When Sergio Leone went looking for an American actor, Clint Eastwood was last on his list. It was 1964, and Leone was about to embark on an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's samurai picture Yojimbo. The ironic ronin Sanjuro Kuwa-batake was now an ironic Western gunfighter named Joe. Leone's film was provisionally titled The Magnificent Stranger, and though it was a modestly budgeted spaghetti western, with locations in Madrid and Almeria, the director had big ambitions for it. The producers wanted an American star, but Leone wanted more than that: he wanted an actor with the same toughness, wit and unpredictability as Toshiro Mifune, the star of Kurosawa's original film.
First choice for the producers was an expat American named Richard Harrison. They liked him because he lived in Rome, and they wouldn't have to fly him over. But his fee was a little high. For Leone, Harrison wasn't even on the list. His first choice was Henry Fonda, and he sent the script to Fonda's agent in Los Angeles, offering him the part of Joe.
Fonda's agent passed without showing his client the script. Leone approached three more excellent choices: Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, both of whom rejected it, and James Coburn, who was interested but not for the offered fee of $15,000. A trawl for less-great actors began: Cameron Mitchell, …