Trevor Hogg profiles the career of Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood in the first of a five part feature…
“My parents were married around 1929, right at the beginning of the Depression,” remembered American filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood of his childhood. “It was a tough period for everybody and especially a young guy like my dad who was starting out. In those days people struggled for jobs. Sometimes jobs didn’t pan out or they couldn’t afford to keep you. We drove around in an old Pontiac, towing a one-wheel trailer. We weren’t itinerant; it wasn’t The Grapes of Wrath , but it wasn’t uptown either. It gives you a conservative background, having been raised in an era when everything was scarce. Once, I remember, we moved from Sacramento to Pacific Palisades because my father had gotten a gas station attendant’s job.” The constant travelling had a major impact on the athletic life of the youth. “I played a little basketball [and] some football in junior high. I didn’t really get involved in team sports, because we moved so much. I did some competitive swimming and one of the schools I went to had a great gymnastics program.” One thing that remained consistent no matter where Clint Eastwood lived was his love of jazz. “Back in the 1940s and 1950s I listened to Brubeck and Mulligan. I loved Ellington and Basie. I’d get books on everybody: Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Buddy Bolden. I used to be very knowledgeable.” The fascination extended beyond listening. “When I was a kid I fooled around with some instruments but I was lazy. I didn’t go after it.” He noted, “I have some regrets that I didn’t follow up on music, especially when I hear people who play decently.” The instrument of choice was the piano. “I was such a backward kid at that age, but I could sit down at a party and play the blues. The gals would come around the piano and all of a sudden you had a date.” After spending time in the Pacific Northwest lifeguarding, lumberjacking, and tending to a blast furnace in steel mill, Eastwood decided to pursue his musical aspirations. “I tried to enroll in Seattle University, where they had a good music program. I got my draft notice before I got in there, though, and ended up at Fort Ord [on the Monterey Peninsula].”
While in the Army, the new recruit was a swimming instructor and a projectionist for training films. “I served my two years and then went down to L.A. City College, where I enrolled in business administration. In the service I had met some guys who were actors – Martin Milner [and] David Janssen – and when we got out, a cinematographer got me a screen test. I got an offer to go under contract with Universal, $75 a week to start. They threw me out a year and a half later. But it was a pretty good deal for a young guy. We had acting classes every day.” Clint Eastwood observed, “Hollywood is strange. Everyone is looking for a formula. One year its two guys on a motorcycle, the next year it’s a girl dying of cancer, and they flood the market with imitations. For many years I bummed around trying to get a job and it was the same old story – my voice was too soft, my teeth needed capping, I squinted too much, I was too tall – all that constant tearing down of my ego was bound to turn me into either a better person or a complete jerk.” He readily admitted, “I know that if I walked into a casting office right now and nobody knew I was Clint Eastwood, I’d get the same old thing.” The native of San Francisco seriously considered choosing a different profession. “I was very close to quitting when Rawhide [CBS, 1959 to 1966] came along. I was visiting a friend at CBS and an executive saw me drinking coffee in the cafeteria and came over and asked me to test. It was a fluke.” The elder Eastwood was a pillar of support for his son. “He played a little guitar, sang and had a small group. He liked theatrics. When I did Rawhide, he said, ‘It’s very nice you’ve made a few dollars while you’re young.’”
“The Rawhide series was a great training ground,” said Clint Eastwood who performs in 217 episodes as Rowdy Yates who assists trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) on a cattle drive which results in a number of adventures. “All of a sudden, everything you ever studied about being an actor you could put into play every day. It’s one thing to work for a week in a Francis the Talking Mule picture – which was how it had been going for me – and another thing to be doing it all day for eight years.” The actor began to have thoughts about stepping behind the camera. “We were shooting a stampede on location, 3000 head of cattle, and I was riding right in the middle of it, dust flying, really dramatic looking. I went to the director and said, ‘Look, give me a camera. There’s some great stuff in there that you’re not getting because you’re way out on the periphery. I got all kinds of static about union problems. As usual, everybody’s afraid to try something new.” The TV network was not entirely resistant to the idea. “My contract at CBS provided that I would direct several episodes of the series. But after they had some trouble on other series, where some actor-directors went over their budgets, CBS changed policies from one day to the next. It didn’t do any good to make a fuss – at the time I didn’t have a choice – they never honoured their contract. I did trailers and little things here and there; I fumed, but I convinced myself to wait for a better chance.”
“At the time, I’d done Rawhide for about five years,” said Clint Eastwood who had an unexpected cinematic opportunity present itself to him which would pay him $15,000. “The agency called and asked if I was interested in doing a western in Italy and Spain. I said, ‘Not particularly.’ I was pretty Westerned out on the series. They said, ‘Why don’t you give the script a look?’ I was curious, so I read it and I recognized it right away as being Yojimbo , a Kurosawa film I had liked a lot. When I’d seen it years before, I thought, ‘This film is really a western.’ Nobody in the States had the nerve to make it. When I saw someone somewhere did have the nerve, I thought, ‘Great.’ Sergio [Leone] had only directed one other picture but they told me he had a good sense of humour and I liked the way he interpreted the Yojimbo script. I had nothing to lose, because I had the series to go back to as soon as the hiatus was over. I felt, ‘Why not?’ I’d never been to Europe. That was reason enough to go.”
Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964) revolves around a wandering gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) who causes havoc in a corrupt town controlled by two rival families. The actor would become synonymous with the mysterious figure who is quick with a revolver and speaks few words – The Man with No Name. “The script was very expository. It was an outrageous story and I thought there should be much more mystery to the person. I kept telling Sergio, ‘In a real A picture, you let the audience think along with the movie; in a B picture, you explain everything.’ That was my way of selling the point. For instance, there was a scene where he decides to save the woman and the child. She asks, ‘Why are you doing this?’ In the script he goes on forever. He talks about his mother, all kinds of subplots that come out of nowhere. I thought that was not essential, so I rewrote the scene the night before we shot it.” The ten pages of dialogue were summed up with one line when The Man with No Name answers, “Because I knew someone like you once and there was nobody there to help.” Eastwood was drawn to the fact that all of the characters were painted in shades of gray. “You don’t know who is the hero till a quarter of the way through the film and then you’re not so sure. You figured he was the protagonist, but only because everybody else was crappier than he was. I like the way heroes are now. I like them with strengths, weaknesses, [and] lack of virtue.”
Complications arose when Akira Kurosawa and his writing partner Ryuzo Kikushima filed a copyright lawsuit as Leone had failed to obtain the remake rights to the original film; the legal litigation delayed the North American release for three years. The Man with No Name role would transform the TV performer into a movie star and he would reprise the loner character in “the paella” trilogy. “The other two productions were glossier, more refined,” stated Eastwood when discussing Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966). “The stories didn’t mean a whole lot. They were a lot of vignettes all shuffled together. I enjoyed them; they were fun to do.” Eastwood has great deal of respect for his director. “Leone is a very good film editor and has a good way of making things important. When you build up an action scene, it’s pow!, exciting, and then it’s back to being leisurely.” He added, “There’s a moral perspective that only appears episodically in the Leone films. I’m thinking of the scene in A Fistful of Dollars where the hero helps the family get away, and pays for his rare moment of compassion with a beating. After which he’s got to return to take his revenge on the town.” Creatively the actor and director would drift apart. “He offered me other films since but I felt he was looking for a different thing in films than I was. I was looking for more character development and maybe a smaller film, and he was looking for more panorama, a David Lean-esque [Lawrence of Arabia] kind of thing.”
“I had come back from Italy where I had just filmed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” stated Clint Eastwood. “My agent was urging me to do McKenna’s Gold , a big, spectacular Western, but it wasn’t the kind of project I was looking for. I aspired to something more mature, more probing. That was when Hang ’em High  came along, a much more modest project. I liked the idea of weighing the pros and cons of capital punishment in the setting of a Western. That gave me the idea of starting my own company to share in the production of this small film.” The rising star named the new venture Malpaso which means “bad pass” in Spanish. “The reason I started Malpaso in the first place was because I saw a lot of inefficiencies, and I thought I can screw up as good as the next person. I’d rather be the cause of my own demise.”
While he was founding his production company, Clint Eastwood entered into a creative partnership which would rival his collaboration with Sergio Leone. “We started out butting heads and, as it turned out, we ended up with a great working relationship,” remembered Eastwood of his time spent on Coogan’s Bluff (1968) under the direction of filmmaker Don Siegel; they would work together four more times as actor and director: Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Beguiled (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). “I learned more about directing from him than anybody else. He taught me to put myself on the line. He shot lean and what he wanted. He knew when he had it and he didn’t need to cover his ass with a dozen different angles.” Looking back on the five films, the Californian confessed, “The one picture I failed in was The Beguiled. It was good for me personally, critically well-received, but it was very poor for the company that spent the money to produce it. Maybe it couldn’t have been successful because the hero failed. He tried to do everything through the back door. He wasn’t such a bad person; he was just trying to exist. It showed the sickness of war, and what war does to people.” The American Civil War tale about a wounded Union soldier held prisoner at a Confederate girls’ boarding school could have concluded differently. “Albert Maltz had written a script with a happy ending. The hero who had lost his leg went off into the sunset with the girl. Don Siegel and I thought that the conclusion of the novel [written by Thomas Cullinan] had much more strength as an anti-war statement.”
Clint Eastwood stepped behind the camera to make a documentary short about Don Siegel called The Beguiled: The Storyteller (1971); his admiration for the filmmaker extended further as Eastwood hired Siegel to play the part of a bartender in his feature length directorial debut.
Continue to part two.
Five Essential Films of Clint Eastwood
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.