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THE MOVIES : Eastwood Talks Bluntly (What Else?) on Eastwood

May 27, 1990|Jack Mathews

Few movie stars--we can think of only one other, John Wayne--have shown the box-office longevity of Clint Eastwood. Since the mid-'60s, when he invented the Man With No Name in three Sergio Leone "spaghetti Westerns," Eastwood has been a perennial on American exhibitors' annual lists of top 10 marquee names.

Having started his career as young wrangler Rowdy Yates on TV's "Rawhide" and then having sprung into big-screen prominence with the Leone films, Eastwood easily could have pigeonholed himself in a doomed genre. But his lanky good looks and steely determination--attributes of the idealized American screen hero--worked as well in contemporary action dramas and comedies, and fans have lined up for five Dirty Harry movies, two Philo Bedoe (and his orangutan buddy, Clyde) movies and others in which he played everything from a naive Wild West show trouper ("Bronco Billy") to a radio deejay being harassed by a psychotic fan ("Play Misty for Me").

Eastwood, who turns 60 Thursday, has two pictures coming out. "White Hunter, Black Heart," an adaptation of the Peter Viertel novel inspired by events on the exotic set of "The African Queen," is due to open in a few months. In it, Eastwood plays a film director, a character based on the late John Huston, who becomes so obsessed with shooting an elephant that he jeopardizes the production. The second film, for Christmas release, is "The Rookie," a Los Angeles-set police drama in which Eastwood co-stars with Charlie Sheen. When Times Film Editor Jack Mathews visited the actor-director in his office at Burbank Studios recently, he noticed two books of arrangements of Charlie Parker music sitting on the piano. Eastwood, a jazz fan who has composed songs for a couple of his movies, directed a film about Parker two years ago--"Bird."

Jack Mathews: Have you been practicing your Charlie Parker?

Clint Eastwood (laughing): Oh, I've been trying to fiddle with it. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As I heard me say in a movie once, "A man's gotta know his limitations."

JM: Parker never knew his limitations; that's what made him what he was.

CE: Well, that's true. He was never complex about it; he just jumped in and did what felt right.

JM: John Huston did that, too. In "White Hunter," you play him as a man obsessed. To hell with everybody else.

CE: At that time in his life, I guess that's right. Peter (Viertel) took very careful notes of what went on with John every day, and there was that side of him. He was determined to get his elephant while he was in Africa, and the rest just didn't seem that important to him.

JM: You have a reputation for being a very economical filmmaker, and you're playing a filmmaker who, in this case at least, was pretty reckless. What did you find that you had in common with Huston?

CE: When people ask me which of the characters that I've played (are most like me,) I say there's a little of me in all of them; none are entirely me. There is some- / Continued thing in each of them I liked, though, or I wouldn't have done them. I suppose that John Wilson (the Huston character) is as different from me as any character I've played. There's an element there that . . . we would all like to have--being bold, daring, doing whatever it is you want to do without thinking (of the consequences). You'd like to be that free. But it's against my nature to go against the people who put their trust in me.

JM: The money people?

CE: Sure. I always feel a responsibility to do the best I can for the people who are putting money up. But at the same time, I have to do it the way I believe. In "White Hunter," John Wilson jumps on his producer for bringing up what audiences will think. I agree with him on that. You can't try to make your film based on what people may want.

JM: Back to knowing your limitations, you've certainly taken some chances in films like "Honkytonk Man" and "Bronco Billy."

CE: I don't think (studio executives) are always happy to hear what I want to do. You should have heard the arguments I made to get them to let me do "Play Misty for Me." "Who the hell wants to see Clint Eastwood play a disc jockey?" I said, "Well, who the hell wants to see me do anything?" It's good for me, and it's good for them to try other things. If I'd stayed in the (Western) genre, I don't think I'd still be around. I don't think I'd ever been able to do "Escape From Alcatraz" or "Bronco Billy" or "Honkytonk Man." I wouldn't have been able to branch out into directing. People get tired of seeing you do the same thing.

JM: But there are expectations. Whenever you do a Western, people expect some variation on the Man With No Name, and you've fooled them a couple of times--"The Beguiled," for one.

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