Today, the 86-year-old actor is known for his conservative ways and healthy lifestyle, but Clint Eastwood’s childhood was full of heartache and chaos, and his journey to stardom wasn’t an easy one.
I’ve always loved Clint Eastwood, but after learning more about his humble beginnings, my love and respect for this rugged cowboy has only grown all the more.
Clinton “Clint” Eastwood Jr. was born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, California. Clint came from a very humble and impoverished background. His father, Clinton Eastwood Sr., was a steelworker and migrant worker, while his mother, Margaret Ruth (Runner) Eastwood, was a factory worker.
Weighing a whopping 11.59 lbs. at birth, nurses in the hospital nicknamed baby Clint “Samson” because a newborn that large was considered quite rare in the 1930s.
Growing up, Clint’s family moved often, as his father worked at different jobs along the West Coast to make ends meet. Finally, the family settled in Piedmont, California, where Eastwood attended Piedmont Junior High School.
Perhaps due to his chaotic upbringing, Clint was always getting into trouble and struggled through his studies — which meant the rambunctious youngster was sentenced to summer school almost every year.
Clint was naturally the athletic type, reaching his 6ft 4-inch frame by the time he was in high school. But despite Eastwood’s athletic talent and musical gift, he had no interest in joining the school’s athletic teams or band. Instead, the passionate youngster was focused on individual pursuits like tennis, piano, and golf.
As a teenager, Clint’s young love was for cars, jazz music, and girls; they were the focal points of his dreams at the time. His father managed to scrape together $25 to surprise Clint with his first car. And from that moment on, cars became even more of a priority than girls.
According to Eastwood, in his young mind the only thing that mattered was “fast cars and easy women.”
Just a few weeks before he was scheduled to enter Piedmont High School, reckless young Eastwood rode his bike through the school’s field after a rainstorm and tore up the wet turf, which resulted in the high school refusing his enrollment.
With nowhere else to turn, Eastwood attended Oakland Technical High School, where the drama teachers encouraged him to take part in school plays, but he wanted nothing to do with it, ironically admitting later that he was “far too shy to step foot on stage.”
Instead, Clint took auto mechanic courses and studied aircraft maintenance, rebuilding both aircraft and car engines. Eastwood also became a pianist and was very dedicated. According to a friend, he “would actually play the piano until his fingers were bleeding.”
By early 1949, Eastwood’s father moved to a plant in Seattle. In order to finish out high school in Oakland, Eastwood moved in with his friend, Harry Pendleton.
Desperate to support himself, Eastwood worked at a number of jobs, including working as a lifeguard, hay baler, paper carrier, grocery clerk, forest firefighter, golf caddy, and he also played ragtime piano at a small local bar.
Eventually, Eastwood rejoined his family in Seattle, where he worked at the Weyerhaeuser Company pulp mill in Springfield, Oregon with his father.
In hopes that a degree would grant him a better life, Eastwood enrolled at Seattle University in 1951. But in an unexpected twist of fate, Eastwood was drafted into the United States Army and was assigned to Fort Ord in California, where he was appointed as a lifeguard and swimming instructor.
To supplement his $67 a month salary, Eastwood held a very humble job working long hours in the hot sun on a loading dock for the Spreckles Sugar Refining Company.
While returning from a weekend visit to his parents in Seattle, Eastwood was aboard a Douglas AD-1 bomber when it suddenly ran out of fuel and tragically crashed into the ocean near Point Reyes. Eastwood escaped serious injury from the sinking aircraft and swam over 3 miles to the safety of shore.
Eastwood later reflected on his thoughts during the crash, “I thought I might die. But then I thought, other people have made it through these things before. I kept my eyes on the lights on shore and kept swimming.”
Over time, throughout his military service Eastwood came across several “signs” that would ultimately lead him to Hollywood. It was after his near-death experience in the U.S. Army – of all places – that Clint Eastwood would finally realize his destiny of becoming an actor.
It was during his service that Eastwood met TV actors stationed in Fort Ord, Martin Milner, David Janssen, and a man by the name of Chuck Hill — who had several contacts in Hollywood.
