The legendary actor and filmmaker talks about his western roots and the freedom that comes with age.

“You know the greatest thing about getting old? You can do anything you want. Really. I was talking about this with a friend one time, and he agreed. He told me: ‘You get to be 65 or 70 — you can do what you want, and you don’t have to take any more crap. Because what can they do to you if you fail?’”

Clint Eastwood chuckles heartily as he remembers the conversation. “And you know what?” he says to an equally amused visitor. “He’s right. I mean, what can they do if I fail? Take back the Oscar?”

Certainly not. Truth be told, as Eastwood continues to evolve and astonish as a filmmaker, directing himself and others in such Oscar-worthy dramas as Unforgiven, Mystic River, and, most recently, Million Dollar Baby, he very likely will have to make room for more glittering prizes on his mantelpiece. At 75, an age when most actors are reduced to playing supporting parts, and many directors are lucky to find TV series gigs, Eastwood still gets his name above the title for his starring performances and still makes high-profile features that delight his admirers and, sometimes, convert his long-time critics.

Film critic and historian David Thomson used to count himself among the naysayers, describing Eastwood as “an actor of limited range, and a rather modest, impersonal director.” But that was before Thompson viewed Eastwood’s latest effort, the award-winning Million Dollar Baby, and suddenly found himself among the duly impressed.

“What it amounts to, I think,” Thomson raved in a recent essay, “is that at the age of 60 or so, he began to improve, no matter that he was rich and successful enough to do whatever he wanted. This is a very rare phenomenon in today’s world of film where people of Eastwood’s age either turn impossibly childish or senile, or stop. Instead, Eastwood has begun to search for better and better material, and in the process he has enlarged himself as an actor and an artist.”

Unfortunately, the bean-counters and decision-makers haven’t always responded favorably to the material Eastwood finds. When he announced his desire to direct Mystic River, a mourn­ful drama of guilt, loss, and rage based on Dennis Lehane’s acclaimed novel, Eastwood received only grudging approval from the executives at Warner Bros., the studio he’s been asso­ciated with for more than 30 years. The studio suits were even less enthusiastic about Million Dollar Baby, the deeply affecting drama about an aging fight trainer (Eastwood) who reluctant­ly agrees to train a female boxer (Hilary Swank).

“They told me, ‘We don’t think boxing movies are very popular right now,” Eastwood recalls. “And I told them, ‘This to me is not a boxing movie. It’s about hopes and dreams, and a love story.’”

And for good measure, Eastwood added: “I’m going to make the movie regardless of whether you want to or not.” True to his word, he found outside investors to cover half of the budget before Warner Bros. finally came on board.

When Eastwood speaks of his battles against the studio brass, it’s easy to think of him in one of his very best but least appreciated performances, as director John Wilson, a flamboyant filmmaker modeled closely after the late, great John Huston, in the sadly under-rated White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). In the film, which Eastwood also directed, Wilson goes to Africa to shoot an expensive Hollywood drama. (Like the novel on which it’s based, White Hunter draws heavily from the real-life production history of Huston’s The African Queen.) But Wilson is easily distracted by his desire to hunt elephants. And immobilized, perhaps, by his fear of not living up to his own high expectations.

John Wilson, Eastwood admits, is one of his favorite roles. “I think I have more respect for the people who agree to finance my films than John ever did,” he says with a mischievous grin. “But I agree with him when he says, ‘You must take chances.’ Or even when he says, ‘You mustn’t think about what the audience reaction is when you’re making a film. You have to make the film, and then turn it over to them.’ I even agree with his cynical sentiment when he makes self-demeaning statements like, ‘I’ll die flat broke in a flophouse, and they’ll name an Academy Award after me — and all the wrong people will win it.’ That’s kind of a cynical attitude, but there’s probably truth in there. I’m not sure that Irving Thalberg, and whoever they name special awards for, isn’t rolling over in his grave when he sees some of the people that they’ve given it to.”

Making daring career moves is nothing new for Eastwood, a California-born maverick who rose from the ranks of B-movie contract players to the realm of Hollywood royalty through dint of talent, good fortune — and, perhaps most important, indefatigable determination. As a child of the Great Depression, he developed a true Westerner’s work ethic at an early age. And after he attained an enviable degree of success as a star of Rawhide, the popular 1959 – 66 TV western in which played cattle-driver Rowdy Yates, Eastwood kept his sights on developing a long-term career by taking risks and bucking trends.

