It’s been a rough day for Dirty Harry Callahan. He’s taken shit from just about everybody on the police force and on his beat. Finally it’s lunch hour. Harry collapses at an outdoor chili parlor and orders up a hot dog and a Coke. He has just taken a bite and wiped the mustard from his mouth when he hears a commotion across the street. Slowly, like a wounded reptile, he turns. A bank is being robbed Harry watches with supreme disinterest, his eyes and facial muscles registering not a whit of disturbance. Around him, people are screaming as the armed robber makes his way out the door. Harry studies him. What’s ail the commotion, ain’t no real problem here. Slowly, almost like a zombie, Harry finishes his hot dog, carefully wiping his mouth. Then, still chewing, he strolls across the street, knocks the thief’s gun to the street and places his own .44 Magnum at the base of the man’s skull.
‘I’ve had a couple of fights already today, punk.” says Harry. “I’ve shot most of my bullets… maybe. Maybe I’ve got one left. You want to try your luck?”
The punk collapses on the ground. He looks longingly at his own gun, only a foot away. Ail he has to do is reach for it. But there are these snake’s eyes staring at him, and this huge barrel. Saliva forms on the edge of his mouth. He starts to reach out, then looks again at that death-mask face. You can see the life going out of him. Harry finishes chewing his hot dog and slowly, sadistically, licks his lips.
“I thought it would be interesting to have Harry not quite able to digest the hot dog, to keep right on eating it. Now, I don’t believe there’s a law officer in the world who would do that. It’s dumb, ridiculous. But I liked it, and I knew the audiences would like it. I mean, it’s funny!”
“But it wasn’t in the script at the end, and I thought it would be great to have it come back in like an epilogue. Only that time there’s no hot dog. He plays it utterly straight. He’s getting this guy he’s gone out of his way to find, and he’s broken every rule, political and judicial, and it’s a sad moment, almost. Pauline Kael calls it a moment of glee when he shoots the guy, but there is no moment of glee. If she looked at it again I think she’d realize there’s actually a sadness about it. And when he drills the guy there’s no happiness, no smile.”
“She obviously wasn’t looking at the movie. She was looking at the last Robert Altman movie.”
Eastwood laughs and stretches out his frame. “There’s sadness in all of them,” he continues. “In The Enforcer, the girl is killed and he goes off alone. There’s a certain loneliness in all of them.”
“In the new one, though, he finds a girlfriend.”
“That’s right,” he says, “and not only a girlfriend, but one he wouldn’t respect. She’s a hooker and he’s a cop—two different kinds who would never respect one another but who can learn to. It’s more of an African Queen situation. It’s more of an old-fashioned movie. Look at It Happened One Night, how much reality is in that? But you enjoy the people—you enjoy the guy, you enjoy the gal. It’s entertainment.”
“But your movies are incredibly violent,” I say. “Do you worry about a carryover from screen violence to crime in the streets?”
“If that were the case,” Eastwood says, “then every guy on Death Row would have reason to be released because Tom Mix or James Cagney or Hoot Gibson shot guys on the screen. Or go back before movies to literature-—Shakespeare, Greek tragedy—everybody can find some fall guy for why they commit some act of violence. You can say ‘My family insisted I learn about the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.’ That’s a violent act where somebody is impaled on a cross.”
“Besides,” I agree, “there is a distinct difference between the violence in your movies and, say, Taxi Driver or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where you literally want to throw up.”
“Well, yeah,” he says, “except I wasn’t appalled by the violence in Taxi Driver because they went so overboard. Like, the guy holding his hand out so he could wait for his fingers to get shot off—I found myself laughing at that.”
Harry Callahan is standing in front of the mayor of San Francisco, a slick, beaver-faced man with grey ringlets drooping off his head. The Mayor Looks faintly like Nero. Harry looks like a slob. His herringbone tweed jacket is too small for him, his shirt is unbuttoned at the top, he has a big mouse under his eye where a psychopathic killer clipped him. Now, after almost being killed five times, Harry is being rewarded for his dedication by being taken off the case.
“I’m sorry, Callahan,” the Mayor says, “but you’ve broken the law. That’s what keeps the fabric of society together, you understand? No, you wouldn’t understand. Not your kind.”
“Somebody has to get him,” Harry spits.
“Not you, Callahan. You’re through. Now, get out.”
Harry looks around for support. From his chief, from the Mayor’s flunkies. Forget it. Slowly, with a profound torpor, he turns and moves toward the door.
“Asshole,” he mutters under his breath. “Assssshole.”
“Asshole” is to a Clint Eastwood film as “Rosebud” is to Citizen Kane. A signature, a recurrent coda. He always mutters it with a distinct nasal vehemence. I mention it and Eastwood roars.
“That’s my South Oakland background. I have college kids come up to me on the street and say, ‘Hey, man, say asshole the way you say it in the movies.’”
“Kind of a working-class talisman….”
Clint is really laughing and nodding now. “Oh, yeah. No matter how high you go, it’s something you never lose. I use it, because it was from my background, a certain way I got pissed. If Lawrence Olivier tried that, it wouldn’t work at all.”
“No,” I laugh. “Perhaps ‘ass-hole: High Tea version.’”
Clint smiles again. “You don’t leave your background behind,” he says. “I’m the first in my family to ever make it. That’s one more reason I don’t play down to them; I came from that place. People know when you’re talking down to them. They instinctively know what’s going on…. All the good actors know this. Cagney, John Wayne, Gary Cooper…”
“Were they your influences?”
“Cagney, especially. I loved that stuff.”
“Yet he was outgoing. With you there’s a kind of silence at the core of your characters. They’re slightly removed.”
