Lucky Man: Clint Eastwood Is Acclaimed for His Work as Both an Actor and a Director, but the Hollywood Star Owes Everything to the Genius of His Mentor Sergio Leone, Writes Alex Cox
Cox, Alex, New Statesman (1996)
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, Tony Kendall, Frank Wolff, Vassili Karis (who he?) and finally Richard Harrison. All turned it down. Harrison had already starred in a couple of spaghetti westerns, and thought there was no real future in them. The real action, he believed, was going to be gladiator films. But, seeing that Leone and co were in a spot, Harrison recommended another actor who might be interested.
Clint Eastwood was best known, at this point, as a television actor. He played a likeable cow-poke, "Rowdy" Yates, in a TV western series called Rawhide. His film experience was fairly minimal, though he had played a sidekick to Francis the Talking Mule. Eastwood was keen to get more film work; when Leone offered him the lead in the movie that would eventually be titled Per un pugno di dollari-A Fistful of Dollars--he accepted the fifteen grand.
When Eastwood arrived in Rome, Leone avoided him, pretending he was ill and sending his assistant, Mario Caiano, to meet the actor. A similar anxiety governed their on-set relations. According to Eastwood, the only word of English that Leone could say was "goodbye". So Eastwood and his stunt double, Bill Thompkins, communicated with their director through sign language and his bilingual stunt co-ordinator, Benito Stefanelli. In any case, Eastwood knew what Leone wanted, as Leone would famously mime all the action for his cast: how to walk, how to draw your pistol, how to hit someone.
And Eastwood learned something else, on the dusty old Zorro set outside Madrid--a lesson that would serve him brilliantly as an actor, and as the star he would soon become. The script's first draft was a huge document, heavy on the portentous dialogue. Eastwood knew he couldn't say the stuff in any case; but he also knew, instinctively, that he shouldn't. Resisting the usual actor's temptation to expand his role and to increase his share of the dialogue, Eastwood took a red pencil to the script. Something like 90 per cent of his scripted dialogue was eliminated. What remained counted: "Now, if you'll just apologise to my mule ... like I know you're gonna ..."
When A Fistful of Dollars opened in Italy, it enjoyed huge commercial success. It is also a fine film: beautifully lit and shot, with a marvellous score (by Ennio Morricone, disguised as "Dan Savio") and two strong antagonists: Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volonte. Volonte was an Italian actor of the all-the-stops-out school who had been blacklisted for his communism. He gives a tremendous performance, but it is Eastwood whom we root for: he remains a credible hero in the face of all odds, thanks in large measure to his taciturnity. …