Saturday, March 19, 2016

When It Became Cool To Like Clint Eastwood (Part 2)

Absolutely no parking—Reserved for Clint Eastwood, says the sign in front of Big Clint’s Big Sleep-style Mexican hacienda on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. God knows I’m not going to try and cross him. He could hop out of his car and, seeing me in his office, string me up to the chandelier. Little reptilian eyes glowering at me, he tips the chair under my feet…. Hellfire, let me park in Santa Monica and bus back out here rather than risk that!

Once inside, I don’t feel any more secure. Everywhere are posters of Big C. Here, he’s hanging from a mountain in The Eiger Sanction; there, tracking you with the infamous .44 Magnum from a Dirty Harry world he never made (but is sure as hell going to clean up); over there he’s holding a killer cannon in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

Suddenly (could Clint appear in any other way?) he is ambling across the room, smiling a cascade of white teeth, looking down at me from six-foot-six of pure sinew and grit. And it’s not the Man With No Name squint, or Dirty Harry’s killer smile; he seems actually friendly, all genial Californian charm. And definitely the most handsome person of either sex I’ve ever met. Christ, at forty-seven, the way he is poured into his Levis, leather boots, and powder-blue T-shirt with a sunburst of Aztec god on the front… the sun god comes off a poor second.

“Good to see you,” he says. “Come on into the office.”

Aha, I think, the office. Gun racks, victims’ shrunken heads, gorgeous dames whom he never kisses. But alas, it’s anybody’s comfortable California exec office, with a big mahogany desk, Mexican couch, some homey table lamps. Nothing faintly evil, macho, or even tacky-dumb. The only sign that it’s Eastwood’s lair at all is the weight machine in the corner and some sporting trophies on top of a big Spanish cabinet. Golf, tennis-civilized sports.

It’s too normal. Eastwood is offering me a beer, sitting down on the couch, stretching out his long, lean body, getting down-home cozy and running through his early years, when his family drifted around California, finally settling in Oakland. It says here he went to trade school.

“I took aircraft,” he says casually. “I rebuilt one plane engine, and a car engine too. I never had any dough so I could never afford anything very nice. I think kids go through certain times, in certain towns, where cars are their whole life. Cars first, chicks second.”

“Yeah,” I say, “that’s how it was in Baltimore. Baltimore and Oakland are a lot alike… working-class towns. We used to go down to junkyards and buy engines, bring them back and open them up, just to see how they worked.”

Eastwood smiles. “I used to buy engines. I used to go to junkyards and buy engines on spec. I remember once I bought a ’39 Ford, a modified T-Roadster, and the damn thing ran like a charm. I was really surprised.”

He seems to have been more interested in cars than in acting. His film bio says he never acted in a school play.

“No,” he says. “Once, when I was in junior high school, I did a one-act play. Ir was part of an English class, an assignment, and the teacher gave me the lead. I guess to help me, because I was an introverted kid.”

For a second I’m surprised, but then it seems natural. Though Eastwood’s heroes are all men of action, they are also painfully shy. They look as though they want to speak but aren’t sure enough of their words. They seem afraid to appear foolish. Obviously, then, Eastwood draws on his own introversion, gets an aesthetic distance from it and creates that sense of menace that lurks just beneath the surface of all his best and most violent

“We had to put it on for the senior high school, and I was so scared I almost cut school that day. But I finally did it—it was a comedy—and it went over fairly well. So I thought, ‘I managed to do that.’”

His first comedy. Eastwood’s movies are all comedies. His natural flair for hyperbole creates a wild, black humor and it seems important that his first role, the one in which the introverted grease monkey first realized he had some son of artistic sensitivity, was a Iaugher. Yet, one can’t be sure. The word on the street is that Clint is perhaps not so… bright. Maybe he just doesn’t know his movies are a riot. I am still more than a little jumpy about asking him; what if he doesn’t find it so funny and pulls his .44?

“So it was a comedy?” I venture timidly.

“Yeah,” says Eastwood, leaning back in the perfect California mellow slouch. He seems so damned relaxed. Maybe I can risk it. “One of the, ah, things that makes your movies different from say, Charles Bronson’s, is the humor… wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah,” he squints. “I like action adventure movies, but there is a humor aspect. I love to laugh, and I enjoy it when other people laugh, and I hope other people do.”

Dirty Harry is walking headfirst into a trap. Some psycho is hell-bent on chopping off his hands and gouging out his eyes. Harry is walking down a dark alley. The killer waits. It looks like the Big Casino for our man. I am on the edge of my chair, terrified. Behind me, a black guy can no longer stand the angst. He stands up in his seat and begins to scream:

“Ceee Eeeeeeee!” he yells. “C.E. won’t fall for that shit. No way. That’s my main man, C.E.”

