Jun 292014

Eli Wallach passed away this week at age 98. The world has lost one of the finest actors of our time and a wonderful man. A few years ago I had the privilege of spending an amazing afternoon interviewing Eli for our Emmy Award winning television show, Cool In Your Code which aired on NYCTV. I will always treasure that time as one of the highlights of my life. Our four-hour interview was edited into a four-minute segment that won an Emmy Award. (Here’s a link to the video.) Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 11.10.23 PM What started out as an “interview” quickly evolved into an intimate and emotional chat about Eli’s entire life. I came away inspired and totally energized by Eli’s zest for life, love of his family, and devotion to the profession he loved so much. After we had chatted for about two hours we realized that we had only covered the early years of Eli’s life. When I asked Eli if he wanted to stop he said, “ I Just need some more tea. I love talking. Are you ready for more?” He held us spellbound for another two hours. There was so much more to tell beyond what could be captured in a video segment, so we transcribed the entire interview. Based on that transcript I published a Blogcrtiics article, “Eli Wallach: Inside The Life Of A Legend, The Early Years.”  I think it is appropriate to re-publish this article to celebrate Eli Wallach’s amazing life. You will be treated to a rare glimpse into life of a a very special man that will touch your heart. Thanks Eli for sharing your life with us.

The Interview

3254979866_7035d61210It was a chilly March day when Eli Wallach met me and my film crew at Sardi’s in New York City. It also happened to be the day of his 59th wedding anniversary. Sardi’s was where he and his wife, Anne Jackson, had their wedding night celebration 59 years earlier. A great convergence of time and circumstance, so you can imagine the emotions that were stirring in Eli when he walked in. He was a bit frail, but still spry, with a gleam in his eye. Eli couldn’t wait to get started and put everyone at ease from the moment he entered the room. What happened next was pure magic – non-stop give and take, storytelling, and sharing of intimate moments and memories. The interview lasted four hours and Eli could have stayed for two more. When it was over, all of us, including the waiters and staff at Sardi’s, gave Eli a standing ovation. You can imagine our challenge when we had to cut three hours of tape into a five-minute segment. Fortunately, we were able to put together a piece that captures the essence of this wonderful man. Take a look when you have some time.

Interview Insights

At one early point in their lives, successful creative people discover their passion and make a commitment to pursue it regardless of their circumstances and whatever life throws at them. They find and follow their “mighty cause.” In Eli’s case it meant finding a way to respectfully and purposefully not go down the path his family chose for him and overcoming one obstacle and unexpected circumstance after another.

Eli talks about the early formative years that shaped his incredibly successful career. What follows are the parts of the interview that didn’t make it to air. Get ready for a great discussion with a legend.

Hank: Everyone that knows you says that from a very young age you knew you were going to be an actor.

Eli: Yeah. I always had that desire in me.

Hank: So it all started in Brooklyn.

Eli: Yeah, at 166 Union Street, but my mother, father and older brother were born in Poland.

Hank: A close family?

Eli: Very close. I had a brother Sam and two sisters, Sylvia and Sherry. They all became teachers.

Hank: How was life in Brooklyn?

Eli: We had a family business. A candy store named after my mother…Bertha’s. We were the only Jewish family in an Italian neighborhood. I watched Italians make the sign of the cross 40 times a day and I learned how to do it.

When I was making a movie with Clint Eastwood called, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, the director, Sergio Leone said, in this scene you have to cross yourself. My mind flipped all the way back to Brooklyn. I crossed myself the way Italians did, you know, the short hand way they did it. Sergio asked me where I learned that. I said Brooklyn. He said, “Do it again.”

Hank: When you, your sister Sylvia, and your brother Sam were growing up, you went to a small theater in your neighborhood.

Eli Yes. We all enjoyed it. We did a lot of puppet shows.

Hank: Tell me about high school.

Eli: I didn’t like high school so I spent a lot of my time at The Boys Club on Bedford Avenue. It had a drama club. I remember doing a play at the Boys Club in which I played an old man with a beard who lost his daughter and didn’t believe in God any more.

