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31 Days of Eastwood begins

May 1st, 2010 · 4 Comments

31 Days of Eastwood

Clint Eastwood was born May 31, 1930 in San Francisco, California. In Richard Schickel’s superlative biography Eastwood, the screen icon and filmmaker offered, “My dad was Scots-English; my mother was Dutch-Irish. Strange combination. All the pirates and people who were kicked out of every place else.” His father had been a bond salesman in the 1920s, but when his commissions dropped to nothing in the Great Depression, the family spent the next ten years drifting up and down the West Coast, as far south as Los Angeles and far north as Spokane. The family planted stakes in the Oakland area and remained there through World War II. To spare himself being drafted and his family sent into financial turmoil, Eastwood’s father went to work for Bethlehem Steel as a pipefitter in their shipyard.

A lanky kid for his age — reaching 6 feet by the age of thirteen — Eastwood was a daydreamer in school. He told Schickel, “I didn’t have a real go-home-and-study-for-two-hours-so-I’ll get-an-A attitude. It’s like the physicist Edward Teller. He always said a genius is someone who does well in a subject he doesn’t like, and that would certainly eliminate me.” He rejected team sports. Eastwood’s mother passed her affinity for jazz music down to her son, but he shunned participating in the school band to avoid being picked on by other kids. Hoping to break Eastwood out of his shell, his 8th grade English teacher cast him in the lead of a one-act play to be performed for what turned out to be the student body of Piedmont Junior High, as well as the neighboring high school. Eastwood pulled through the performance but despite drawing some compliments, vowed never to go through an experience like that again.

Charlie Parker

A turning point for Eastwood may have been a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Oakland’s Shrine Auditorium in 1946. Tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Flip Phillips and Charlie Parker were all part of the bill. In a September 1995 interview with Jazz Times, Eastwood mused, “Certainly a director puts his stamp on a film, but no more so than an orchestra leader does. Somewhere along the line it becomes an ensemble piece where everybody leaves their mark, the crew as well as the actors. I think the free flow of jazz and its improvisational aspect has definitely had its influence on my directing. When I make a film, I’m never locked in note-for-note on sheet music, as it were. I always leave room for others to interpret.”

After high school, Eastwood lumberjacked in Oregon, worked night shift at Bethlehem Steel tending blast furnaces and worked at a parts department for Boeing. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951, Eastwood — who held a lifesaving certificate from the Red Cross and had worked as a lifeguard in Seattle — and a pal talked their ways into jobs as swimming instructors at Ford Ord. This led to Eastwood covering other teaching assignments as well and during his two year military stint, he never went near Korea. Afterwards, he decided to enroll in Los Angeles City College with a friend. Signing up for a business administration degree, Eastwood’s curiosity was piqued by the school’s other programs, one of which was a noted theater arts school. Of the friends he found in L.A. was Irving Glassberg, who’d shot Bend of the River for director Anthony Mann and The Duel at Silver Creek for Don Siegel.

Revenge of the Creature

Glassberg and a director he’d worked with at Universal Pictures named Arthur Lubin convinced Eastwood to participate in an interview they shot on film. The footage won him a $75/week contract with the studio in 1954. Far from a pathway to stardom, Eastwood considered the internship nothing more than a continuation of acting school, receiving lessons in acting, diction, singing, dancing and horseback riding. Eastwood’s first screen appearance came as a lab assistant in one scene of Revenge of the Creature (shot in 3-D). Parts in Francis In the Navy and Tarantula followed, but in September 1955, Universal opted not to renew his contract. Despite his atypical good looks and natural screen presence, many thought Eastwood just didn’t measure up to the studio’s suave star of the day: Rock Hudson.

Eastwood recalled, “The more you struggle, the more you kind of say, ‘I’m gonna make those people eat those words.’ And though you get depressed many times, and I had my moments of saying, ‘Well, this isn’t going anywhere,’ I think in the back of my mind I always felt I had something to offer somewhere down the line.” The budding actor spent the next year making do with commercials for the American Dairy Association and for Greyhound. He had a day job digging swimming pools and weekend work sweeping up a furniture factory. He continued to study acting, at Jack Kosslyn’s studio. Then in 1959, Eastwood was visiting his friend Sonia Chernus — a story editor — at her workplace at CBS. Walking out of the building, he was stopped by Robert Sparks, who ran filmed programming for the network.

Rawhide

Asking Eastwood if he was an actor and what he’d done, Sparks pulled him into an office and brought in Charles Marquis Warren — a writer/director of Gunsmoke — to talk about a western CBS was developing called Rawhide. Eastwood screen tested for the role of Rowdy Yates, a young ramrod who in early episodes, had to be corralled by his boss, series lead Eric Fleming as Gil Favors. The show concerned a cattle drive and the incidents the drovers would encounter along the trail. The pilot was popular enough for the network to order a dozen episodes and Rawhide would go on to a remarkable 217 episode run from 1959-66. Among the up and coming actors who’d appear in guest spots were Robert Blake, Beau and Jeff Bridges, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, James Coburn, Martin Landau, Warren Oates and Lee Van Cleef.

For Eastwood, Rawhide not only introduced him to the limelight of celebrity, it functioned as film school as well. “You do 250 hours of television, you learn what makes one propman good and another fair and another lousy, and what makes one cameraman better than another one. You learn about leadership, how one week a crew can move very fast and efficiently and the next week drag. About 90 percent of the time, it’s the fault of the director.” Now a client of the William Morris Agency, in the winter of 1963-64, Eastwood received an offer to star in a low budget western titled The Magnificent Stranger, an Italian-German-Spanish co-production shooting in Italy under the direction of somebody named Sergio Leone. Eastwood recalled his reaction. “Hell, no, I’m not interested in it, especially not a European western. It would probably be a joke.”

