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Authors: Marc Eliot

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So it was back to digging more pools. Increasingly he spent his nights at a local bar among friends and on at least one occasion venting his frustrations by getting into a pretty nasty brawl. Clint could take care of himself, and from all accounts the other guy came off much worse.

    
N
ot long afterward Clint, via Leonard, heard about a cheapie independent that was being made at 20th Century–Fox’s facilities (they would produce but not distribute the film) by first-time director Jodie Copelan, a post–Civil War action movie called
Ambush at Cimarron Pass
. Clint tried out for and landed the part of one of the villains, an ex-soldier loyal to the South. He got paid $750 for it; the lead, career villain Scott Brady, cast here as the hero, managed to get $25,000. For some reason Copelan wanted Brady, even if his high fee ate into production values, like extras to fill out the vapid wide screen. And horses, the lack of which made the film, ostensibly a western, look a bit odd. (A plot line was developed that they had been stolen by thieves, which might have made a pretty good film.) After the film opened, Clint got a positive single-line review in
Variety—
“fine portrayals also come from Margia Dean, Frank Gerstle, and Clint Eastwood”—but the film was a bomb. Later on Clint would describe
Ambush at Cimarron
as “the lousiest western ever made.”

    
W
ith nothing happening in his film career, Clint gave serious thought to returning to college full time, getting a degree in something, anything, and then finding a steady job with decent pay. Still,
he couldn’t completely give up trying to make it in the movies and signed up for more acting lessons (a thriving storefront business in Hollywood, then and now). Mostly these classes were like health clubs for actors, a place to work out with a scene or a monologue to keep the chops tight. One of Clint’s classmates, Floyd Simmons, who was also a casual friend from the studio, suggested to Clint that he needed a better agent, and sent him to his own, Bill Shiffrin, who signed him.

Shiffrin specialized in “beefcake,” brawny good-looking young men who could play romantic leads in B-movies without looking too ridiculous when they tried to “act.” A bent-nose kind of guy who prided himself on being able to handle himself in a rough situation (as the actors he repped did on-screen), Shiffrin represented Vince Edwards and Bob Mathias. (Edwards, dark and angry-looking, would eventually gain fame on TV as Ben Casey, a dark and angry-looking doctor.) Mathias had won the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon in London in 1948 and again in Helsinki in 1952 (the only person at the time to ever accomplish that feat); in 1954 he’d starred in a film about his own early life, Francis D. Lyon’s
The Bob Mathias Story
, in which he played himself. Before he knew it, a film career, if not a star, was born. He knocked around B-films for a few years, proving to everyone that he had no acting ability whatsoever, then turned to politics and served four terms as a Republican congressman for California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Through the grapevine of agents, Shiffrin had heard about a new one-hour western series that CBS was planning, to follow up on the enormous ratings success of
Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke
had begun as a radio drama in 1952, a creation of producer-writer-developer Charles Marquis “Bill” Warren, director Norman MacDonnell, and writer John Meston. Put on the air by CBS head William Paley, it quickly became a sensation.
Gunsmoke
spawned dozens of similar “adult” westerns on all three networks. CBS wanted to find another one just as good (and just as profitable).

The producer of the new series, Robert Sparks, an executive at CBS in charge of filmed programming, and principal writer Warren began the search for an actor who could make the series his own. Casting was crucial to a TV series’s success, more than a film’s, because of
its recurring nature. The right star, like Arness, could make a bad series. The wrong star could kill a good one.

In the new series, each season a bunch of wranglers would move a herd of cattle north, and the episodes would tell the stories of their adventures during the journey. The format was already in use quite successfully on NBC’s
Wagon Train
, in which passengers moved every season from the East Coast to the West. Paley wanted something that combined
Gunsmoke’s
drama with
Wagon Train’s
expanse.

Neither Sparks nor Warren was a newcomer to series TV. Warren, who had had the original idea for
Gunsmoke
, had met and to some extent been mentored by the great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald while in college at Maryland, where he made All-American as a football player, when Fitzgerald was living in the area. Heavily influenced by the romance of Fitzgerald’s addictive personality, Warren became a heavy drinker and a barroom tough guy, neither of which got him anywhere in school. Upon graduation in 1934, Warren took off for Hollywood (à la Fitzgerald), determined to break into the film industry and make a name for himself, to succeed where Fitzgerald had failed. After service in World War II as a navy commander, he found success as a pulpy western serial writer for
The Saturday Evening Post
. Many of his stories were adapted and made into novels, and some into movies. Forever in need of money (and booze), Warren moved into television, where he became a favorite of Bill Paley, the chairman and founder of CBS. After conceiving
Gun-smoke
, Warren could do no wrong, and the new series was his for the asking.

He had originally called his new pilot script
The Outrider
, but Paley rejected the title, believing no one would know what it meant except outriders (the cowboys who rode outside a herd and kept it moving). Instead he suggested
Rawhide
, a meaningless term—a strip of leather—that had been the title of a successful 1951 Henry Hathaway western that starred Tyrone Power. Paley liked it because it immediately evoked “western” to him and also because a lot of what eventually became
Wagon Train
on TV had been loosely based on the original story of that film.

Robert Sparks, as a program executive, had specialized in westerns, most notably 1957’s slick and highly entertaining
Have Gun—Will
Travel
, a Saturday-night half-hour hit show starring movie veteran Richard Boone in the role of Paladin, the intellectually superior, highly cultured gun-for-hire. Paley assigned Sparks to work with Warren on the proposed new series.

