Cattle Calls and Contract Players: An Interview with Clint Eastwood

By Paul NelsonJanuary 9, 2012

Cattle Calls and Contract Players: An Interview with Clint Eastwood

Still (detail) from Revenge of The Creature, Clint Eastwood’s film debut.

The following is the foreword and two selections from the first chapter of Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood: 1979-1983, by Kevin Avery, published by Continuum on September 22nd, 2011.




I NEVER SAT IN A movie theater with Paul Nelson. We watched movies he'd taped off late-night television broadcasts, from neatly hand-lettered VHS tapes. He often had two or even three old movies on a cassette, many with sequences of static, and vintage late-night commercials, intact. Later we watched laserdiscs, but those never supplanted his tapes. For Paul, I suspect that when we met — I was nineteen — I struck him as a remedial case. I liked Godard and Truffaut and Kurosawa, directors who'd taken a lot from classical studio-era Hollywood, but I'd seen little of the real thing. My taste, shaped by my parents' viewing habits, leaned to foreign films and counterculture classics like King of Hearts and Harold and Maude. The only western I'd seen was Blazing Saddles.


Fortunately, I don't think Paul found my prodigiously confident opinions (some, in retrospect, wrong, and some right) unworkable, but he wanted to rewind my viewing habits, like one of his treasured tapes, and start me over again. I remember that we screened Hawks's Red River in slow motion, as Paul stopped the film at various points to describe what he found remarkable or characteristic in a given sequence, or just wanting to linger over details. We did the same thing with Welles's Citizen Kane and Lady From Shanghai. Other movies — Ride The High CountryThe Long Voyage Home — we'd just put on and watch, and I'd feel the force of Paul's regard, the extraordinary pressure-field of his devoted gaze, guiding my own. Certain other films I never saw in Paul's company — Heaven's Gate comes to mind —yet no matter how long it was until I finally saw them, when I did they were enclosed in the terms with which Paul had described them to me, his projections and insights, his abiding gaze. I watched them with Paul even though Paul wasn't with me at the time.


We never discussed Clint Eastwood. I'm guessing now, having read Kevin Avery's terrific reconstruction of Paul's conversations with the actor-director, that this was more than happenstance. Given the size of Paul's engagement with Eastwood's work, and seeing the extent and intimacy of their friendship, the way it tested the bounds of journalist-and-subject, and understanding the disappointment of the encounter's failure to find a home in the "real world" of publication, I suspect it was too sensitive a matter for Paul to want to acknowledge by the time he and I were spending time together. There were zones of silence in Paul. Some covered what you'd have to guess were the most important pieces of his life. I could barely get him to mention Bob Dylan, for instance. I never knew he had a son.


This book is a miracle. It reads so naturally — a testament to Kevin Avery's editorial skill, and his own devotional attention to Paul's voice — that you might suppose it's an example of something. But it's not. There aren't books like this, because I doubt any other interviewer could ever have this sort of effect on a human being as (justifiably) well-defended as Clint Eastwood. (For comparison, see Lester Bangs, Paul's friend, jousting with Lou Reed.) Here, you feel the seduction of good conversation, of genuine friendship, overwriting the task at hand for both participants. As someone who's done an interview or two, getting too much is nearly as bad as getting too little, and getting too close is dangerous. Paul may have believed he was still heading for a Rolling Stone cover story, but at a certain point this encounter became something like the screenplay Paul worked on for years, after his journalistic career was through - a companion, a shelter against loneliness. I doubt it would have felt safe for him to subject this companion to the exigencies of a magazine's editorial offices, where ninety percent would have been judged slack or irrelevant, with the contemporary references, including those to Eastwood's own films, aging rapidly. If only Paul could somehow have known he was writing a book instead — a book as much about himself as about Clint Eastwood or his films (though you'll learn as much about the Hollywood film from it as any book I can think of). In fact, this book could be seen as a sort of screenplay, for a plotless movie on the subject of what it sounds like when two men discover kinship in the process of getting (or not getting) a job of work accomplished, like John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, or Walter Huston and Tim Holt in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (which, I suppose, puts Warren Zevon in the Humphrey Bogart role). But then if Paul had thought he was creating a book it's possible this book would never have existed.


I suppose it's safe to say I'm Paul's creature entirely, when it comes to my preferences and appetites as a film fan. Not that I've caught up to him and his bottomless collection of VHS tapes. Clint Eastwood, in particular, is one of my blindspots, but last night I discovered that Turner Classics was showing The Outlaw Josey Wales, and captured it with my DVR. That's a technology Paul would have delighted in, though he'd have been irritated, as I am, by his inability to put the results on any kind of shelf. Tonight I'll watch Josey Wales and, thanks to this book, I'll be watching it with Paul.


— Jonathan Lethem

Claremont, California

April 19, 2011




PAUL: My father started with a gas station and apparently was smart enough to make a fair amount of money in the stock market, then he lost the whole works in the crash. He then built it up again from a gas station to an auto dealership and owned some farms. I really wish I could remember that period because after that it seemed to take something out of him, the crash.


