This is one of my favorite tales. I’ve told it many times. At social occasions, I’m often asked by those who’ve already heard the story to repeat it with luster. Of course, there’s an eventual life lesson to be found near the end. Until that moment, enjoy this rather foolish example of pure, youthful moxie.
It was my twenty-first birthday. I’d taken a few days off from attending film school at USC to join my family in Carmel for the celebration of my parents’ silver anniversary. Yes. It was my not-so-good fortune to have been born on my parents’ anniversary. There are worse days to be born. July 4th. Any day during the Christmas season. I suppose if my pop hadn’t loved my mom so much or had been the type to forget anniversaries, my birthdays might’ve had a bit more shine to them. But that’s way behind me.
For you readers unfamiliar with Carmel by the Sea, it’s located in a romantic corner of Northern California, just south of the Monterey Peninsula. We’d just finished the celebratory dinner and bid my parents a fond goodnight, when my brother-in-law suggested we wander over to a joint called the Hog’s Breath Inn so I could order my first legal beer. The restaurant-slash-bar was pretty famous. Less for its food and drink and more for its co-owner, Clint Eastwood.
“Why the hell not?” I replied.
The Hog’s Breath is a bit difficult to find without an address. Its entrance is through a tight little alleyway and down three steps into a vine-covered courtyard. Restaurant to the left, saloon to the right. We’d barely found a place to hang before my brother-in-law pointed out that Clint was seated in the bar, enjoying some conversation and a bottle of Coors.
At the time, Clint Eastwood was, without equal, the biggest movie star on the planet. His movies performed worldwide. His familiar features were chiseled into the American psyche like the faces on Rushmore. Were his fans to hold hands, they might’ve been able to circle the earth more than once.
Somewhere around my second beer, I received my first official nudge. I don’t recall who began it. My brother-in-law or one of my two older sisters. But they knew how much I revered the movie icon. And they began suggesting I should make an approach.
I balked. I’ve never been comfortable approaching celebrities. Not that I’m by any means shy. I’m merely respectful, figuring they have as much a right as anybody else to occupy a public space; their mere presence didn’t give me or anybody else the right to accost them.
But then again I was only two beers in.
Somewhere around Bud number four, with my better judgment somewhat impaired, I began to consider some kind of approach. With the constant egging by my siblings I was eventually able to rationalize plausible and important reasons for me to wedge myself between the movie star and his companion. I was in college. A hardscrabble film student, no less. I could ask Clint Eastwood for career advice. Or maybe I could convince him to critique one of my student films. Better yet, I might be able to secure some kind of internship working on one of his features.
Damn right I had good reason. Barmaid? Bring on more Budweiser.
As I plotted my approach, my primary obstacle was the woman at the bar with whom Clint had struck up a conversation. I recall she was in a green dress, had jet black hair, and on a scale of one to ten she landed somewhere between knockout and drop dead gorgeous.
“Go talk to him,” nudged my brother-in-law.
“Before he leaves!” said my middle sister.
“No,” I stalled. “Look who he’s with. I don’t want to interrupt that.”
“Fans talk to him all the time,” said my older sister.
“I’m not just some fan,” I defended.
A fresh beer arrived. I remained on my perch, seated atop the cinder-block wall overlooking the courtyard.
The rest happened very quickly. I never saw Clint get up to leave. As my brother-in-law alerted me the movie star was on the move, I glanced up from a bowl of peanuts and saw Clint striding across the courtyard toward the alleyway. The woman in the green dress held his hand, trying to keep up while wearing some rather steep heels.
I didn’t think so much as act. I dropped down and gave chase. Clint had just only cleared the steps up into the alleyway when I first spoke his name.
“Mr. Eastwood,” I called out.
The six-foot-four icon’s head swiveled forty degrees to his right and, without missing a stride, he replied with his trademark hiss:
“It’s not the time,” said Clint.
“But Mr. Eastwood,” I said, stupidly undaunted.