Warren, for his part, had just directed a feature film called
Cattle Empire
(1958), written by his frequent partner and co-writer (Warren was uncredited), Hungarian émigré Endre Bohem. It was about the troubles of life on a cattle drive and starred Joel McCrea, one of Hollywood’s best-known and best-liked cowboy heroes. The film owed a lot to Howard Hawks’s great
Red River
(1948), which starred John Wayne and Walter Brennan and made young Montgomery Clift a star.

Warren was a big fan of Clift’s style of acting, soft-spoken and good-looking, tough but not bullying, and sensitive in a youthful and appealing way. Knowing that Clift, now one of the biggest (and most difficult) actors in Hollywood, would not do TV, Warren wanted an actor who captured Clift’s qualities in
Red River
to balance off the tough, grizzled leader of the drives, Gil Favor, to be played by Eric Fleming, thirty-four years old and properly grizzled. He resembled a young Ben Gazzara with his face swollen after a fistfight. Heavier and a couple of inches taller than Clint, his acting style was thought of in Hollywood as less Method than maniac. Once cast in the role, he believed he
was
Gil Favor.

As Sparks and Warren continued their search for an actor who could support Fleming, Shiffrin believed there might be something in
Rawhide
for his new client, Clint Eastwood. Unknown to him, Clint was already on the trail of the show via a young woman he’d known from back in his Universal days. Sonia Chernus was a former script reader for Arthur Lubin who now did that same job for him at CBS. She was one of the few women Clint associated with during that period who became a friend rather than a lover. She had met and become friends with Maggie as well.

Perhaps Clint was aware of
Rawhide
through Lubin; perhaps Chernus heard about it and thought of him; or perhaps Clint had been sniffing around Lubin’s new production setup at the network, where Lubin had made it clear Clint was always welcome, in the hopes of finding some acting work. Whatever the actual details were (no one, including Clint, seems to remember exactly), Chernus managed
to convince Sparks—who had seen hundreds of actors and was frustrated at not being able to find a costar for
Rawhide—
to at least see Clint for a few minutes.

The meeting, spontaneous and casual, took place in the CBS hallway, with Chernus standing between the two men as they briefly spoke. Sparks asked Clint what specifically he had done. Clint mentioned a few projects, including
Ambush at Cimarron Pass
. He was relieved when Sparks said he hadn’t seen it but worried when Sparks said he would take a look at it as soon as possible.

Sparks casually asked Clint how tall he was, and Clint told him he was six foot four. Sparks then invited him into his office, while Chernus remained outside. Sparks introduced Clint to Charles Warren. They talked for a while about
Rawhide
and how they saw it with two leads, one younger, one older. When the meeting ended, both Sparks and Warren promised to take a look at
Ambush at Cimarron Pass
(something that could not have made Clint happy) and get in touch with his agent, Shiffrin, sometime that week. Chernus, who was waiting outside in the hallway, walked Clint back outside to his car and told him to relax, hang loose, that she would let him know as soon as she heard something.

Later that same day Clint received a call from Shiffrin saying he had heard from Sparks and Warren. They weren’t interested in screening the film but did want to screen-test him for the younger lead, Rowdy Yates, as soon as possible. The next day Clint found himself back at CBS. He was sent to wardrobe to be outfitted in western garb, introduced to Fleming, and given a scene to study.

After Clint left, Sparks and Warren watched the screen test dozens of times. Warren liked the similarities he saw in Clint’s audition to Clift’s performance in
Red River
. Sparks, however, was less impressed and was leaning toward another actor, Bing Russell. CBS executive Hubbell Robinson, in charge of all the network’s programming, had been sent from New York City by Paley specifically to sit in on all the casting decisions for
Rawhide;
he had the final say and sided with Warren, believing Clint was the right actor to play Rowdy Yates.
*

A week later he got the phone call telling him the good news. Just like that, Clint had landed a starring role in a major network TV series. The first episode
of Rawhide
, “Incident of the Tumbleweed Wagon,” aired at eight o’clock on Friday night, January 9, 1959, sandwiched between two of CBS’s biggest winners, the enormously popular
Hit Parade
and
The Phil Silvers Show
.

Rawhide
proved a smash in its first season. For the next seven years it was a staple of American weekly television viewing
*
and along the way made cathode-cowboy stars out of its two male leads.

*
Year of release. Unless otherwise indicated, all dates of films are release rather than production dates.


Aka
21st Century Lady Godiva
.

*
It was a remake of
This Love of Ours
(1945), directed by William Dieterle and starring Claude Rains in the role now handed to Hudson.

*
The eight films were
Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Taza, Son of Cochise
(aka
Son of Cochise)
(1954),
Magnificent Obsession
(1954),
Captain Lightfoot
(1955),
All That Heaven Allows
(1955),
Never Say Goodbye
(1956; Sirk was uncredited, Hopper was listed as the official director),
Battle Hymn
(1957), and
The Tarnished Angels
. After
Imitation of Life
(1959) Sirk retired under circumstances that remain unclear and permanently moved to Switzerland.

*
Clint received $750 for the film.

*
Aka
C’est la Guerre
, aka
Hell Bent for Glory
(UK), aka
With You in My Arms
.

*
Neil “Bing” Russell, the father of actor Kurt Russell, was later cast as Deputy Clem Foster in
Bonanza
, a role he played from 1961 until the series ended a decade later.

*
In its first full season the show was moved up to 7:30. In 1963 it was moved to Thursdays at 8:00. In 1964 it moved back to Fridays at 7:30. In 1965 it was moved to Tuesdays at 7:30.

FOUR

As Rowdy Yates in
Rawhide

I was set to direct a segment of
Rawhide
once in those days but it never came about. I think some other actor had tried and run way over budget so they wouldn’t let me try
.

—Clint Eastwood

BOOK: American Rebel
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ads

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