CLINT: A lot of guys it did. It busted them down.


PAUL: He became quieter. My mother probably influenced him. My mother was quite religious. I was brought up to consider movies a sin, which probably explains why I like movies.


CLINT: For resisting your parents, huh? But that was your escape, too. That was probably your way to take a trip somewhere.


PAUL: Oh, it was.


CLINT: Unfortunately that's one of the problems with religion: the fear aspect. My parents would send me to various churches as we'd go. They were all different, whatever was convenient, because they wanted me to get a religious education. But I had a hard time picturing God as being quite as sadistic as being made out by some of these groups, as somebody who couldn't wait to punish you and couldn't wait to make you grovel for some indiscretion you made. I just never saw him that way. I wanted my vision of him, so I just asked my parents if I could not attend. That was the day when I guess they realized I'd made up my mind that I had a philosophy about it. Anyway, it's all in what the mind makes it.


PAUL: I'm not sorry that I grew up that way. I learned a lot probably by having to think for myself from a very young age.


CLINT: No, it was good because it made you make decisions about things or gave you thoughts about things at a stage in life where you started saying, "Wait a second, I'm not sure I agree with that. It may be written in some scripture that's very, very old, but I'm not sure that I want to look at things with that outlook. I may want to later on, but I'd like to know a little bit more about it before I go putting myself on the line." I felt pretty much the same way.



PAUL: Had the years before Rawhide been pretty tough in the anonymous world of smaller pictures?


CLINT: They were very tough because you'd do a few bits and then you wouldn't get any parts for months. A lot of times guys'll do either theater or television. In the old days they'd bounce around live television shows and then finally somebody'd give them a break. From that they'd springboard into something.


I can remember when I first got in. Hell, the movie business is so strange anyway. You first go on interviews, and a lot of the people who are making the decision on whether you are going to work or not are people who really have no knowledge of the business anyway. Ninety percent of them, I'd say, whom I've met along the way aren't even in the business. They've gotten in through real estate or are salesmen or they've gotten in because of some deal they've been in.


You'd go on interviews where they'd have ten guys your size and age bracket in the office. You'd feel like an asshole sitting there. "Cattle calls" they used to call them for the theater. What are the odds? Now there's ten: that's a one-out-of-ten shot. Maybe they ran two sets of ten before that: that's a one-out-of-thirty shot. Then you'd go meet whomever was casting, and they'd all sit around you and go, "Humph."


You'd get pretty depressed. I was working, and running down to the gas station to call my agent. "Anything for me?" "No, no." "Okay." Boy, I used to call and bug those guys. They were always out of the office, but you knew he was sitting right there.


Sometimes they'd send you on a snore interview. It would be one where you knew damn well you weren't right for the part. When you got there, you found out that they'd sent you just to keep you in action. Sometimes you'd go on an interview where you knew the agent had called on a promise and sent you. I had an agent do that to me recently. He called and said, "Would you see so-and-so?" I said, "I don't have a part for the gal." "That's all right, I promised her an interview. You'd be doing me a great favor." I said, "I can't do that. I'm not going to mislead this person into thinking there's something there and get her all excited about the possibility when there's absolutely nothing there. It's just a fake. All fakery. You made the promise, you get out of it." I'm sure he probably told her that I was a bum or something. Those guys are scummy sometimes.


PAUL: The money wasn't so good, I guess, if you were a contract player for the studio back then.


CLINT: When I was a contract player at Universal, I made seventy-five dollars a week. I was there a year and a half. When I left there I was maybe making a hundred or something like that, but even then that wasn't a hundred because you got forty weeks a year, then you were on layoff for the rest of the time.


PAUL: I imagine it was also very hard to make an impression in a small role where your only line was "Here's the test tube, doc" or something like that.


CLINT: Exactly. You'd come in to play a pilot and they'd throw the mask on you, a helmet, the goggles, and so-and-so and such-and-such, and you're a body wig. There's no impression - and you don't fool yourself by thinking there's an impression. You do the job, you're glad to have the credit, and you're glad to be just working, even for the fun of being in on the action. You know you're not going to set the world on fire.


PAUL: I gather this is the period that made a considerable mark on you. In other interviews I've seen, the cattle calls and the crushing of the ego seem to come up a lot. This was a period where some hurt was done and hasn't been forgotten.


CLINT: Oh, I guess it's forgotten, but I don't know. It's sad, too. I find people come up to me now and they say, "How do I break into the acting business?" I say, "What have you been doing up to this point with it?" Sometimes they've been in schools or they've been in little theater, and other times it's nothing, no experience, and they want to start from scratch. Boy, you hate to really burst the bubble. You hate to say, "Don't do it," because somewhere you might be talking to a really great potential talent. At the same time, you think, "Boy, you'd better be ambitious and be able to hang in there, because if you think you're going to try it for six months and you're going to be an overnight hit, you've got a lot of fun coming." We all know the old joke about being a ten-year overnight success. Once in a while some guy comes along and makes it when he's a teenager or something like that, but even then who knows how long that lasts? You go along and then you get a lull.


