The Early Years
The first time he spoke lines to a camera, he blew them. A couple of pictures later he spoke his lines perfectly, but he was buried so deep in a dark scene that he couldn't be seen. Toward the end of his first year as an actor, he had a nice little scene with a major star on a major production, and he found a good-looking pair of glasses that he thought gave him a bit of character. But Rock Hudson thought the same thing when he saw the kid wearing them, and Clint had to surrender his specs to the leading man.
This was Clint Eastwood's life as an eager young contract player at Universal circa 1955, and it turned out to be a short one--the studio dropped him after a year and a half. On his own, he did what young actors do: played scenes in acting classes, worked out at the gym, went on auditions, did odd jobs (mostly he dug swimming pools under the hot sun of the San Fernando Valley). Every once in a while he got an acting job--on Highway Patrol, on Death Valley Days. Once a big time show flew him east to work on location on West Point Stories. He got to bully James Garner on an episode of Maverick. A couple of times his heart leapt up: he got good billing in a feature, The First Traveling Saleslady, playing opposite Carol Channing; and he thought for awhile that he had one of the leads in another feature, Lafayette Escadrille. But the first film was a flop, and he had to settle for a much smaller role in the second. When he finally got a decent part in a movie, it was in a B western so bad it almost caused him to quit the business.
In short, his was the archetypal show-biz struggle. It ended archetypically, too. He was visiting a friend at CBS and strolling down one of its long corridors of power, when a man in a suit, an executive, popped out of a door, took a long look at this nice-looking kid and asked, "Are you an actor!" Turned out he was looking for someone to play the second lead in a western series called Rawhide that the network was about to produce. Thus was Rowdy Yates born. Thus did Clint Eastwood achieve his first fame and, if not fortune, then the security of a running part in a series that lasted seven years.
Rowdy was like most everyone else Clint played in those years--a nice young man, politely spoken and highly principled, but to him, not very interesting. He once told an interviewer that he knew he "wouldn't make any impact until [his] 30s" because in those days he still looked like he was about 18 and "had a certain amount of living to do." Alas, he was still playing Rowdy, still in effect a juvenile, when he reached his early 30s, which was terribly frustrating to him. Which is why he agreed to spend the 1964 Rawhide hiatus in Spain making a western for an unknown Italian director. The money was poor, the prestige nonexistent, but the film that was eventually released as A Fistful of Dollars offered him a character he had never played--a grizzled grown-up, tough and morally ambiguous.
Clint has never been given sufficient credit for the imaginative leap this undertaking represented, for the courage it required to willfully subvert his safe, boyish image of the time. By taking this long shot, he not only ended his long apprenticeship, he became a true rarity--an entirely self-made star.