The undisputed king of spaghetti westerns

This January, if Sergio Leone had lived, he would have turned eighty-three years old. 

We lost the director of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly back in 1989, and it’s a shame such a great master of cinema was cut short.

Before his passing, Leone was going to tackle Leningrad with John Milius, screenwriter of Apocalypse Now. Yes, it took an Italian filmmaker to bring the western back from the dead, and he did it with his own wonderfully unique slant that still resonate with film fans everywhere.

In the documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Clint Eastwood reflected on a genre that’s endured many ups and downs, the western. 

”Just when you think that the western has been exhausted, that there’s nowhere else to go with it, something will come along with a new slant on things,” he said. “It’s very exciting when that happens.”

In late 1963, Eastwood signed with The William Morris Agency, and soon he received an offer to star in El Magnifico Stragnero (The Magnificent Stranger), which eventually became A Fistful of Dollars. Leone, wanted an American actor who could work for cheap. 

“When Sergio saw the first picture of Clint Eastwood’s, he decided to cast him in his movies because he saw something,” says Luciano Vincenzoni, screenwriter of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. “He had a feeling.”

In Richard Schickel’s biography of Eastwood, Clint recalled that he wasn’t interested in the offer, but promised William Morris he would read the script. Once he did, he became intrigued. Clint wanted to play a different western role than he played on Rawhide, and he also figured he had nothing to lose by starring in the film. 

If the movie turned out bad, it would probably never see a U.S. release, and he’d get a vacation in Rome out of it. Clint’s acting fee in those days was $25,000, but all the producers could pay him was $15,000. Clint accepted the reduced fee, then left for Rome in April 1964.

Clint wasn’t a smoker, but his character, The Man With No Name, had a fondness for cigars, and Clint brought his own over from America. The stogies smelled horrible and having to grudgingly smoke them added to Clint’s character. “Boy, they tasted ugly,” Eastwood told Premiere. “Put you right in the mood for killing.”

Leone wanted his films packed with action. He told Vincenzoni, “When Americans make a western, it goes on and on and on for an hour and twenty-five minutes just to arrive at the last three minutes where there is a showdown. I want to make a movie where every five minutes we have a showdown.” Leone also joked that more people died in his westerns than in World War II, and that all the people who died in American westerns only represented 5% of the people who died in his.

Although they look like big, expensive blockbusters, Leone worked fast on tight budgets. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly cost approximately $900,000 to $1,000,000, and Vincenzoni wrote quickly as well. “Give me a horse, a guy, and three or four bad guys, and I can make a movie tomorrow morning,” he says.

When they were first released, the critics didn’t like Leone’s westerns, and they were slammed for their violence. Charles Champlin called The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, “The Bad, the Dull and the Interminable.” Variety called it, “gratuitously violent, over-acted, corny, tedious and offensive.” The trade paper also predicted “United Artists will have to scramble to get its costs back.”

Fat chance that. The Leone / Eastwood films were tremendously successful in the United States and in Europe, and recouped their low production costs by a large margin. They also made Clint Eastwood a major movie star, and he left television behind forever.

Going to the movies was a big part of Leone’s childhood, and getting to fulfill his vision as an adult was a dream come true. As Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango In Paris) recalled in the Leone biography Something to Do With Death, “For him, it was just like playing at cowboys and Indians when one is growing up. 

At times, this man of the West was completely like a child who has access to the dynamics of the imagination.” Vincenzoni says, “I think the reason for Sergio Leone’s success was he was a very serious, professional man, but he had the soul of child.”