Born in 1915 in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Eli Wallach began studying acting after receiving a B.A. and M.S. in education from the University of Texas and City College of New York. His acting ambitions were cut short when he was drafted to serve in World War II, but he began acting in several plays upon his return to New York in 1945. In 1948, he was one of the 20 core actors who helped found The Actor's Studio, where he honed his method acting craft.
He won a Tony Award in 1951 for his performance in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, which was directed by Elia Kazan. Tennessee Williams