Fistful of Dollars poster

With Rawhide going on hiatus, Eastwood found himself without work and humored his agent by agreeing to look at the script. He saw that in addition to being a western revision of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo, the script took a tongue-in-cheek approach and was loaded to bear with the sort of over-the-top qualities that appealed to him. Eastwood gambled on The Magnificent Stranger, retitled A Fistful of Dollars when released September 1964 in Italy and January 1967 in the United States. For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly would follow. Referred to as “Joe” or “Texas Joe” both in the script and on the set — where Eastwood communicated with Leone through stuntman Benito Stefenelli — it would be a marketing executive at United Artists who thought up the moniker “The Man with No Name”.

According to Eastwood, the actor convinced Leone to nix an elaborate backstory explaining Joe’s motivation. The actor mentioned, “it doesn’t matter where this guy comes from. We can leave it all in the audience’s imagination. We can just hint that there’s some little incident, some little parallel, and just kind of let the audience draw in the rest of the picture.” He added, “In a B-movie we tell everybody everything. But in the real class-A movie we let the audience think.” Star and director were in also in lock step on how best to portray his character; not in the type of panorama favored in conventional westerns, but the close-up. “He believed, as Fellini did, as a lot of Italian directors do, that the face means everything. You’d rather have a great face than a great actor in a lot of cases.”

Good, Bad and the Ugly

Turning down an offer from Sergio Leone to appear as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time In The West (Charles Bronson took the part), in 1967, Eastwood’s business manager Irving Leonard passed him a script by Mel Goldberg titled Hang ‘Em High. Leonard and Eastwood set the western up at United Artists and on his accountant’s advice, Eastwood established his own production entity — The Malpaso Company. Spanish for “bad step”, Malpaso was also the name of a creek that ran through property Eastwood owned in Carmel. By going into business with Malpaso, UA accepted Eastwood as a co-producer, giving him much more creative input. For the first time in his career, he got to pick his director, a Rawhide veteran named Ted Post who would later be tapped by Eastwood to helm the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force.

“Not an up story at all, kind of a moody piece, very dark,” is how Eastwood described the draft of Paint Your Wagon he agreed to co-star in, opposite Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg. Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe — creators of My Fair Lady and Camelot — had produced the Broadway musical, which esteemed playwright Paddy Chayefsky agreed to adapt, retaining the mining camp setting of the stageplay, working in many of the songs and dumping nearly everything else. By the time Eastwood was shooting Where Eagles Dare alongside Richard Burton in England, his contract for Paint Your Wagon stipulated script approval. He recalled, “I get this thing, and I start reading it, and now it’s totally different. It has no relation to the original, except the names of the characters. They had the threesome deal, but it wasn’t a dark story at all. It was all fluffy, and running around talking, and they’re having Lee do Cat Ballou II.”

Paint Your Wagon

Lerner and director Joshua Logan flew to England and to placate Eastwood, offered to beef up his part. Eastwood remembers, “I’m trying to explain to everybody that I don’t need a big part. Bigness isn’t bestness, sometimes lessness is bestness.” In spite of the escape clause in his contract, Eastwood’s reps urged him not to derail what was now the biggest budgeted musical of all time. Over the objections of Joshua Logan, the film was scheduled to film on location in Oregon’s Wallows-Whitman National Forest. An experienced stage director, Logan grasped at straws on the set of an elaborate western. Eastwood observed, “He was a terrific guy. I really liked him, but he just knew nothing about film — nothing.” Released in 1969, Paint Your Wagon was the boondoggle of Eastwood’s career, a $20 million production that grossed $14.5 million and was savaged by the press.

The Malpaso Company boasted a staff of only three in 1970, not counting Eastwood. There was a secretary. Sonia Chernus was story editor, in charge of finding material. Robert Daley, a buddy of Eastwood’s since his Universal contract player days, functioned as company producer. One of Daley’s first assignments was to get an “odd little story about a disc jockey” ready to shoot in Carmel by the autumn of 1970. Introduced to the project when it was nothing but a 60-page treatment by his friend Jo Heims. Universal purchased her script and though Eastwood later commissioned a rewrite by Dean Reisner, production executive Jennings Lang and studio chairman Lew Wasserman both tried to talk the star out of it, far preferring another shoot ‘em up. The actor had already made up his mind that this mood piece would be his directorial debut.

Play Misty For Me

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // May 2, 2010 at 6:18 am

    This is fascinating, but I’m sure it’s only a fraction of what is interesting about Clint! Looking forward to all your posts this month.

  • 2 Yojimbo_5 // May 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    One of the most enjoyable things I did this year was go through the entire Eastwood ouput for the “Now I’ve Seen Everything” series on LNTAM. Hope you have as much for as I did.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // May 2, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Monica: Instant fame seems within everyone’s reach these days but most movie stars start out nowhere and reside there for years before finding success; Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were out-of-work actors for nearly 15 years. Hope you enjoy the series!

    Jim: I agree. Being able to go through all of Kubrick’s films then Scorsese’s and now Eastwood’s is a lot of fun, even though my feeling towards a lot of these films is anything but final and will likely change over the years. Hope you enjoy the series.

  • 4 Yojimbo_5 // May 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Can’t wait to see what you think of “The Gauntlet.”

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