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The golden age of Eastwood

Clint Eastwood looks more like Clint Eastwood than ever. The furnace of time has burned away everything that is not essential. He comes to Chicago for a lifetime achievement award and jokes about being 72, but he does not look young or old, only perfected.

He plays an action hero in his new movie, "Blood Work," which opens Friday, but he does not test credulity by doing impossible things, although what is possible for Eastwood is of course open to negotiation. He plays an FBI agent nearing retirement age. When he chases a killer in an opening scene, he falls with a heart attack. When we meet him again two years later, he has had a heart transplant. He goes through the rest of the movie sometimes touching his chest thoughtfully, as if reminding himself of his mortality.

"I'm playing a part where everyone is telling me how bad I look, how I look like crap, how I oughta go home and get some rest," he said, smiling. Eastwood, who has directed himself in 20 of his own films, works with his screen image like an artist long familiar with his medium. In "Space Cowboys" (2000) and this film he makes his age a plot point, and in "Absolute Power" (1997), accused of committing a burglary and climbing down a rope, he replies "If I could do that, I'd be the star of my AARP meeting."

"You've got to be what you are," he was telling me, two days after he was honored by the Chicago Film Festival. He was going to another event that night, one benefiting a charity important to his wife, Dina. He'd spent the weekend with Dina and some of his kids, seeing Chicago, her favorite city.

"There's nothing more silly than someone trying to play what he's not," he said. "I remember a picture a long time ago with Clark Gable and Cameron Mitchell. They were older guys trying to play young and they kept calling Cameron Mitchell a kid and the kid was not a day under 45 or 50. When you get to a certain age you play what you are and take advantage of that to play roles you weren't capable of when you were younger."

That was his thinking in 1992, he said, when he made "Unforgiven," which won him Oscars for best picture and best director.

"I bought the screenplay in 1981 and sort of hung onto it for awhile because I thought it was something I could mature into. I thought that story would be the perfect way to end the Western for me. It took place on the cusp between two eras, between the old West and the new West, and it had issues like retribution, gun control, the media making these guys into stars, stuff you didn't find in Westerns very often."

If "Unforgiven" was the end of the Western for Eastwood, his beginning as a star was also in a Western. He had great success on television in the "Rawhide" series, from, 1959 to 1966, but in the 1950s and 1960s it was conventional wisdom that TV stars could never become movie stars, because people wouldn't pay to see actors they got at home for free.

He'd made 11 movies before the TV series without becoming a star, and in what was perhaps a form of desperation, he accepted an offer to go to Spain and film a Western with an unknown Italian named Sergio Leone. The result, "A Fistful of Dollars" and its sequel "For a Few Dollars More" made Eastwood into a box office draw, and after his third film with Leone, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" he had all the clout and acceptance he needed to come back to Hollywood and make movies.

"I didn't know if you could make the jump to the big screen," he said. "A few people had. Steve McQueen did small roles and built himself up as a name in pictures. But when I came out of the foreign thing, it was strictly a luck deal, a rolling of the dice."

"'Fistful' cost about $200,000 to make. It was a Western shot in Spain as an Italian-German-Spanish coproduction, with a screenplay based on a Japanese samurai movie [Kurosawa's "Yojimbo," 1961]. All the producers were arguing among themselves about who was going to pay the bills. It could have been an absolute disaster. But, we got lucky with it. And it turned out Sergio Leone was for real. We both came out of the box together."

As a director, Eastwood learned from Leone and from Don Siegel, the American master. They were his mentors (he dedicated "Unforgiven" to them) and they worked fast and lean. Eastwood's own productions are famous for coming in on time and under budget.

"I don't even know if that's a good reputation to have," he said. "You hang around the movies long enough, you realize nobody cares about the economics. But my father, when I as young, used to preach conservationism. Now that means saving the environment, but we grew up in an era when you tried to conserve water and electricity because you were poor and you wanted to save money. Maybe that stuck in my head."

I read a story, I said, that when you and Jeff Daniels were shooting a scene for "Blood Work," you prevented a crash by grabbing the wheel at the last moment.

He grinned. "It was one of those shots where we're both in the front seat and we're talking and out of the corner of my eye I saw a situation developing that he didn't see, and just nudged the wheel a little. No big deal.

"Anytime you're doing a driving scene and you've got cameras hanging off the car, it's kind of a heady deal. I remember in San Francisco I was driving along--this was on 'Dirty Harry'--with boards hanging off the car to mount camera and lights. And I impaled someone in a crosswalk. I wasn't going fast, fortunately. All of a sudden I heard this guy yelling and he was kind of hanging off this board in front of the car. He didn't say much. These days he'd be calling 16 attorneys. But he just griped and groaned and exchanged a few expletives and that was about it."

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