On May 31st, 2019, Clint Eastwood turned 89 years old. The winner of four Academy Awards, his most recent film appearance was in The Mule in 2018, playing a horticulturist and Korean War veteran turned mule for a cartel. And he may be planning another project, with rumors that he’d like to direct a film about the vilified Richard Jewell. While it may not seem like the kind of movie he’d be passionate about, Eastwood, an actor, director, producer, and composer, has a way of defying expectations.
His childhood has often been described in wildly different ways, sometimes as a spoiled California rich kid and sometimes as the son of near-poverty who failed at school and drifted through his teens and early twenties. The truth seems to be somewhere in between.
Eastwood’s parents, Clinton Eastwood and Ruth Runner, were high school sweethearts who married young and raised two children, creating a tight-knit family. Their only son did not exactly emulate them, as Clint Eastwood has had children with at least five women. One of his biographers said in an interview, “We don’t know how many children Clint has had with how many women” and listed seven before adding, “I heard of other possibilities.”
His mother has said about Clint that he was a celebrity the day he was born, nicknamed “Samson” by the hospital nurses after he made a big entrance into the world weighing 11 pounds and 6 ounces. Eastwood adored his mother his whole life, saying, “She was a fabulous woman. She adored her children.”
More somberly, Eastwood was born in the depth of the Depression and his father struggled to find and keep a job. The family moved frequently, which made it hard for him to make friends. “We didn’t even know we were poor,” Eastwood said later. “We just knew we didn’t have quite enough money.”
Eastwood was six feet tall by the time he was twelve years old, but he wasn’t good at academics. He had to study hard to even pass his classes, disliking math but fond of history. During this time, he was very shy. When he was in his midteens, his father’s job situation improved and the family moved to Palisades, a prosperous town. But while in high school, Clint didn’t get good grades; he didn’t have much interest in sports and he deeply hated appearing in a skit in a school play. He liked cars, girls, and playing jazz on the piano.
After high school he drifted through jobs as a golf caddy, grocery clerk, and newspaper carrier. When he was 20, he was drafted to serve in the the Korean War. Eastwood saw no combat–he was first stationed at Ford Ord near Monterey and he never left, becoming a swimming instructor for over two years.
After the war, Eastwood decided to give acting a try. He definitely didn’t have success right away. While strikingly handsome, Eastwood couldn’t get a role because he was awkward, untrained, and “talked through his teeth.” His first movie part was in 1955 in Revenge of the Creature, a sequel to The Creature of the Black Lagoon.
However, TV Westerns were very popular, and Eastwood was successful in some guest roles, such as Death Valley Days, and he won notice in a spot on the James Garner series Maverick.
A new show was being cast in 1958–Rawhide. It was the story of a crew of cowhands, driving a herd from San Antonio, Texas to Sedalia, Missouri. The boss of the cattle drive is Gil Favor. His right hand is the impetuous young Rowdy Yates, who was supposed to be 19 years old. Eastwood got the part, his breakthrough in show business, though he was actually 28 and married to his first wife, Maggie.
Later, the casting director said Eastwood just looked like “a real cowboy.” What no one may have realized is that on that Universal set, finally, a star was born, one of the biggest Hollywood was to ever know.
From then on Eastwood’s career took off. Starring in many classic Westerns such as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “Dollars” trilogy, the Dirty Harry films and directing himself in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and, later on, the classic Unforgiven (1992).
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com