From the archives: Clint Eastwood - riding high

Garth Pearce / 19 October 2006 ( 02 August 2016 )

On the eve of the release of Flags of Our Fathers, actor, director and cinema icon Clint Eastwood talked to Saga Magazine.

He’s a man with one name: Clint. There are other film stars who reach the heights of instant recognition, but Clint Eastwood has managed to beat them all. He’s towered above his generation. At 6ft 4in, he’s still the tallest star in Hollywood. At 75, he has also remained the most powerful.

When he won an Oscar as best director last year for Million Dollar Baby, he was the oldest winner in the Academy’s history. But he’s still striving, working and demanding for one simple reason: He can’t quite believe he has reached the top.

A meeting with Eastwood delivers most of what you need to know in the first half an hour. His face is untouched by surgery; his grey hair is untinted by colour and his attitude is modest. If he has an ego - and don’t forget he’s an actor, so that‘s as predictable as night following day – he keeps it battened down. And the remarkable aspect of his personality, after 46 years of fame that started with Rowdy Yates on the 1959 television series, Rawhide, is that he remains shy and diffident.

The crinkly smile, burnished by what seems a thousand sunsets of staring, from a horse, into the distant west, is fixed. Around his eyes are a spider’s web of creases. The voice, which has made our day for years, whether as Dirty Harry or in westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985) or in another 1992 Oscar success, Unforgiven, is low and almost dangerously slow. 

Clint Eastwood on growing up and becoming an actor

“I have never been easy with talking about myself or making speeches,” he says. “I can become another character - no problem. But, as myself, I am never too sure. I was a shy kid and not a whole lot has changed.”

He was brought up in working-class Oakland, California, with a steelworker father and factory worker mother who believed in hard work to beat the Great Depression. “I’ve had exactly the same beliefs, because it’s the only way you are going to appreciate the dough you get,” he says. “I just never thought it would be from acting, though. I was too introverted. I didn’t realise at the time that so many actors are introverts. They use acting as a way of getting out of themselves.” 

Eastwood had one party trick. He could listen to a tune, any tune, and then play it on the piano, despite never taking a lesson. 

“I noticed I was getting a little bit of attention from the female gender,“ he says. “So I thought, ‘this isn’t bad. I am going to go home and practice.’” Acting came much later, after two years in the army and a business administration course at Los Angeles City College. He took acting lessons to help beat shyness and was eventually hired by Universal Pictures, at a then healthy $75 a week (around £40).

It did not last and he earned his living filling up cars in a petrol station while auditioning for roles. “My big problem was that I was always taller than the leading guy,” he says. “It took me until I was almost 30 to give up the day job.”

Eastwood’s attitude is predictably and reassuringly what you’d expect. He hates the crime wave, positively loathes bad manners, believes that true heroes do not boast about their achievements and does not like things being over analysed. “I’ve always swung more from the seat of my pants,” he says. “I love jazz and that sense of improvisation. I like to think I‘ve had one long jazz solo.“

Clint Eastwood on marriage and children

There is a sense that Eastwood has improvised both his career and life itself. He was married for 25 years to first wife, Maggie, but held off having children for the first 15 years. In the meantime, he had a daughter Kimber, now 42, from a casual affair. He has this year celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary to second wife, Dina, who at 40 is almost half his age. Their daughter, Morgan, aged nine, is younger than his granddaughter, Graylen, 12, born to his first daughter from marriage, Kyle, now aged 38. 

Then there was the 13-year partnership with actress Sondra Locke, 17 years his junior, which ended in 1988. It is a private life that has been complex and interesting. It is also a life, which, as you’d expect from someone like Eastwood, he does not always find it easy to address. “I have always believed that you never really know what is going on in a marriage or relationship,” he says. “What works for one couple, does not work for another. I have also never made rules – either for others, or myself. I keep out of their business and I expect them to keep out of mine.”

This is not strictly true, since he was mayor 20 years ago in his local town, Carmel, California. He made a few rules then and upheld the law, but it would be a foolish man who would challenge Eastwood on this point, when he’s in full flow. He is also far more interested in talking movies and Hollywood rather than town halls and civil servants. 

“I grew up in an era when it was a privilege to go to a movie,” he says. “It was something you did every weekend in the Forties and it was something that families did together. My dad would take me to things like Sergeant York (1941). You would also never worry about seeing something you shouldn’t see. The strongest language in those days was ‘damn’ and ‘hell’. And even that was pushing it.”

Clint Eastwood on making films

Eastwood has been pushing it himself in recent years, with story-driven films. He directed the 2003 Mystic River, about the horrifying after-effects of an incident of child abuse, which won a best actor Oscar for Sean Penn and best supporting actor Oscar for Tim Robbins. 

His last film as director, Million Dollar Baby, won Hilary Swank her second Oscar as best actress, for playing a woman boxing champion whose life is destroyed by one careless moment in the ring.

“But no one wanted to make my last two films,” he reports. “The film studios thought that the subject matter was too tough. We eventually made them with some independent financing and they cost around $22 million each, when the average Hollywood movie costs around $69 million. We also took only 37 days each to film those films. I was proud of that achievement.”