PAUL: Did you ever consider giving it up at that point?


CLINT: Oh, sure. After about the first five years or so, four years, I started really getting to the point where I started wondering. You go through periods of really liking it and wanting to be involved - but struggling. It's one of the few professions where you struggle to work. Most of the time, you just go out and hire on the job and you learn something about it, and you stay with it or you transfer to another company. But in the acting profession you've got thousands of people all wanting to do the same job, so there's a tremendous amount of competition involved. And I wasn't a very good competitor on the outside. I mean, I was a good competitor - I'd make all the interviews - but I wasn't a terribly extrovertish guy. Some of these guys would come in and they'd have all the latest jokes and they really could get in and sell and do a nice job putting themselves over. But if I went into somebody's office, it was just "How do you do, so-and-so?" and that's about the best I could come up with. I wasn't going to sit there and bullshit the guy. I always felt a complex about taking up the guy's time. I always felt I was a lousy handshake, you know?


PAUL: I know that feeling exactly. It's the same with writing. If the work is good, you should get the damn job.


CLINT: If you can get it on film, that's more like your correlation with writing, because you can lay the writing right in front of them and say, "Now read that and see how you like it. If you like it, you like it. Don't expect me to give you all the patter." If I ever had a chance to test for roles where I made film tests, I usually got the parts. But if it meant coming in and giving some jive to a couple ad men, I was a washout. Before Rawhidecame along, I struck out on a lot of series just at the door - and I was sure that I would have been good for them if I'd had a chance to be on film or even if I sat around a bit. But naturally you can't expect the people who are putting on the shows to sit around and wait till you loosen up, till you all become buddies, so you can go out and have a few beers. They have to look at hundreds of people every day, so it just doesn't work like that.


PAUL: It's still a horrifying feeling to know that, if you even get on that stage, you have one minute to knock this guy cold, and there are 300 guys behind you.


CLINT: And out of the 300, what are the odds that somebody else isn't going to knock him cold?


PAUL: When did it hit you that "I'm pretty good at this. I feel good doing this"?


CLINT: I guess after. I was a contract player at Universal and I didn't know whether I was good at it or not. I probably wasn't [laughs], but I just thought that I had something to bring. I didn't know what it was, I didn't know on what level or what magnitude along the way, I just thought I had something that I could develop.


The more you go to acting classes, the more you study, you realize the less you know. It's like laying bricks: it looks pretty easy to see a guy slapping the mortar down and dropping them in, but you don't realize until you start doing it yourself that there are some techniques and knacks to it. Acting's a very strange thing to learn because it's not an analytical or intellectual art. It's a very instinctive and animalistic art, and you have to just do it, to feel yourself and then catalogue those feelings away. After a few years of it, once in a while you'd do a scene and you felt like you were cooking. You started thinking, Well, now that's not too bad.


Then you just bash your head on doors because half the time, when you go on casting calls, nobody knows what they want anyway - unless you happen to be a specific type or have a specific reputation as an actor; then they just hire you. There are an awful lot of people whose doors you have to knock on who don't really know what they want or what they're doing there. So it's a very frustrating thing.


PAUL: I taped Revenge of the Creature the other night, but I think you were cut out. Is that the one where you have the mouse in your pocket?


CLINT: Yeah.


PAUL: I stayed up until 5:22 in the morning to tape it. That scene was gone from the version I taped.


CLINT: Ah, well. Nothing's sacred anymore. They take that fabulous scene out of the picture. That was my very first part. A four-liner or something like that. I remember it was Jack Arnold directing and William Alland was the producer. Alland called me into his office and read me the scene and gave me the part. And that was it. He said, "I'll take you down and we'll meet the director." I walked on the set and the director said, "What the hell is this? I told you I don't want to do that goddamn scene! Who's this guy?" [laughs] I thought, I'm going to get punched - he was screaming and yelling - or else I was just going to wilt to the floor. Probably the latter. Alland made me realize that it wasn't anything against me - the director just didn't want the scene in the movie, so he didn't see any reason for shooting it and thought they should cut it out.


PAUL: Well, they did in the version I saw [chuckles].


CLINT: The producer won the argument. He just said, "That's in. Shoot it first thing in the morning." That was the final word, so I said, "I'll see you in the morning." But it was a hell of a way to start your acting career: walk on a set and you know that the director hates the scene. Therefore you know he hates you.


LARB Contributor

Paul Nelson was, in the words of Bob Dylan, a "folk-music scholar" who in 1965 went electric and pioneered rock criticism. A legendary editor for Rolling Stone magazine, he also discovered the New York Dolls. Throughout it all, movies remained his first love.



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