By the late 1950s, it wasn’t looking good. Eastwood had washed out of Universal. Though he was managing to book bit parts on television — “a lot of motorcycle hoods and lab assistants,” he told Rex Reed in 1971 — he didn’t see much of a future for himself in Hollywood.
In the same interview with Reed, he said he was on the verge of quitting when he got that once-in-a-lifetime break that eludes 99% of aspiring actors. “I was visiting a friend at CBS,” remembered Eastwood, “And an executive saw me drinking coffee in the cafeteria and came over and asked me to test. It was a fluke.”
That fluke was called “Rawhide.” Over eight seasons on CBS, Eastwood became a familiar face to American TV viewers as the guileless cowboy Rowdy Yates. The series’ success gave Eastwood the confidence to take a crazy risk. As he told Reed:
“In the sixth year, I had exhausted everything I could do on a horse, so I took a hiatus and went to Spain to make ‘Fistful of Dollars.’ I had nothing to lose. I had a job waiting in TV and I knew if it was a flop nobody would ever see it anyway.”
The film was a hit in Europe but didn’t reach U.S. cinemas until 1967, by which point Eastwood had completed the “Dollars Trilogy” with director Sergio Leone. While luck might’ve gotten the actor through the door and on television, the popularity of these films was no fluke. The second and third installments (“For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) are considered two of the best Westerns, full-stop, of all time. The rest, like Eastwood himself, is legend.