Clint Eastwood celebrated his 93rd birthday in May 2023, and it feels like the man has been in our lives forever. But believe it or not, there once was a time when Clint Eastwood wasn’t famous. Granted, we’re talking a long time ago now. Like, a really long time ago. Back before he’d sauntered into town in his famous Spaghetti Westerns. Back even before he’d grabbed the public’s attention in the TV show Rawhide. And that got us thinking: what did the young Eastwood do when he was waiting to become a world-famous celebrity? Well, if these rare pictures are anything to go by, he lounged around the pool with his shirt off – and didn’t care who saw him…
Before a star is born
The photographs you’re about to enjoy were taken between 1955 and 1965. They capture the strapping, 6’4 tall Eastwood in the prime of his life between the ages of 25 and 35. This perhaps goes a long way to explaining why he evidently spent so much time without a top on. Wouldn’t you, if you looked this good? But we’re getting off-topic. The real question is: why would Eastwood agree to have these pictures taken in the first place? It’s not like you’d catch modern-day stars such as Timothée Chalamet or Tom Holland willingly posing half-naked in their backyards. But it seems that the 1950s were a very different time.
From the Army to Hollywood
For one thing, no one had heard of Clint Eastwood in 1955. That’s not surprising when you discover that the soon-to-be-world-famous star was drafted into the army in 1950. This was around the time of the Korean War — but Eastwood never saw combat. Instead, he was put to work in Fort Ord, Carmel, as a swimming teacher. The handsome, shirtless Eastwood then caught the attention of a movie crew who’d started filming at Fort Ord. And after he left the army, he set out for Hollywood and began to work on his acting skills. In 1954 he signed a contract with Universal Studios… and that’s where these eye-catching photos come in.
At home with Clint
This was right at the beginning of Eastwood’s career. He got his first acting roles in 1955, sure, but they were for movies with titles such as Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula. And even then the roles were so small that he went uncredited in the final pictures. What he needed was a break. And movie studios at the time had a tried-and-tested way of getting people to pay attention to their up-and-coming stars: snapping pictures of the actors off-duty. It could involve showing them behind the scenes of a particular movie. Or, as in Eastwood’s case, the pics could reveal his life at home.
Man in the magazines
How did this help? Well, there was no internet back in the 1950s, of course, so moviegoers couldn’t see pictures of their favorite stars at the touch of a button. The only way to get celebrity gossip, then, was through fan magazines. The deal worked like this: movie studios bought ads in these magazines, and in return, the mags ran stories on whichever celebrities the studios wanted. So the moviegoers got to see more of their favorite film stars, and the studios got to publicize their pictures and actors.
Getting intimate with Eastwood
That might sound similar to what happens today in places such as People or Us Weekly. But because the fan magazines weren’t owned by conglomerates with deep pockets, the studios could basically dictate what they wanted to be published — and how. Let’s consider the biggest film-fan mag of the early 20th century: Photoplay. This monthly mag was where it was at from 1920 through to 1940. And every issue began in the same way. You had an illustrated movie star on the cover, followed by a bunch of top-of-the-range Hollywood photographs. Then things got a bit more intimate.
The stars in their element
This is the 1930s we’re talking about, so we don’t mean scandalous stories such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle leaving the royal family. In the pages of Photoplay, the gossip was much more sanitized. In one issue, for example, there was a spread about Gloria Swanson’s new country home — complete with posed stills of the star at play. Elsewhere you’d see actress Clara Bow giving you her “favorite” recipe for chicken chartreuse. A story about the “real life romance” of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Joan Crawford putting on a glamorous dinner party.
Studio-approved time with the stars
And, if you were lucky, you might also get countless images of the up-and-coming Clint Eastwood working out — topless and in tiny shorts — in his own backyard. But these weren’t the kind of paparazzi-style, long-lens images of celebrities you get in some magazines today. These were studio-approved shots set up specifically to promote stars and products. The stories shared alongside the pictures were equally designed to bolster the stars’ on-screen personas. There would be no hints of scandals at all —just clean-cut movie heroes.
“Watch Out for Clint Eastwood”
And if you don’t believe us, just look at these photos of young Clint Eastwood. What is he doing in the pics? Working out, swimming, driving cars, looking stacked. He is masculinity personified, basically. So when a pic of Eastwood doing push-ups appeared in the November 1959 issue of Photoplay, you can probably guess the angle the story took. The headline read, “Watch Out for Clint Eastwood.” This was appropriate because — wouldn’t you know it? — Eastwood had just got his big break.
Rollin', rollin', rollin'
In 1959 the actor began appearing as Rowdy Yates in TV Western Rawhide. You might remember the show more for its theme tune now, but it was an important moment in Eastwood's career. "It was great fun, that series was a great fun at that time," Eastwood told Fresh Air in 2008. "After I had done about three years of it, I thought maybe, wouldn't it be nice to go on and do something else, but I just sort of said it in my mind that this was a great experience. I have no regrets. It was great learning ground."
