Who would have thought 57 years ago when Clint Eastwood played his first lead role — the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — that he’d become a 4 time Oscar winner and at the age of 91 would still be directing movies?
As it turns out, Eastwood’s new western, CRY MACHO, which he directed, co-produced, and stars in, opens Sept. 17 from Warner Bros. — but with much more media attention for Eastwood than when DOLLARS premiered in Italy on Sept. 12, 1964. DOLLARS, with Eastwood as its iconic antihero, made lots of lire at the Italian box office, sparking Eastwood’s return in Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE in 1965 and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY a year later.
DOLLARS didn’t open in the U.S. until Jan. 18, 1967. Its distributor, United Artists, was on a boxoffice roll in the ’60s with hits like the Bond films, Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed early movies, and the PINK PANTHER series starring Peter Sellers. UA was known for great marketing and with DOLLARS it did just that — building its ad campaign around Eastwood as The Man With No Name. Actually, he did have a nickname, although it changed in each of the trilogy’s films — from “Joe” to “Manco” to “Blondie.”
UA’s ad campaign worked very well. DOLLARS grossed $14.5 million. That was good business at the time, especially since Leone reportedly made it for just $200,000 and only paid Eastwood $15,000. MORE grossed $15 million after opening May 10, 1967. UGLY arrived Dec. 29, 1967, and did much more than MORE — $25.1 million.
The trilogy’s success put Eastwood on the map, but he wasn’t the first choice for the role. Leone wanted Henry Fonda, but couldn’t afford a big Hollywood star. Then Leone tried for Charles Bronson, but he didn’t like the script. Ironically, Fonda and Bronson both wound up starring in Leone’s bigger 1968 western for Paramount, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which Eastwood passed on doing. While he was casting DOLLARS, Leone also got turned down by Rory Calhoun, Steve Reeves, and James Coburn. He then tried for Richard Harrison, who starred in the 1963 Italian-Spanish western GUNFIGHT IN THE RED SANDS, but Harrison also said no. Asked who he’d suggest for the role, Harrison proposed Eastwood, who was starring in the hit TV series RAWHIDE. Years later, Harrison observed, “Maybe my greatest contribution to cinema was not doing A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and recommending Clint for the part.”
“If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster” – Clint Eastwood