“Well,” says Eastwood, “I think if you analyze all the great actors of the past, it’s not what they did so much as what they might do, what they were about to do. It wasn’t what they said—a lot of guys can do dialogue better than those guys. Charles Laughton was a great character actor and he had all sorts of tricks, but if he was on the screen with Gable, your attention was on Gable, even if Laughton was doing the talking.
“There’s a famous story. I can’t remember the character actor’s name, but he was talking about being onstage with Gary Cooper where he had this tremendous big monologue and Cooper didn’t say a word. And the character actor said he went to see the thing and he thought he had really wrapped the scene up, and he said when he got into theater he noticed that during his big monologue, everyone in the theater was staring at Cooper. And then he realized the worst part of all: he was staring at Cooper. That’s what real acting is all about.”
We both laugh and it’s time to go. Eastwood sees me to the door.
“Where will you go from here?” he says.
“Baltimore,” I say, grimacing a little.
“Yeah?” he says. “Do you get back to your old hometown often?”
“Not that often. And every time I do, my love-hate affair with the place surfaces and I end up kind of upset.”
Eastwood smiles and pats me on the back. “I know what you mean,” he says. “I feel that too. But you never want to lose contact with it altogether.”
“I guess not,” I say, not quite sure.
“Nah,” says Eastwood. “You got to go back every now and then so you don’t forget how to say it.”
“Say what?” I ask.
With his best Dirty Harry smirk, Eastwood sneers: “Asshole.”
Clint Eastwood is now such an icon, and so beloved, that hardly anyone remembers the days when he was considered a handsome stud-muffin with no brains. But as late as 1978 that’s exactly how most of the public and all the movie critics viewed him. Pauline Kael was the main culprit. She considered Dirty Harry a Fascist picture. She thought Eastwood was nothing more than a John Wayne without talent.
It was very fashionable in those days to put Clint down, to laugh at his movies, his squint, and grimace. I laughed at him myself and made fun of his lack of acting chops with my cool, sophisticated friends.
The only thing wrong with my attitude was, I’d never seen any of his pictures.
Finally, while visiting home in Baltimore, I went with a friend, the artist Scott McKenna, to the Towson Theatre to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I expected nothing more than a campfest. We’d laugh at the horrible actor, make fun of the rotten Italian western, and go home feeling smug and superior.
Instead, Scott and I sat in our seats without so much as going to get popcorn or even take a piss for nearly three hours.
As we walked out in that special daze great movies put you in, I looked at Scott and said: “I think we’ve just seen one of the best movies of all time.”
Scott nodded, and we spent the rest of the night in a Towson lacrosse bar called The Crease going over the many great parts of the film. What we both agreed on was that: TGTBATU was one of the great movies, just a little behind The Wild Bunch in both our estimations. And that Clint Eastwood was a great actor. Pauline Kael didn’t know jackshit about acting or movies. Because Clint played the piece straight, which made movie work. Any hint of winking at the audience, or playing it for laughs would have ruined the whole delicate deal.
The movie was an epic western and an epic comedy, and an epic drama, and it all worked. Sergio Leone, whoever he was, was a genius. The guy who did the music—we didn’t know that his name was Ennio Morricone—was also amazing.
When I told my friends how much I loved Clint they laughed at me, and shook their heads. But I found, very quickly, that none of them had seen it.
It was sort of like discussing Moby Dick with writers. Everyone says it’s a masterpiece, no doubt. But when you try and discuss individual scenes with them they sort of change the subject. Why? Because no one ever finished it.
All I knew is that I felt Clint Eastwood was a great actor, and he deserved a serious interview. One in which he could answer his critics. So when editors Mitch Glazier and Tim White called me from Crawdaddy, and asked me to interview Clint I was more than ready.
I flew to Hollywood, and met Eastwood at his bungalow at Warner Brothers, and he couldn’t have been kinder and more open. I was told he never liked to talk and would only give people, at most, a half hour.
Instead, he gave me two hours.
I shook hands with him and left. I felt really excited. I had a great interview with the Man With No Name. I was so happy I decided to hear a little of it on my way to my rental car.
Then the worst happened, the reporter’s nightmare.
I had always hated tape recorders but more and more people told me they were invaluable, so I used a mini-tape recorder for the Eastwood interview.
I hit rewind, then play, and I heard… ZERO.
Nothing, nada, blip…
I felt my blood freeze. The guy who never gave interviews had liked me and given me two hours. Two hours to Crawdaddy, not exactly the New York Times or Rolling Stone. And now I was faced with going back to his bungalow and prostrating myself, begging him to do it all over again!
I tried to figure ways around it, Maybe I could remember everything he said. But for two hours? No way. I had no choice. I retraced my steps and went back to his office. I told his assistant what had happened. She looked at me like “Are you kidding me?” I wanted to crawl under her desk. I waited as she went into his office and told him.
Two minutes later he came out and looked at me, grimly.
I totally forgot that this was a professional situation and fully expected him to kill me.
That was fine. I wanted to die anyway. Just shoot me in the head so it’s quick, okay?
“Heard you had a little problem,” he said. In his low Dirty Harry voice.
“Uh, ah well you see I uh… hahaha…”
Clint smiled and opened the door into his office, the same office we’d just sat in for two hours.
“You have a cold,” he said. “You need another cookie and tea.”
And he did the whole interview, all two hours of it, over again.
To put it very simply, after that I loved the guy. I didn’t change one thing in the interview but as far as I’m concerned of all the giants I’ve met Clint stands out as one of the kindest.
I think too, that this interview was very brave. I asked him tough questions and often not flattering ones, like “Why do people think you’re stupid?” He answered them all reasonably and with a deep understanding of his craft.
I think that maybe this interview is the first time anyone saw how smart he really is, and how he might morph into the great actor/director he is today.