“‘C.E.,’” Eastwood laughs. “C.E. won’t fall for that shit! I’ll have to remember that one. I like that. That guy has paid his dough and he just wants to be taken on a trip. Now, there’s all kinds of levels. Hopefully, you can move people on other levels too. But that’s great, when he’s talking with you. I’ve been in movies where the guy was talking against you. That’s not so great.”

“Yeah,” I laugh. “I couldn’t believe you were in Francis the Talking Mule.”

Eastwood chuckles. “I’ve been in some of the worst films ever made. I started out at Universal with one- or two-liners. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you had three or four lines. Say, are you all right?”

Eastwood has noticed that I am filling up scores of handkerchiefs with nasal New York venom. “You ought to have some tea and an oatmeal cookie,” he says.

Not me. Nobody ever took an oatmeal cookie from Dirty Harry. It’s probably got tiny projectile “oats” which spring out and perforate your jaw.

“No,” I say. “I’m not allowed anything with caffeine in it.”

“But this is herb tea,” Clint assures me. “No caffeine. And these oatmeal cookies are out of sight. Wait, I’ll get them for you.”

He returns a few seconds later with a steaming mug and the largest oatmeal cookie in the Western Hemisphere. He waits for my judgment.

“Delicious,” I say.

“See,” says Clint. ‘That’s just what you need.”

“Right.” I take another bite. Not bad. “I understand you did a lot of rough gigs before you became an actor,” I say through the crumbs.

“I was a firefighter, a lumberjack, I was in the army and I dug swimming pools,” he offers, “but I never knew what I wanted to do. A lot of people have long-range ambition, but I never had that. I thought I might be a musician for a while, but every time I’d get going there’d be an interruption.”

He stops, stares at the ceiling.

I wonder why he was aimless for so long. “What did your parents do?”

“Well, later in life, when we lived in Oakland, my dad worked for a container corporation. Before that he worked as a pipe fitter for Bethlehem [Steel] and in gas stations.”

“So, like your characters, you kind of wandered.”

“Sure,” Eastwood says. “And I use that. My dad finally started doing well about the time I was out of high school, but by that time I was pretty much on my own anyway… drifting around.”

There is a hint of loneliness in Eastwood’s voice. Not self-pity, but something lost, something he missed in childhood: security, closeness. Clearly, he has fed off that loss.

“You had no intention of being an actor in those days?”

“Jesus, no,” Eastwood smiles. “I always felt the same thing that everybody felt about actors, that they were extroverted types who like to get up in front of two thousand people and make an ass out of themselves. I still don’t like to get up in front of two thousand people, unless I have some lines to read. But to stand up there just as Joe Clyde… whew.”

“Joe Clyde”… a curious phrase from the ’50s I used to hear in Baltimore. Meaning, of course, Joe Nobody. Indeed, Joe Clyde could be the collective self-image of the working class, the same class that scarfs up Eastwood’s pictures.

He smiles and explains how he made the transition from Joe Clyde to bit actor.

“I got drafted into the army. I was a swimming instructor at Fort Ord, California. It was a pretty good job, as far as keeping me off the front line, anyway. After I got out I came down here and went to Los Angeles City College on the GI Bill. I was twenty-three. This friend of mine was an editor, and he introduced me to a cinematographer, who made a film test of me just standing there—a shot here, a shot there—and Universal put me under contract at seventy-five dollars a week. I thought that was great stuff, but I was a little apprehensive. I mean, I didn’t know what it was going to be like when I had to start playing scenes in front of people. But I thought, what the hell, as long as they are paying… it was a hell of a lot more money than I would be making on the GI Bill. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just give it a good try. I’ll give it six months.’ But you can’t give it six months, ‘cause nothing works out that quick. So what you do is you give it six, and then six more, and pretty soon it gets in your blood and you really want it.

“I kicked around there for a year and a half, but then they dropped their program and kicked me out, dropped my option. So then I did a lot of TV, both in New York and LA, and bounced around there. I was actually getting better parts in television than I was at Universal. But then I had a real slack period for a year or two.”

“When you were bouncing around, was there ever a sense of desperation? You know, ‘Christ, I’m not getting anywhere’…?”

“I’ll never forget,” Eastwood says with that Dirty Harry smirk. “I did a whole mess of shows for a year or so, then all of a sudden not much was happening around town, a lot of strikes and stuff, and I started collecting unemployment. But I couldn’t just do that, so I’d go and get jobs. I got a job digging swimming pools, and I’d be running back at my lunch hour and call my agent and ask, ‘What’s happening?’ And he’d say, ‘Nothing.’