Even then, Eastwood was a real man's man
So Eastwood's appearance in Photoplay the same year he got his first starring role in a TV show could hardly be a coincidence. And before you argue otherwise, the first paragraph of the Photoplay piece happens to mention which channel Rawhide is on. That first paragraph also takes pains to point out that Eastwood completed 60 push-ups before welcoming – “not one inch out of breath” – the interviewer onto his property.
He was the masculine ideal from the start
“I’m a bug about exercise,” Eastwood said in the piece. “You see, accidents are always happening to me. I have to be ready.” This leads nicely into a story about how Eastwood once survived a plane crash while serving in the Army. So all the elements are in place: a shirtless Eastwood, a hit Western, a tale of masculine misadventure. And the story of Eastwood's near-death experience is a pretty fantastic one as well.
Eastwood beats death
The article described how the drafted Eastwood managed to talk his way onto a Navy aircraft. But then the plane apparently plummeted into the water near Point Reyes, California. "The pilot had his Mae West so he was all right," Clint said. "But I didn’t have one." So the star had to swim through “the choppy sea” to be rescued. “Those four miles weren’t so bad,” Eastwood is quoted as saying. “What really bothered me was the five-mile hike along the beach for help.” Yes, sir, Eastwood sure is painted as a fantasy ideal.
The star finds some direction
Photoplay then recalls how Eastwood — "who'd learned to swim well as a boy in Oakland, California" — didn't know what to do with himself after leaving the Army. But it was this plane accident that showed him that he needed to do something with his life before it was too late. "Another accident — Clint's being spotted in chow line by a Hollywood director — helped," the article explained. And then the article finishes with a flourish — one that is the cherry on top for Eastwood. "Stretching his six-feet-four-inches, Clint waved us into the house," the writer began.
He had it all
“It’s time for lunch,” Eastwood said in the piece. “You should see the things my wife does with raw vegetables. Maggie’s a model... for bathing suits.” So not only is Eastwood touted as a daring ex-soldier with a promising Hollywood career, but his wife is also noted to be a bathing-suit model. The guy really had it all! Oh, hey, and did we mention that you could catch him on CBS in the latest episode of Rawhide? We're joking, of course, but it’s clear looking back that this article has more than a whiff of studio interference about it.
The article may not be all as it seems
In 2013 Anne Helen Petersen, writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, even suggested that the studios’ publicity teams wrote the articles themselves. There was a series of articles attributed to Clark Gable in the 1930s called "Man About Hollywood." These columns — shaped to reflect Gable's on-screen persona — were undoubtedly the work of his press agents, said Peterson. And, for his part, Eastwood has pretty much confirmed that the version of the plane-crash story printed in Photoplay was at least a little embellished.
A Sully story
That’s because the subject came up in 2016 when Eastwood was promoting his movie Sully. As you may recall, this Tom Hanks-starring flick is all about a dramatic plane crash and how the people involved managed to survive. So the fact that the picture’s director had been in a real-life aircraft accident made for a great story… Just not as great as the one Photoplay would have had you believe in the 1950s.
The story behind the headline
In 1959 Photoplay reported that Eastwood’s “plane crashed into the sea.” But in 2016 The Hollywood Reporter added much more detail and spoke to Eastwood himself about the ordeal. This report revealed that the actor had been a passenger on a Douglas AD torpedo bomber and that the aircraft was flying in inclement weather. They then described the incident as “an emergency landing” in “shark-infested waters.” And Eastwood’s comments also revealed how Photoplay might have exaggerated the story.
Still a horrendous ordeal
The star said, “We went down at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I could see the Marin County coast from a distance. I don’t know how far it was. It seemed like 50 miles, but it was probably a mile or two.” This is still an incredible achievement, don’t get us wrong. But a one-mile swim is considerably different from a four-mile swim, isn’t it? And Eastwood was considerably more diplomatic about the effort such a feat took.
Eastwood got real
Eastwood went on, “Then it got dark. It was quite a way into nightfall before we reached it.” Remember, Photoplay shaped the incident so that it appeared as if Eastwood easily swam for four miles on his own. “Those four miles weren’t so bad,” he supposedly said. Here, though, Eastwood seems to imply that it was a difficult swim — and his use of “we” suggested he was not alone. Eastwood has also come right and out and said that it actually was very bad.
The star was terrified
While the star had seemingly brushed off the plane crash in the Photoplay interview, Eastwood was actually terrified in reality. When asked about the accident in 2015 at the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television, Eastwood said, “What was going through my mind was just a stark fear, a stark terror. Because [in the] first place, I didn’t know anything about aviation at that particular time — I was just hopping a ride." But that's not all.