All the kids in my neighborhood were sitting in a row and one of them shouted, “That’s not an old man, that’s Eli and he’s got that beard stuck on with glue.” I wanted to jump off the stage and kill him, but instead, I decided to do my part and I became that old man.

Hank: Even then you were unflappable. One night your mom and dad were there and after the play your dad gave you a compliment and your mom said she cried. That must have meant a lot to you.

Eli: Yes it did, very much. I said to myself, I can be an actor.

Hank: Your older brother Sam was a really big influence in your life. He was a teacher. You wanted to be an actor. What was his reaction?

Eli: He wanted me to be a teacher. He said everybody in my family teaches. I said, no I want to be an actor. He told me that as an actor nobody makes money, you can’t make a living, and you don’t get a pension. As a teacher you’d get a pension. It’s the depression; I want you to go into teaching and I’ll get you into a school.

First he tried City College but he couldn’t get me in. Then he found out that the University of Texas in Austin had scholarships with a $30 year tuition. So, off I went to Texas with my sister Sylvia.

Hank: How as it going to college with your sister so far from home?

Eli: Sylvia only went for the first semester. I did four years there and each summer I would hitchhike back to New York and work in the summer camps. I always had a big buckle, which said ‘Cowboy’…I talked with a southern accent.

Hank: How did a Jewish boy from an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn ever make it at a school in Texas?

Eli: I learned how to ride horses and learned to speak with a slightly southern accent. And, I had all sorts of jobs, made good friends, and graduated after four years.

Hank: Speaking of accent, why did the professors always call on you?

Eli: They wanted to hear me speak. They didn’t want the answer to the question; they just wanted to hear my Brooklyn accent.

Hank: True to form, you got involved with a theater group at the school.

Eli: Yes, called the Curtain Club. That’s where I met Walter Cronkite and I actually played my first scene with him. I forget the name of the play, but he was playing a doctor and he has a black suitcase and he said to a grieving woman who was crying, “Where is the body?’ She said, “He’s in the closet, in the closet.” Walter went over, pulled open the door and I fell out. I was the body.

That was my first introduction to Walter Cronkite. Every time I see Walter we kid about that. We’re very close still.

Hank: So, school was over, you went back to NYC, and said to yourself, “this is my time.”

Eli: Right. I was ready!

Hank: You went home and made the declaration to your family that you were ready to be an actor.

Eli: There was a terrible silence. They said, no, you can’t because you can’t make a living in the theater. I said, I will try and really wanted their approval. They said no. Instead I should get a Master’s Degree in education and then I can teach.

Hank: Not what you wanted to hear.

Eli: No, definitely not. So I went to City College and I kept thinking that the master’s degree consisted of reading four books and answering questions about those four books. When I went to take the teacher’s exam I was nervous and perspiring and answered the questions as well as I could.

The teacher said, “Thank you, you’ll hear from us.” Ten days later I got a letter saying, sorry, but you did not pass the teacher’s exam. Then I had to go home and tell my family. My brother was crushed and my elder sister told me that she had a friend who knows about an acting school and that she could get me in there.

Hank: That was a major turning point in your life.

Eli: The school was the Neighborhood Playhouse and the teacher was Sanford Meisner. I’m on the Board now. So I went, and Meisner interviewed me and he said, “Do a scene, do something.” I did an ode called ‘on the wire’ about a soldier dying on the wire, complete with plenty of tears.

When I finished Sanford said, “That was interesting, we’ll take you as a student. It’s going to take you 20 years to become an actor.” I said to myself that he doesn’t know who I am. But you know, it did take about 20 years.

Hank: I know you’re being modest, but after the first year, you had to be invited back. Half the students didn’t make it to the second year, but you did.

Eli: Your memory is amazing. Yes I did and was lucky to be with some wonderful actors. Me, Tony Randall, Gregory Peck, we were all in this school. I also studied dance technique with Martha Graham. She was one of my mentors.