In the spring of 1952, Eastwood left Fort Ord and moved back to Seattle with his family to work as a lifeguard and save up some money. Instead of returning to university, Eastwood moved to Los Angeles to finally take a shot at stardom.
But Eastwood’s career didn’t take off overnight, in fact, for several years Eastwood earned a very humble living working as an apartment manager by day, and at a gas station by night.
Eventually, Eastwood reacquainted with his Army buddy, Chuck Hill, and with the help of an attractive telephone operator, managed to succeed in sneaking Eastwood into a Universal studio and showed him to cameraman Irving Glassberg.
Glassberg was immediately impressed with Eastwood’s appearance and stature and believed him to be, “the sort of good-looking young man that has traditionally done well in the movies”.
Eastwood made such an impression on Glassberg, that he promptly arranged for director Arthur Lubin to meet the young aspiring actor at the gas station where Eastwood was working in the evenings. Lubin, like Glassberg, was very impressed, remarking that Eastwood was “so tall and slim and very handsome looking.”
Lubin swiftly arranged for Eastwood’s first audition but was skeptical about Eastwood, saying, “He was quite amateurish. He didn’t know which way to turn or which way to go or do anything.”
Nevertheless, Glassberg told Eastwood not to give up, and suggested he attend drama classes, and later arranged for an initial contract for Eastwood in April 1954 at $100 a week.
Although Clint was self-conscious on camera, he demonstrated a strength in displaying anger onscreen, and in one improvised scene during training with Betty Jane Howarth, it left her in tears.
But throughout his drama schooling, Eastwood was criticized for his speech and awkward manner; he was soft-spoken and in performing in front of people was cold, stiff and uncomfortable. Eastwood didn’t appear to be a leading man. He lacked imagination and although he was quite the ladies’ man off screen, it didn’t appear to be so while practicing.
Fellow talent school actor, John Saxon, described Eastwood as, “being like a kind of hayseed.. Thin, rural, with a prominent Adam’s Apple, very laconic and slow speechwise.”
For several years, Eastwood continued to work menial jobs and took more acting classes. But his hard work took years to pay off as dozens of casting directors brutally rejected young Eastwood for his tendency to speak almost in a sibilant whisper. These traits never fully went away, but actually worked in his favor in his later films — especially as the Man with No Name in which he often hissed his lines through clenched teeth.
Eastwood struggled to make a living despite landing several parts in a few pilots and small films, but he refused to give up. During this period, Eastwood applied for assorted day jobs, continued taking acting classes, and began working out hard in the gym.
Throughout this time, Eastwood described himself as feeling “really depressed” and regards it as the lowest point in his career. He seriously considered quitting the acting profession and returning to school to start “doing something with his life.”
But despite his real-life stories of bravery, Eastwood struggled to display his toughness on screen. One night, when a gang of Latin thugs threatened Eastwood and his friends at gunpoint, Eastwood heroically defended them.
Although his friends turned to flee, Clint stood his ground and warned, “Go on and pull that trigger, you little son of a bitch, and I’ll kill you before I hit the ground” and the thugs ran off.
On another occasion, Clint and his friends were at a bar when Clint’s long, wavy hair caught the attention of a group of sailors who taunted him and called him a “Hollywood faggot”. One of them managed to punch Eastwood in the face, but Eastwood surprised them, and in turn — according to reports — put two men in the hospital and injured the others.
Six years after moving to Los Angeles in pursuit of his acting career, 28-year-old Clint Eastwood was informed about a casting call for “an hour-long Western series” that would prove to forever change his life.
One week after his screen-test, Eastwood finally received the call he’d been praying for: he had beat the tough competition (including Bing Russell – the father of actor Kurt Russell) and won the part of “Rowdy Yates” in the CBS show, Rawhide.
Rawhide portrayed the challenges faced by cattle drivers. True to his character’s name, Eastwood played “Rowdy Yates” the young cowboy who was often at times reckless and irresponsible. But despite his character’s immaturity, Eastwood’s strong and rugged countenance charmed countless hearts across America.
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