Which explains why, even while Rawhide showcased him as a white-hat hero to TV viewers throughout the world, Eastwood opted to spend his 1964 summer hiatus as the grizzled anti-hero of a small-budget western movie. Filmed in Spain by an Italian director inspired by a Japanese samurai adventure, with Italian and German supporting players backing the American lead, A Fistful of Dollars represented an innovative twist in multicultural cross-pollination. Director Sergio Leone took the clichés of traditional sagebrush sagas and pushed them to unprecedented extremes of graphic violence and seriocomic cyni­cism. By doing so, he more or less invented a new subgenre — the so-called “Spaghetti Western” — in which old rules did not apply, and new attitudes propelled heroes and villains alike.

When an English-dubbed version of Fistful finally reached the United States in 1967, traditionalists were shocked and outraged by what Leone had done with characters and conventions common to classic westerns. Try to imagine the out­cry that arose in some circles when HBO unleashed Deadwood, then kick the fury up a notch, and you’ll have some idea of how many folks responded to a Western in which the protagonist is a steely-eyed pragmatist who’s driven by greed and self-interest, not justice and self-denial, and who gets into trouble only when he impulsively aids a wife and mother com­mandeered by a bandit chief. As The Man With No Name, Eastwood shoots first — and last — and rarely bothers to ask questions afterward. In fact, he comes off as a good guy only because the bad guys are much, much worse.

Eastwood often has claimed Leone “operacized” the Western. The descrip­tion is apt, given the director’s penchant for grandiose overstatement in Fistful and its two more ambitious sequels, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). Time and again, you see self-consciously ritual­ized gunfights that intercut immense wide shots of wary antagonists and intense close-ups of their squinty eyes. Everything is overlaid with Ennio Morricone’s alter­nately twangy and thunderous music and protracted by pauses sufficiently pregnant to produce quintuplets.

By the time The Good, The Bad and The Ugly reached the United States a year after breaking box office records in Europe, Rawhide had already had been turned out to pasture — but Eastwood was established as a genuine movie star. And throughout the next two decades, he rode tall in the saddle often enough to convince many fans that, never mind his occasional forays into broad comedies and tough-cop melodramas, Eastwood was a full-blooded Western hero.

The odd thing is, despite his enduring image as hero on horse­back, Eastwood has spent much of his career demythologiz­ing the very genre that helped establish him as an international icon. First as an actor, in such films as the “Man With No Name” trilogy and Hang 'Em High (one of the few Westerns to recognize a nasty streak of blood lust in frontier jus­tice), and later as his own director, in High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood upended clichés, sullied stereotypes, and challenged assumptions — sometimes in dead seriousness, some­times with a sardonic sense of humor.

In 1976’s Josey Wales, his first incontestable masterwork as a director, he even went so far as to gruffly dismiss the whole idea that men should prove their manhood in bloody show­downs. Faced with a would-be bounty hunter in a seedy saloon, Eastwood’s laconic Josey Wales actually tries to talk his adversary out of a fight, suggesting that, “You can walk out of here, and no one will ever know.” When the bounty hunter insists that, hey, it’s nothing personal, he’s just trying to make a living, Josey Wales cuts him off: “Dying,” he rasps, “ain’t much of a living.”

With Unforgiven (1992), his first Oscar-winning film, Eastwood went even further into the dark underside of the Western mythos, and to the very top of his form as an actor and filmmaker. As William Munny, “a man of notori­ously vicious and intemperate disposition,” he gives us an anti-hero who claims he is done with killing, who insists that his beloved wife “cured me of drink and wickedness.” Unfortunately, Munny’s wife died two years before the movie begins. Even more unfortunately, Munny’s pig farm is failing, and he’s des­perate to support himself and his two young children. So he returns to his gunslinging ways to earn a few dollars more of blood money. Nothing good comes of this.

Unforgiven is a great movie, and a major source of its great­ness is Eastwood’s sternly ambiguous view of the elements that made most of us so fond of Westerns in the first place. Indeed, after seeing Unforgiven, some people have never again been able to look at any other Western, by any other filmmaker, in quite the same way.