Hank: Okay, so you didn’t pass the teacher’s exam and you were studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Then?

Eli: One day, I remember watching a newsreel about the draft and when I get home there’s a letter at home from the government saying, welcome, here’s your selective service number. It was a very low one. I said to myself, wait a minute.
I went into the Neighborhood Playhouse, became an actor, and just as I’m about to get out I kept saying Broadway here I come. Then I get the lowest number in the draft. Not what I expected.

Hank: About that time you had a girlfriend who was a doctor. What advice did she give you?

Eli: She said she could keep me out of the army. I asked how could she do that since I had such a low number. She told me she could do an artificial pneumothorax. She said, she could stick a needle in my back, pump in air, and it would cause the lung to collapse so I couldn’t serve in the army. I thought, either she loves me so much she’ll risk her career, or she wants to kill me.

I said no thank you and I went into the army. The first day I’m on line, I’m naked and the doctors examined the guy in front of me and he couldn’t hear. They rejected him. So, I’m next and I told the doctor that I have flat feet. He said, “So do I,” and into the army I went.

Hank: You had a pretty interesting and diverse time in the Army, didn’t you?

Eli: Yes. I was assigned to a medical unit and my first deployment was to Hawaii. Then I was sent back to a school called the Medical Administrative Corps and become a Medical Administrator. We did the administrative work in the hospitals to free up the doctors. We worked in the hospitals so I put on these little play for the men. We all really enjoyed that.

Hank: I think you are one of the few people in the army promoted for theatrical prowess.

Eli: My commanding officer liked my work so much that he promoted me to Lieutenant. Then I became a Captain and I found out that I buy my own uniforms. By the way, one of the plays we put on was an Irving Berlin play called Is This The Army. I played Hitler. I put on a little black mustache, did the hair, and I was Hitler.

Little did I know that three months after Hitler committed suicide in 1945, I would be sent to Berlin to work on our plans for Japan. I was taken around by a Russian major, a young lady with a big pistol on her hip who spoke English. She took me into a room about this size, and it was the ministry of propaganda.

Hank: It was the photo archive, wasn’t it?

Eli: Right. Pictures were strewn all over the floor and I asked her permission to take some. I took about 50 pictures and sold some to Life Magazine when I came out of the army for about $300. Then, about a month and a half ago, I was looking at these pictures and I decided to donate them to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. They will use them to create an exhibit in the museum.

Hank: How did the war end for you?

Eli: I was in Berlin on a special job and I was scheduled to go to Japan to start and to help put in hospitals and I thought I’d never get out. The bomb was dropped, and I thought, “Thank God, at last I’ll get to go home,” without really thinking of what we did. That thought bothered me and I was reminded of it years later.

Hank: How so?

Eli: I was playing an Okanogan on a stage in New York. Norman Cousins had brought over four or five girls from Hiroshima and he brought them back stage to meet me. They all had reconstructive surgery. They’re bowing and I’m bowing, and they’re bowing and I’m bowing, and I kept thinking, “I hope they don’t know what I thought when the bomb was dropped.”

Hank: You’re a very sensitive caring man.

Eli: Well, it bothered me very much.

Hank: So, the army was over, you’re back to New York. Broadway here I come.

Eli: Ironically, my first play after the Army was Skydrift, about a bunch of soldiers who were going home, and all of them were dead. I’m cast as a soldier on a plane and I thought, that this is not a cheerful picture, not a cheerful play.

The play lasted a week, but there was a young girl in it who was fabulous and I stayed friendly with. We did a movie together. She’s won an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Tony. It was Rita Moreno.

Hank: Then came The Actor’s Studio.

Eli: What happened is after the war in 1947, Kazan, Bobby Lewis, and a lady named Cheryl Crawford founded the Actors Studio. You see it now on your television. It’s called Inside the Actors Studio. Most of the people on it now have never been inside. I was in the first class with the greats – Marlon Brando, John Forsythe, Maureen Stapleton.

