What I learned from Roman Polanski’s playful political thriller The Ghost Writer is that the old man can still bring it. Not Polanski, the 77-year-old director, but Eli Wallach, the 94-year-old actor, who shows up about halfway through to deliver a very brief but charming performance as a crusty, all-weather resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Stepping out from behind a dilapidated screen door, Wallach’s face is revealed to be equally worn, but there’s still a sparkle in his eyes and a distinctive zing to his voice. He’s as feisty as ever, if not quite as intimidating, and seeing him up on the big screen, in what we’ve got to assume will be his final performance, might be enough to make you think that you’re in the middle of a cinematic dream from which you don’t want to wake. And yet, for me, Wallach’s presence is bittersweet. To marvel that he’s still around—more than that: still acting—is to be confronted with memories of Wallach’s costars past who have been off the screen and off this earth for years now. Even decades.
Among them is Steve McQueen, who starred opposite Wallach to memorable effect in The Magnificent Seven, near the start of McQueen’s career, and then to less memorable results in The Hunter, in what proved to be McQueen’s final film. McQueen died a few months later from complications due to cancer, and this November we’ll have been without him for 30 years. He was only 50 when he died, and today would have been his 80th birthday—old enough that he might have long since given up acting, but young enough that perhaps he’d have had at least one cameo left in him, like Wallach in The Ghost Writer, or like Karl Malden, McQueen’s costar in The Cincinnati Kid and Nevada Smith, who at 88 contributed to one of the greatest scenes in the seven-season run of TV’s The West Wing in 2000. We’ll never know.