“I finally got to a state where I was really depressed and I was going to quit. You know, I was married, no kids. But I got to do this one picture, a B movie, a little cheapo—did it in nine days, really a grind-out. It was called Ambush at Cimmaron Pass and I did it and forgot it. And then another slack period, no jobs, nothing, I hadn’t been employed for months. The movie finally came out and I went with my wife down to the little neighborhood theater, and it was soooo bad…. I just kept sinking lower and lower in my seat. I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to quit, I’m really going to quit. I gotta go back to school, I got to start doing something with my life.’ I was twenty-seven.”

“That’s the age you start to question yourself… moving toward thirty….”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “I was saying, ‘What am I doing here… spinning my wheels?’ and thinking this is the only profession in the world where there are three or four jobs and seven million people all want ‘em, you know? The competition is really intense. You go into a producer’s office to audition for a part, and there are ten guys all sitting around, your size and your color. And you look at them like this…” Eastwood stares out of the side of his eyes, scared, flipped out, “…and you think, ‘There’s another one that’s going to go into the toilet.’” He stops and lets out a sigh.

“After a while you start thinking, ‘Well, I wonder if I’ll blow this one on the handshake.’ I started thinking I must be really bad because Wagon Train and all these other series were coming up, and I wouldn’t even be able to get in the front door. If l did get to meet the producer, the guy would give me a handshake, the dead stare, put the cigar out in the ashtray, and say, ‘Sure, we’ll get in touch with you, we’ll call your agent.”

“That must have done a job on your spirits.”

“Oh…” Eastwood moans. “You have absolutely no control. It’s not like any other profession. If you’re a physician or something you can set up practice and work. It got so bad, I said, ‘I just can’t stand this anymore,’ knocking your head against the wall, coming up empty. I was never a particularly good salesman, either. I couldn’t go in and… like some other guys give the producer some good gags and a lot of hotshot stuff, and they’d get the parts. So I started thinking, ‘I’ve got to go back to school.’ I was thinking of all kinds of alternatives.”

“What were your alternatives?”

“That was the problem, I had never really figured any out. So I was visiting this friend of mine, she was a story reader for Studio One, Climax. And I was talking to her, just having a coffee or tea or something, and a guy walks over and says, ‘How tall are you?’ And I thought, why does he care how tall I am? But I said, ‘Well, six-six and I’m an actor,’ but I wasn’t very enthusiastic because I figured screw it, I’d had it. The guy says, ‘Well, could you come into my office for a second?’ and meanwhile my friend is behind me motioning, ‘Go, go!’

“It turns out he develops all the new shows for CBS. So I say, ‘Would you mind telling me what this is all about?’ and he says, ‘Well, this is a new, hour-long Western series’… because Wagon Train was a hit and they were all getting on the bandwagon I thought, ‘This could be something… but I was dressed about like this.” Eastwood points to his jeans, his two-hundred-dollar boots, and his blue Aztec T-shirt, “…a slob.

“All of a sudden I realize, ‘Hey, I’m playing this like it’s zero, I better sit up straight.’ So the guy says, ‘We’d like to talk to you and your agent.’ So I give him the number and I leave and the agent calls me when I get home and tells me to make a test tomorrow. I say, ‘Can I get to the scene ahead of time?’ and they say, ‘No scene, we’re just going to ask you questions.’ I thought, oh, hell, that’s the worst kind of test you can have. I never could read that well, I couldn’t read scripts out loud. If l knew the lines, I was fine, but I wasn’t a great reader.

“So I go down to make this test and the guy who interviewed me the day before is there and it turns out he’s the actor, the producer, everything. He says he has a scene for me to do. And there’s these other guys there, about four of them, and I’m thinking ‘One more cattle call, but maybe I can beat a few of these guys out.’ Anyway, this guy makes this huge speech to the camera, and I think, ‘Holy shit, there is no way I am going to learn this, no way in the world I am going to learn this dialogue.’ But there were three transitions in it, so I just picked out the three points I wanted to make and took out everything else.

“So I got up and came in, and I started going… and the guy is looking at me really strange. I was playing it rather well, at least I felt like I was… I was believing it, I thought. I did it again twice, and then I finished and he looked at me coldly and said, ‘Okay, we’ll call you.’ (I found out later he was a writer and he didn’t want the words tampered with.) So I go into the dressing room and take off this western costume, and as I’m leaving I hear this other guy doing it word-for-word, letter-for-letter, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the end of that.’ So I walked out and I wrote that one off.

“Then about a week later my agent called up and said, ‘Yeah, they want to use you!’ Well, ironically, the guy who projected all the tests for the wheels who came in from New York and LA was an old army buddy, and he told me that the wheels didn’t know what the dialogue was, and didn’t care. They were just looking at all of us, and what happened was that one of the wheels pointed at me and said, That guy: and all the other little wheels said, ‘Yeah, that guy, that guy. I agree, J. R. He’s absolutely perfect.’ So I had a job. It was incredible.

(To be continued March 26)

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