There is a sense that success for Clint Eastwood has come at a cost. If he’s tempted to reflect on the sobering fact that he has to still beg for movie financing, after all he’s achieved, he avoids it. There are no complaints.

Like many men of his generation, he is simply not a whinger. Or he accepts that, after a lifetime in Hollywood, this is just the way it is. There are new executives in film studios who know little of Eastwood or his past work. Why should they? They see an older guy who perhaps should have given up years ago. Why help him to follow what, to them, seem rather old-fashioned ideas?

“It’s nothing new,” he insists. “I have always struggled to get money for my movies, at whatever age I’ve been.” His latest project as director, Flags of Our Fathers, follows the typical Eastwood pattern. He tells the personal stories of six men who raised the American flag, during a battering by Japanese forces during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, in the final months of the Second World War.

It has not been easy to get the film made and he’s done it without a star name. Britain’s Jamie Bell (who played Billy Elliot) and American actor Ryan Phillippe are the best-known cast members, but hardly crowd-pullers. And the film, which has been ready for months, has twice been put off for release until later this year.

He is also ready with another film on the same subject, Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells of the battle from a Japanese perspective, in Japanese.

Iwo Jima was a key island, from which Japan launched kamikaze attacks. America wanted it to base B-29 bombers for attacks on the Japanese mainland. The island, defended by 22,000 Japanese, witnessed a virtual fight to the death. All but 1,083 Japanese were killed, and America lost 6,821 men, with 19,217 wounded from its total force of 110,000.

The link between movies is made in a single scene in Flags of Our Fathers, showing American troops chatting. Then one is hauled into a tunnel by the Japanese. Letters from Iwo Jima starts with their men pulling down the American soldier.

“I want the two films to complement each other rather than compete,” says Eastwood. But given his track record, there is a chance that he may become the first director to have two films in two languages, both in contention for awards in the same year. He will hope to have the pair opened for October’s Tokyo Film Festival.

Clint Eastwood on westerns

This is a high-risk undertaking, but Eastwood’s willingness to take risks with his career has usually paid off. This mindset first showed itself when he was already an established television star, with Rawhide. He was offered the lead in the spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) by director Sergio Leone during a two-month filming break with the TV series.

“He (Leone) asked if I wanted to go to Italy to make a Spanish-German-Italian co-production of a Japanese film - as a western,” says Eastwood. “It sounded terrible, but I read the script and it turned out to be a picture that was a favourite of mine, Yojimbo, (directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1961). I had seen it at the Japanese Theatre in Los Angeles.”

The script had been changed to make the lead character, a swordsman in Yojimbo, into a gunman in the American west. “I said: ‘I’ve never been to Italy or Spain, so I’ll go and do it. If the picture fails, then nobody in America is going to know anything about it’.” Eastwood found himself working in a film with a shoestring budget.

“I took my wardrobe home each night, because I was only given one of everything,” he recalls. “There was one poncho, one hat and one set of boots.”

Eastwood’s character, who was dubbed the “Magnificent Stranger”, began the film legend of the man with no name. The movie only opened in Naples, because of an Italian tax dodge. By the time Eastwood returned, a year later, to make For A Few Dollars More, it had still not been seen in America or elsewhere in Europe. United Artists then bought both films and they became big successes.

Eastwood made his third and final spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in 1966.

“The director was like a big kid,” he recalls. “He wore a cowboy hat and when I bit off a cigar, he’d been doing the same thing with a matchstick. But you need that kind of enthusiasm.”

Eastwood’s own enthusiasm for cop Harry Callahan, who went from Dirty Harry in the 1971 original to downright filthy by the fifth and - so far - final film, The Dead Pool, in 1988, also delivered a resounding success.

“No one was really that fired up about a guy who broke so many rules,” he recalls. “He hasn’t come to where he is by being just a rogue who likes to shoot. He became that way over years of cynicism and his own personal life not being great. He drinks too much, he’s chasing chicks and he hasn’t grown up in a lot of areas. He’s become a disappointment to his wife and he is a disappointment to himself, because he can’t put it all together.”

Many of Eastwood’s characters over the years have had such flaws. Is that, in some way, a reflection on his own life? “There have been disappointments,” he reflects. “I’ve had a few relationships in my own life where the person got a little crazy. I had one who was threatening to do herself in. I thought: ‘Hell, no matter how big you are and how much you are able to protect yourself or take care of yourself, you are still totally vulnerable.’”

But he used such experiences as a basis for his directorial debut,Play Misty For Me, in 1971, in which Jessica Walter, playing Evelyn Draper, was prepared to ruin the life of Eastwood’s character, a local disc jockey. The film’s idea was virtually stolen later by the much more successful Fatal Attraction, with Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, in 1987.

“It is not always necessary to have a personal experience of a character you are playing,” he says. “It helps the understanding, but that’s all. My own personal experience, for what it’s worth, is that you can never guarantee anything in Hollywood. Remember that and you can’t go far wrong.”

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