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Clint Eastwood got Dirty Harry role because of Paul Newman’s politics

Debate around whether Clint Eastwood movie Dirty Harry is a right-wing fantasy has raged for decades, and that's why Paul Newman said no.

Clint Eastwood got Dirty Harry when Paul Newman said no

We know that Clint Eastwood looks great in a cowboy hat as The Man With No Name, but we also can’t get enough of his work as the morally murky big screen cop Dirty Harry. In fact, it was exactly that murkiness that enabled Eastwood to get the role ahead of another Hollywood legend: Paul Newman.

Clint Eastwood was far from the first choice for Dirty Harry, with some of the best actors in Hollywood approached. In fact, Frank Sinatra was even attached to the role until he injured his hand. But when the script landed on Paul Newman’s desk, the star decided Harry Callahan was a little too right-wing for him.

“Of course my first question was ‘why didn’t [Newman] want to do it?’,” Eastwood explained to Entertainment Weekly in an interview looking back at his best movies. “[Newman] thought the character was sort of a radical guy on the right, so politically he couldn’t do it. I didn’t see it that way.”

Newman was well-known as an activist for progressive causes, backing the Democratic party and vocally supporting LGBTQ+ rights. It’s easy to understand why someone on the political left – he even appeared on Richard Nixon’s infamous list of enemies – felt queasy about playing a renegade cop willing to carry out shocking violence beyond the law.

Eastwood, meanwhile, has also been politically active across a number of fronts over the years, infamously speaking to an empty chair representing Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention in 2012. In recent years, though, he has expressed displeasure with Donald Trump.

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The titular anti-hero of Dirty Harry is definitely not a lovable man and there was debate about morality immediately after the film’s release in 1971. Renowned critic Roger Ebert wrote that “the movie’s moral position is fascist”, while feminist protesters held banners declaring “Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig” outside the Oscars.

However, none of this bothered director Don Siegel, who explained that he himself was politically left-wing, while Eastwood leaned to the right. He said ideology did not factor into the making of one of his best thriller movies at all.

“At no point in making the film did we ever talk politics. I don’t make political movies,” Siegel told the New York Times. “I was telling the story of a hard‐nosed cop and a dangerous killer. What my liberal friends did not grasp was that the cop is just as evil, in his way, as the sniper.”

Clint Eastwood movie Dirty Harry has been criticized for its right-wing politics

This is definitely a case in which there are valid opinions on both sides. It would be very wrong to dismiss Dirty Harry as a pure right-wing fantasy in which the violent cop is a hero, but it’s valid to express concern about the protagonist’s unpleasant view on the world. Maybe we’re on safer moral ground with Eastwood’s best Westerns.

If you want more from a cinema icon, check out our list of the best Clint Eastwood movies and find out why Clint Eastwood rejected a Dirty Harry sequel for being too grim.