Hank: Your wife Anne Jackson was in it also.

Eli: Yes Anne was in it, and that first year it was run by Bobby Lewis, and Kazan took the younger group, and we learned and learned. I’d already studied at Neighborhood Playhouse, so I had studied what they call “the method,” Stanislavski’s way. Each time I act I adapt or adopt different methods for myself.

Hank: Do you need a quick break?

Eli: Just need some more tea. I love talking. Are you ready for more?


Eli and I spent four hours together. I came away spellbound with a great feeling of joy and totally energized about the future. The interview taught me plenty of life lessons and it also earned me an Emmy Award. I dedicated it to him.  Thanks for everything Eli.


Sep 232010

Leverage Strengths, Skills & Savvy To Maximize Assets Present In Any Situation.


Change Agents don’t have to look very far or too closely to spot resistance.  Setbacks are commonplace.  Unwanted and unintended circumstances abound and come from many directions…economic issues, internal politics, revenue shortfalls, entrenched legacy systems, etc. Professional and personal disappointments always arise. None of us is exempt.  That’s why Asset-Based Thinking in the face of difficult situations is so important and so useful. With ABT, build your power and influence by uncovering and magnify what’s best in virtually every situation you encounter.

Over 50 years ago, psychologist David McClelland suggested that we measure the value of a given day, month or year in three ways:  results, learnings, and experience.  When you stop to think about it, McClelland’s suggestion is a true ABT practice.  The invitation to examine what is learned and experienced—alongside the results that are achieved—creates three valuable bottom lines for any time frame and situation.

Valuable lessons and life experience are embedded in victories and defeats, in turning points and crossroads.  We may not always get the results we seek, but we are always in line to become a little wiser and a little bit better of a person as a consequence.

Mine The Gold In Any Situation

Expanding What You See – What is happening here?

Remember the children’s magazine picture games? The instructions read: Find 8 items hidden in this (seemingly straightforward) picture. At first, you are stumped…then, suddenly, the more you examine the picture, the more you realize that things are not what they seemed at first glance. You can employ these same skills to spot new opportunities in the way you “picture” a challenging situation.

Take your blinders off and start with a good hard look at the dynamics of the current reality. Analyze what is really going on.  Concentrate on tapping into the nuances.  Identify the real or potentially real gains and benefits associated with the situation.  Dig deeper. What is happening here that I or we can leverage?  Remember that even crises and upheavals have their upsides.  As an Asset-Based Thinker, you see and capitalize on the assets inherent in every situation—especially when they are invisible at first glance.

Maximize the Upside  – What do I want to make happen here?

Given the assets in this situation, how can I use what is happening (whether I like it or not) in order to achieve worthwhile objectives.  Which skills and talents do I or we need to move forward in a positive way? What are the keys to my success? Ask yourself (and others involved) to set specific, worthwhile objectives to be achieved as you engage the challenges and pushback at hand.

The best way to mine the gold in any situation is to find out what is meaningful and worthwhile about the situation, then take action to “milk” the situation for all it’s worth.  Find out how you can use even upsetting moments to inspire great solutions and ensure that everyone involved benefits in the short-term and the long run.

Minimize the Downside – How can I prevent or contain the losses?

In the midst of personal setbacks, business downturns and resistance to change, you may be tempted to look at all the things that are going wrong or could possibly go wrong. That, of course, can be overwhelming. Magnifying what is “worst” can even lead to panic and despair.  Those fear-based thoughts feed a deficit-based downward spiral.  There IS a better way to contain unwanted consequences.

Make desire based outcomes the source of your strength and power. Identify the one or two real or potentially real problems associated with the negative situation, upheaval or resistance.  Then create concrete strategies for minimizing the negative consequences of each problem.  Next, get in action.  Measure your impact.  Revise your strategies if necessary.  Stay the course.


