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Inside the mind of Clint Eastwood

The star’s influences, passions, and friendships from a life in movies

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For the past 50 years, Clint Eastwood has been delivering Oscar-winning films, playing iconic antiheroes, and serving up the occasional dose of vigilante justice from the business end of a .44 Magnum. Though he claims he’d like to slow down, he has two films coming out this fall. ”My wife said, ‘You’re 78, what are you doing two movies a year for?”’ he says. First up is Changeling (Oct. 24), a 1920s kidnap thriller starring Angelina Jolie. Then, in December, comes Gran Torino, Eastwood’s first gig in front of the camera since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. We sat down with the Hollywood legend at his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot to discuss his influences, passions, and friendships from a life in movies.

Growing up in California, Eastwood’s favorite actor was James Cagney. ”When he comes out in White Heat eating a chicken leg and blasting a guy in the trunk of a car, you go, ‘Yeah, that’s offsetting, but in a nice way.’ The scene in Dirty Harry where I’m eating a hot dog in that shootout, that’s a steal.”

In 1959, Eastwood got his first big break on the series Rawhide, and he still considers TV the best training for a young actor. ”Dizzy Gillespie used to say, ‘If you don’t put metal on the lip every day bad things happen.’ Same thing with an actor. You’ve got to act every day. On Gran Torino, I hadn’t acted in a while, so I told everybody to bear with me. An old horse has to warm up coming out of the gate.”

Eastwood considers 1964’s spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars the most important film of his career. ”I figured if it flopped, no one was going to see it over here, and at least I’d get a paid trip to Italy and Spain. I remember seeing Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, [which it was based on], and I thought, ‘God, this thing would make a great Western if someone only had the nerve to do it.”’

Eastwood has met most of Hollywood’s biggest legends. But a certain person stands out as the strangest. ”Hitchcock wanted me to be in one of his films [which, it turned out, would never be made]. I wasn’t nuts about the script. I had lunch with him in his office. When I walked in, he was sitting there very erect and he didn’t even move. Only his eyes did. They followed you across the room. He had the same thing for lunch every day — a steak and some sliced tomatoes.”

While arguably his most famous character, Dirty Harry was actually another actor’s sloppy seconds: Paul Newman passed on the script. ”Of course my first question was, ‘Why didn’t he want to do it?’ He thought the character was sort of a radical guy on the right, so politically he couldn’t do it. I didn’t see it that way…. I’ll miss him. He was just one of those guys you liked.”

Eastwood is a man of many passions. One is golf. He’s part owner of Pebble Beach and also has a private club in Carmel, Calif., called Tehama. His handicap is a 16. Another passion is jazz, which led Eastwood to direct the 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird. ”I went to see Parker play in 1945 or ’46. When you heard him live, it was something special. Real wizardry.” Eastwood also has a soft spot for movie scores — and ever since 2003’s Mystic River has been composing his own. But he considers Ennio Morricone to be the maestro. ”The first time I heard him was on A Fistful of Dollars. I thought, ‘Who the hell did this score?!’ It just came on like gangbusters.”

When he’s not reading scripts, Eastwood likes nothing more than kicking back with a juicy medical book. ”I’m always at home looking up stuff in the Physicians’ Desk Reference. I was reading about free radicals 35 years ago before it was fashionable. It was real radical s— back then.”

Eastwood’s other obsession is his helicopter. He first started taking lessons while shooting Paint Your Wagon in Oregon. ”There’s something about the solitude of it. No one knows who you are. You’re just a number in the sky. And the fun part is you can land anywhere. You see something you like — a good-looking girl — and you can just drop down in a field.”

In 1986, Eastwood became the mayor of his hometown, Carmel. But lately he’s become less enamored of politics. ”When they get in power, they all spend like drunken sailors,” he says. Eastwood is voting for John McCain because ”I met him when he first came back from Vietnam. Governor Reagan had a big thing for the return of those guys. They had a haunted look. They’d been through a lot. I just think McCain’s been somewhere and done something.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Eastwood’s moviegoing habits. He doesn’t go often, and when he does he likes to laugh. ”The last picture I saw was Tropic Thunder. It’s a great send-up of Hollywood. It looked like they had a good time making it and Robert Downey Jr. was great. When they blow that guy’s head off…you couldn’t help laughing.”