“Violence is painful,” Eastwood says, “and not the kind of comedic thing that it might appear in other stories. And I liked that in Unforgiven ... It was a statement about violence I wanted to make. But it wasn’t an action picture, it was more of an anti-action picture, so I thought it would be a tough sell. It was much more successful than I thought it would be.”

Did Eastwood think of Unforgiven as an act of self-criticism? “You mean, doing penance for the mayhem of the past?” he asks — not testily, exactly, but not altogether playfully.

OK, take two: Does Eastwood think some of his earlier films — say, the Man With No Name movies, if not the Dirty Harry melodramas – may have helped desensitize audiences to violence during the 1960s and ’70s?

“Maybe,” Eastwood replies, warming to the subject. “But at the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We all had grown up with films that had Jimmy Cagney shooting somebody down, or drilling somebody in the trunk of a car — and that didn’t make us all violent people.

“I must say, though, that in recent years, I’ve viewed a lot of films where the violence has turned into a gruesome dismembership thing. Not very pleasant. But, then I start thinking, ‘Am I just getting older, and I’m criticizing someone else who’s coming along, maybe doing something that [makes me feel the same way] that people felt about some of my things at some point?’ I don’t know.

“Really, there’s been no conscious effort [on my part] to correct anything, or look back over my shoulder. It’s just, this is the way I feel today. I’m not haunted by anything, like William Munny. But today I feel that, with the way the world is now, maybe violence shouldn’t be treated as too humorous. Maybe Harold Lloyd walking into a wall, or Tom and Jerry in a cartoon, that’s different. But in reality, killing is not justifiable.”

Eastwood has not directed or starred in a Western since Unforgiven, and has no plans to do so in the near future. (His next directorial project: Flags of Our Fathers, a World War II drama about the Battle of Iwo Jima.) Even now, however, long after he hung up his guns, Eastwood often is viewed as the heir apparent to John Wayne. So it comes as something of a surprise when he says that, with all due respect to the Duke, there’s another Hollywood great who looms larger in his estimation.

“James Stewart is one of my heroes,” Eastwood says. “And in all those Anthony Mann Westerns that I grew up with — like The Far Country and Winchester ’73 — Stewart was always good.

“He wasn’t a violent-looking man. And he wasn’t a real huge man, although he’s very, very tall. But he could portray violence, he could portray anger, better than almost any other actor. I mean, there was this underlying anger — when Jimmy Stewart was mad, it really projected well on the screen. It wasn’t like some actor frothing at the mouth, and making a lot of gestures. He was in touch with his own anger somehow. And he presented it well. And I think that’s what made him a good protagonist in westerns.”

Of course, as any Western buff worth his spurs can tell you, Stewart was the frontier doctor who diagnosed John Wayne’s cancer in The Duke’s final film, The Shootist, which was directed by the late Don Siegel. Eastwood worked with Siegel on a number of films — most notably, Dirty Harry and Coogan’s Bluff — and he heard quite an earful from the filmmaker, a close friend, after Siegel completed his one and only Wayne Western.

“In the movie,” Eastwood says, “one of the villains comes in and shoots at Wayne behind the bar, and somehow, through some trickery, Wayne gets around behind him, ends up behind the villain.

“So Don says, ‘Well, now, when you get behind him, then you shoot him.’ There was a long pause, and then John Wayne says, ‘I don’t shoot anyone in the back.’ And then Don made the worst mistake he could have possibly made. He said, ‘Clint would shoot him in the back.’

“Well,” Eastwood concludes with a laugh, “Wayne got furious.”

Does Eastwood have any regrets as he looks back over his life and career?

“Actually, I’m not a regretful guy. Of course, everybody has things in their life that they’d like to do over with hindsight. But every decision I’ve ever made was based on the knowledge I had at that time. They may not be the same decisions I’d make today, but you can’t go back.

“I believe — I hope — that if you keep active, and keep your mind active, keep learning new things, you’re always getting better. But the key is not repeating yourself. People are always asking me if I want to do another Dirty Harry movie. Say, something with Dirty Harry retired, and he’s on a fishing trip and gets involved with a murder investigation. But I don’t want to go back and imitate myself, and do the kind of action movies I did in the ’70s and ’80s. I don’t think I would do it very well. And I’m not sure anybody would want to see it, either.

“See, I’ve always felt I’m just a constant student of life. Every day, you learn something new. Every film, or every project, you learn something new.

“And isn’t that nice?”

From the April 2005 issue.