A Helpful ABT Tool: Shifting From Threat to Challenge

In any given situation that you see as a problem, disappointment or setback, use this ABT Tool to shift from threat to challenge.  You are far more effective and proactive when you are motivated by the “promises of victory” than you are by the “fears of defeat”.

Step One.  Ask yourself, “What do I fear most about this situation? What are the real or potentially real losses associated with what’s happening?”

Step Two.  Ask, “What can I or we do to eliminate my fear?  What can I or we do to minimize the fear of change or loss?”

Step Three.  Given this situation, what are the possibilities and opportunities for myself, others, team or organization?  How could I/we grow or benefit?  What could I/we learn?

Step Four.  How can I/we put our drive and enthusiasm for achieving these possibilities and seizing those opportunities to work?

One final thought.

“I have always believed and still believe that whatever good or bad fortune may    come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

Hermann Hesse

Apr 132010

See The Future Through A “What’s In The Glass” Mindset

How many times have you heard people ask… “Is he or she a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person?” It’s a simple question designed to get at how people generally perceive and approach life. Are they a positive or negative person, an optimist or pessimist, a doer or a doubter, etc.? In actuality, this is an irrelevant question because the the answer is it’s both. The opportunity is to focus on making the most of what’s in the glass.

This week my friend Gail Goodwin, founder of Inspire Me Today, asked me to give some ABT advice (in 500 words) about my life lessons learned. As I reflected on this I realized that my perspective could help some of my Boomer generation approach shaping their lives for the future. This motivated me to undertake  some personal introspection about how I should approach what’s next in my life. So, I put a half full/half empty glass in front of me for some self inspiration and here’s the result.

I am 66 years old and have been blessed to have a good life, a wonderful family and a pretty successful career. At age 60 I discovered Asset-Based Thinking and since then I have found more meaning in work, determination, personal fulfillment, confidence and humility than I could ever have imagined. As I contemplated what’s ahead, I found it rewarding to look back through the lens of Asset-Based Thinking and imagine the upside of the future.

Here are five ABT insights that are guiding me that I hope will help you.

Power is Who You Are Not What You Have.

You always have something of value to add. Always. Be Authentic. Expose yourself. Rather than relying on external sources to fuel your progress, look  inside yourself to find your Signature Presence…your unique combination of passions, capabilities, qualities, values and beliefs. Let passion be your power and the most magnetic version of you will shine through. Embrace your assets. Never doubt them. Put them out there for people to see and watch what happens.

Forget Perfection. Pursue Progress.

Preoccupation with eliminating flaws to achieve perfection is pointless and invites self-absorption. Relentlessly pursuing progress promotes self-awareness and growth. Measure everything you do by the progress you make and your aspirations. Never stop learning.

Be an Opportunity Advocate Rather than a Problem Solver.

I spent most of my early years in business helping clients avoid or solve problems. And why not? Solving problems yields tangible results and gets you a pat on the back. The problem with a problem fixation is that it usually protects the status quo and, at best, winds up being a zero sum game. Try seeing problems as just a pause. See through them and focus on how much you can accomplish by spending most of the time seizing opportunities, finding the potential in people rather than seeing their shortcomings and taking opportunistic risks rather than avoiding them. Jump in. Immerse yourself in opportunities.

Mentors Matter – Imitate Shamelessly and Often.

No matter how long you’ve been at it, you can be both a mentor and be mentored. They go hand in hand. Everyone needs guidance, inspiration and motivation. Find people you admire and put them on your Mt. Rushmore. Let them know how much you admire them and why. Mentoring can come from anywhere, anyone at anytime. Keep your vision turned on and tuned in so you don’t miss the many gifts that mentoring brings.

Live Legacies Now.

Leaving a legacy makes your life meaningful. Living your legacy changes the game because what you do right now contributes to your legacy in real time. Building your legacy in the present inspires others. We all have at least one “Mighty Cause” in us…a reason for being that gives us special meaning. Finding yours and making that part of your legacy is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

Life is good. The life you can imagine and create is even better. Live on the upside.