The true tale comes out
Eastwood continued, “Everything went wrong. Radios went out. Oxygen ran out. And finally we ran out of fuel up around Point Reyes, California, and went in the ocean. So we went swimming. It was late October, November. Very cold water. [I] found out many years later that it was a white shark breeding ground, but I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time or I’d have just died — just had apoplexy.” So the former soldier is human, after all – but the readers of Photoplay weren’t to know that.
“A fitness nut”
What can’t be denied is that it’s a good story – and one with at least a nugget of truth in it. And most importantly, it played into Eastwood’s star image. So now fans could watch this guy in Rawhide and really believe he’s capable of, well, anything. Plus all that stuff about the actor doing push-ups? That was probably true, too. In 2010 The New Yorker ran a profile on Eastwood that described the young Eastwood as “a fitness nut” who was “muscular from the hours spent in his workout room.” And we know Eastwood quickly had an impact on his fans.
The ladies loved him
In the June 1960 issue of Photoplay, a fan named Jeanne Subera from Hillsboro, Wisconsin, wrote a poem about the young Clint Eastwood. The poem was titled "My Idol" — and that should give you some clue to its steamy contents. It read, "Clint Eastwood is by far / My favorite cowboy star. / As Rowdy he is better known, / On "Rawhide” he is shown. / With a grin like heaven, /And talent here to stay, / Clear the way for Rowdy, / Born a start this day. / Whenever I look into his eyes, / I start to feel like I’m hypnotized. / My stomach flips and my head spins, / But in the end. / Rowdy always wins."
A family man at heart
And even though there are now many stories about Eastwood and his, shall we say, interesting personal life, there was no sign of this in the pages of Photoplay. After all, the magazine would have wanted to avoid any whiff of scandal — in case it scared off that studio advertising money. So when Eastwood waxed lyrical about his then-wife, Maggie Johnson, the magazine printed it without question. "My wife Maggie is the most charming woman I know," the star began in 1961 issue of Photoplay.
A real charmer
"She has looks. She's intelligent," he continued. "She's adaptable, she's understanding, and she has the patience of Job. And, most important, I'm the number one guy to her." The star had clearly been asked to talk about what he finds desirable in a woman. "Brains, no woman can be charming without at least a smattering of brains," he added. "A girl who makes a man feel like a man, who puts him at his best behavior, and brings out all the chivalry in him is charming." We're sure female fans found his pictures charming, too. And what about these images, eh?
The eye-catching set of Eastwood pumping iron at home was the work of photographer Earl Leaf. And Leaf seemingly was the guy you’d want taking your pictures if you were an up-and-coming movie star in the 1950s. The list of people he snapped is pretty impressive, too. His subjects included celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis Presley, Natalie Wood, and The Beach Boys. So maybe the studio had an inkling that Eastwood would become a break-out star. After all, the actor wasn’t even in Rawhide at the time of the 1956 photo shoot.
A new icon
Eastwood’s images have a very different flavor from the earliest examples of Hollywood portrait photography, too. The early stuff for MGM was taken in a studio, for instance. And you certainly didn’t ask Jean Harlow or Spencer Tracy to take their tops off in their backyards! Yet that’s not to say that these sessions were any easier for the stars. Classic Hollywood icons were sometimes uncooperative on shoots, in fact. A 2019 article from Criterion described Hedy Lamarr as being headstrong during the sessions, and Veronica Lake was reportedly just plain grumpy. David Niven had also been “afraid of revealing himself,” according to photographer Bob Coburn.
Not the profession they signed up for
This might have been because the studio sessions were surprisingly difficult for the stars. The Criterion article quoted Loretta Young as saying, “It was very hard work because you were acting all the time and your concentration was intense, yet you felt you were being dissected.” A photography head also claimed that stars became “painfully self-conscious and camera shy in the portrait gallery” — unlike when they had a script to follow in front of a movie camera.
Leading by example
There were a few actors who were happy to be photographed, though. Katharine Hepburn was one of them. According to Criterion, the actor said she loved it out of “sheer vanity.” She said, “I photographed better than I looked, so it was easy for me... I let myself go before the camera. I mean, you can’t photograph a dead cat. You have to offer something. Once you get in front of the camera, it’s not how you look that’s important, it’s how you come across.” And, given the relaxed feel of all of these photographs, perhaps Eastwood didn’t mind being snapped, either.
Nowadays you’re more likely to find Eastwood behind the camera than in front of it. The multi-hyphenate has only appeared in three movies in the past decade, after all — despite directing six films in the same period. But he’s got a new movie in the pipeline — ready to go into production after his 93rd birthday — so perhaps fans won’t have to wait long to see the big man in action again. And won’t that just make our day?