Clint Eastwood, a man who needs no introduction, has gone through some distinct periods in his career as an actor and filmmaker. Once a rough-and-tough cowboy and later a no-nonsense rebel figure that represented a very specific image of gristly masculinity, Eastwood has since turned the majority of his cinematic attention towards his work behind the camera. Still, there was a time when the man was ubiquitous in a range of action movies, cop flicks, and blood-splat Westerns. Given the magnitude of Eastwood’s presence — especially during the ’70s, in which he was in high demand — it’s unsurprising that the multi-talented star would turn down no small number of projects, though there’s one Francis Ford Coppola project that would have undoubtedly looked neat on his resume.
The picture was Apocalypse Now, one of Coppola’s most staggering achievements, whose production was infamously almost as hellish and bizarre as the film itself. A nightmare acid trip through the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now meshes Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness with the unfathomable hellscape of war. Its hyperbolic aesthetic shed most traditional war movie clichés in favor of a surreal, psychedelic approach to the genre. Instead of featuring lavish scenes of patriotism-tinged combat, it focuses on the gargantuan horrors of war, painting the conflict in Vietnam as an absurd and futile fight against an overpowering enemy. Not only did it reimagine the war picture, it spawned one of the most fascinating documentaries on filmmaking ever made. Given the colossal cultural significance that Apocalypse Now has gathered since its release, and considering that by 1979 Coppola was already practically swimming in Oscars, it seems like a preposterous move to reject the role. But Eastwood nevertheless did, and not without an understandable reason.
Why Did Eastwood Turn Down ‘Apocalypse Now’?
Clint Eastwood’s tie to Apocalypse Now can actually be partially attributed to actor Steve McQueen, who was originally slated to play Colonel Kurtz but whose requested salary of $3 million was too high for the production. McQueen first rejected the role of Willard in favor of Kurtz simply because the latter required a shorter shooting time. According to Eastwood, director Francis Ford Coppola suggested the Dirty Harry star for the role to play alongside McQueen’s Kurtz.
Instead, neither actor ended up with their respective roles. Eastwood expressed that he didn’t “understand [it] too much”, which made him unsure about starring in the film. He’d read Heart of Darkness and could figure out the direction the film was headed, but there was apparently something about it that escaped him. This is understandable, given the picture’s notoriously unconventional approach to portraying war, showcasing it as a blood-soaked battleground for two soldiers’ souls and sanity rather than a genuine fight between nations.
More important, though, was Eastwood’s discomfort in the lengthy shooting time that would take him overseas. He had just built a house and couldn’t justify being abroad for 14 months. It’s an entirely fair instance of a big-named actor turning down what could be one of the meatiest roles of their career simply because their heart wasn’t in it. And it’s not like he really needed the work, either. The previous year saw the actor in one of his biggest box office successes with Every Which Way But Loose, 1979 gave him the excellent Escape From Alcatraz, and 1980 reunited him with his orangutan co-star in Every Which Way You Can. At this point, too, Eastwood’s directorial career had already taken off, with Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter, and The Outlaw Josey Wales all neatly under his belt.
Like the time he rejected a role that subsequently went to Elvis Presley, Eastwood went with his gut on turning down a role, although this time mostly for different reasons. While old Eastwood is a fantastic performer in his own right, Martin Sheen brought a disturbed complexity to the role that really helped bring the character alive. Sheen let himself become fully unhinged in the picture, and the finished product is arguably better for it.
Harvey Keitel Was Hired (and Fired) From ‘Apocalypse Now’
After Clint Eastwood turned down the role of Willard and Steve McQueen left the movie without filming a single scene, another actor was hired for a short while before getting canned from the production. That would be Harvey Keitel, who shot a fair amount of footage of the film before his departure. In fact, a scene where Willard walks from his helicopter to the boat actually features a shot of Keitel in the role. According to Walter Murch for Web of Stories, one of the Oscar-winning editors on the film, it was “a big shot to get…the sunset was perfect.” It’s practically impossible to catch, with the bloody sunset that beats like an exposed heart in the background taking up the entire focal point of the shot.
Retrospectively, it’s not hard to imagine Keitel in the role. I mean, just look at his turn as the mentally depraved titular Lieutenant in Abel Ferrara‘s Bad Lieutenant. It’s fascinating to watch his complete psychological unraveling, his descent into madness, and his moral decay as he embraces the savagery of his inner demons. Still, though, the actor was apparently a poor fit for the flick. According to Coppola’s account, Keitel, a rough-and-tough New Yorker at heart, was allegedly uncomfortable with the lengthy, on-location shooting in the Philippines and was subsequently fired from the movie by the director, The actor has denied that allegation, also citing that he’s “not upset with Coppola” over the firing.
Why Clint Eastwood Passing on ‘Apocalypse Now’ Was a Good Thing
Like the infamously damned Warner Herzog picture Fitzcarraldo, or the ’70s big cat masterpiece that left nearly 100 people with severe injuries, Apocalypse Now‘s production was notoriously plagued with issues that would have driven even the most clear-minded into madness. For one, Typhoon Olga of 1976 brought tropical chaos to the shoot and destroyed the set. There were also issues with the crew, including a drug-addled Dennis Hopper not learning his lines, or Marlon Brando‘s outright refusal to listen to Coppola’s demands.
Francis Ford Coppola describing how the cast and crew slowly “went insane” almost sounds hyperbolic, but the film production, as chronicled in the documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse really was as hellish as the director suggests. Towards the end, you can see the director, descending into a spiraling mental breakdown, brought to the edge of sanity by his movie. Martin Sheen, who took Clint Eastwood’s proposed role, not only dealt with a similar breakdown but also suffered a heart attack while making the picture.
So, maybe Eastwood’s refusal to play Willard was even more rational than the actor could have ever known. Sure, he missed out on one of the greatest war pictures ever made, but he eventually went on to direct a masterful double feature portraying two opposing sides of a war with Letters of Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. Even if neither can match the raw, mind-bending experience of Apocalypse, they also surely didn’t yank its cast and crew to the brink of mental collapse. In rejecting Apocalypse Now, Clint Eastwood missed out on the cinematic experience of a lifetime, but he also clearly escaped the burning, maddening inferno that was the film’s production.
The Big Picture
- Clint Eastwood turned down a role in Apocalypse Now due to his discomfort with the lengthy shooting time and being overseas for 14 months.
- Harvey Keitel, was hired for the role but was fired due to his alleged discomfort with the on-location shooting in the Philippines.
- While Eastwood missed out on a great war picture, his decision to reject Apocalypse Now allowed him to later direct highly acclaimed films about war, without the mental toll of the chaotic production.