Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1915, he became a staff-sergeant and medic in World War II, where he and his friends wrote a play called: Is This the Army? He later studied in the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.
In 1951, he won a Tony Award for his role in Rose Tattoo and his first film role was in Baby Doll. He later acheived critical acclaim by playing the villainous Calvera in The Magnificent Seven and later the roguish Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, believed to be one of his finest roles. He acted up until his passing in 2014, despite being in his nineties, and he received a Special Acheivement Award from the Academy in 2010.