“It’s not the time,” Clint repeated in the same practiced move. Head turned forty degrees right, just enough for me to see enough of his Dirty-Harry-profile.
I should’ve stopped, turned around, and respected the man’s privacy. Clearly he had better things to do. Such as go home and ravage the woman in the green dress, which I rightly reckoned, was his immediate plan. But common sense had escaped me with that fourth beer.
“Hey,” I said sharply. “I’m no autograph hound.”
With that, Clint stopped, turned around, his eyes naturally squinted into a threatening glare. He was microseconds from crushing my soul with a mind-your-own-damn-business remark when I mentioned two words that caught him by surprise.
“I’m friends with Harry Sanford,” I blurted out.
The movie star’s scowl retreated into recognition of the name I’d just dropped.
“Harry Sanford?” Clint confirmed. “From Arcadia?”
“Well, he’s not really my friend,” I corrected. “He’s my dad’s best friend. He’s sort of my Dutch Uncle. I grew up with him.”
A brief primer. Harry Sanford was a famed big game hunter, amateur botanist, and gun inventor. More importantly, he was a renowned American tough guy who Clint not only knew, but admired so much he’d tried to get Harry to appear in the action comedies Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. Though Harry had always humbly declined, he remained friends with the star and even built Clint a special gun that was employed in the fourth Dirty Harry film.
“So you know Harry,” said Clint.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m a film student. I was thinking of sending you a letter through Harry, maybe asking for an internship. But then I saw you here and thought I might help you put a face on it.”
“Harry’s gonna give me a letter from you?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Sorry to bother you and all. I hope you have a nice evening.”
I reached out and shook the star’s hand, made solid eye contact, then turned and walked away. Yeah. That’s right. I left Clint Eastwood standing in the alley with the black haired beauty wondering who the hell was that kid who just interrupted his mac-daddy mojo?
Yeah. Right. But that’s how I choose to remember it.
I returned to school, pounded out my letter to Clint Eastwood, mailed it off to Harry Sanford, and waited for the reply that never came. Not a word. Not a note. Hell of an impression I’d made, huh?
Just a few years later, while working under my first writing deal at Warner Brothers, I’d often wander by Clint’s Malpaso Productions office. Sometimes I’d pass him on a walkway. He’d nod a polite hello to me just like he would anybody else who’d made eye contact with him. I never said a thing. And why should I? I’d already said my piece to the man in that Carmel alleyway.
Zip forward twelve or more years. I was in Wyoming with my father and Harry Sanford. After a long day of elk hunting very near the Great Divide, we retired to Harry’s little cabin on the river. While my father rustled up the evening meal, Harry handed me a cold one and asked:
“Wanna hear a funny story?” Harry began. “Nadine and I were up in Carmel a coupla months ago. We were having dinner with Clint and he up and says to me that not too long ago he’d thrown on some old jacket. And when he reached into the inside pocket for his wallet, he came back up with that letter you’d written.”
“The letter I sent you a long time ago,” I confirmed.
“Yeah,” said Harry. “I hung onto it until the next time I saw him and put it right in his hand. Guess he stuck it in his jacket pocket and forgot all about it until like, Lord knows how long ago that was, he puts on the jacket again and finds the letter.”
“Jeez,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Harry. “He told me he remembered you stoppin’ him in that alley outside the Hog’s Breath. He was gonna tell you where to go before you dropped my name on him.”
I laughed a hard, satisfying laugh. At least I was memorable.
“So get this,” continued Harry. “Clint finally reads the damn letter. Feels kinda bad. Then asks me if there’s anything at this late date he can do for you.”
“What’d you say?”
“I told him thanks, but you were doing just fine.”
Indeed, I was.
It’s said that showbiz is a relationship game. And to some extent it is. But it’s not the who you know business that so many who don’t succeed in it often claim it is. My who you know moment came in that Carmel alleyway on my twenty-first birthday. I made my big play and missed. My who you know moment paid me zero in career points.
Thank the Lord I didn’t let that particular failure define me.
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