three years earlier, but turned it down to do another Tennessee Williams play. Frank Sinatra played Maggio instead and won an Oscar. Wallach also appeared in several prestigious one-off television plays in the 1950s, now considered a golden age of American television drama.

No matinee idol, Wallach was never going to get the girl on a regular basis. He was the balding cowboy who lost out to Gable for Monroe's affections in The Misfits (1961), the film that was to prove the swansong for both his co-stars.

Wallach could bring humour to a film like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but he could also mix it with the best of them. When a gunfighter catches him naked in the tub and starts blethering on about waiting for this moment, Wallach raises his gun from beneath the soap suds and shoots him. "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk," he says.

By the second half of the 1960s, Wallach was well-established as one of Hollywood's top character actors and in the Batman television series (1967) he played Mr Freeze, the villain later played by Arnold Schwarzenegger on film. Wallach reckoned he got more fan mail for that role than everything else combined.

As the years passed he seemed to be in ever greater demand and appeared alongside a new generation of stars in The Two Jakes (1990), with Jack Nicholson; Mystic River (2003), with Sean Penn; The Holiday (2006), with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz; and The Ghost (2010), with Ewan McGregor. He also made guest appearances on such hit television series as ER (2003) and Nurse Jackie (2009).

As well as the Tony and Bafta, he won an Emmy in 1967 for The Poppy Is Also A Flower. He never got even an Oscar nomination, but the Academy gave him an honorary award three years ago when he was in his mid-nineties and it would have been embarrassing to keep ignoring him. In the citation he was acclaimed as "the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role."

In 2005 he published his memoirs, entitled The Good, The Bad And Me: In My Anecdotage. He is survived by hiswifeand three children.