Clint Eastwood privately ridiculed Rowdy Yates " the one-dimensional cowhand he played on the TV show "Rawhide" " as "the idiot of the plains."
Some film reviewers were not much kinder to Eastwood in his roles as the man-with-no-name and the punk-snuffing Detective "Dirty Harry" Callahan. His most strident critic, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker magazine, wrote that in Eastwood's films, a viewer must abandon "the pretense that human life has any value."
Killing, Kael wrote, "is dissociated from pain; it's even dissociated from life."
But John Gourlie, a Quinnipiac University professor who contributed to a recent book about the actor and director, says Eastwood repeatedly has shed his old skin.
"The thing that broke him away from TV was taking a flier on spaghetti Westerns," Gourlie says. "Eastwood has always been willing to take the risks necessary to grow."
"Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives" (University of Utah Press) is a collection of essays analyzing Eastwood's movies and tracking his transformation from squinty-eyed archetype to critically acclaimed artist. Gourlie contributed an essay on "Million Dollar Baby" and co-wrote the introduction with Quinnipiac colleague Leonard Engel, head of the college's English department.
"Age and maturity have brought a depth and power to Eastwood's work that escaped him in his earlier years," Engel and Gourlie write in the introduction.
Both authors say Eastwood's perspective has developed gradually, and they agreed that a major turning point was "Unforgiven," a 1992 Western that Eastwood starred in and directed.
"That's the mature Eastwood, where every potential he had started to pay off," Gourlie says. "It's not to say he wasn't good all along, but you wouldn't look at Dirty Harry or the spaghetti Westerns and say this guy has the ambition to make great films. You wouldn't guess that he could get to the point where he could make 'Unforgiven."'
Like many of Eastwood's movies, revenge is a major theme in "Unforgiven." But the movie also explores the effects of violence, the stains on the soul that go with killing another man.
The shift toward a deeper treatment of subject and character also is evident in Eastwood's more recent films, such as "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," Engel and Gourlie write.
"In the last two decades," they write in the introduction, "the characters in his major films bare the burden of a past, and this gives them a depth of emotion and the story a level of significance not evident in his earlier work."
Both professors have deep interests in film and, in particular, the Western. Engel, who also edited the Eastwood collection, previously wrote a book (to which Gourlie also contributed) about Sam Peckinpah, another groundbreaking filmmaker who focused on violence. Engel says he became especially interested in Eastwood with "Unforgiven" because the movie undermined so many myths of the Western.
An essay in the new book centers on a 1992 interview with Eastwood by film scholar and author John Tibbetts.
"People have always tried to see the West as something heroic and glamorous, and one could say that in my pictures, I have followed the tradition of glamorizing violence," Eastwood said. "But in something like 'Unforgiven,' there's nothing very heroic at all.
"Now, I'm certainly not doing any penance for any of the mayhem I've presented on the screen over the years. But at the same token, I think it's a time in my life and a time in history where violence should not be such a humorous thing."
Eastwood reportedly had been under pressure to revive the Dirty Harry role, but in a 2003 interview, he dismissed the possibility.
"I'm too old to make comic books," he said. "I have nothing against them. I like a good adventure film as much as the next guy, but it's not for me."
Eastwood is working on "The Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie. Due for release in November, the movie is about a child kidnapping and a mother's suspicions about the boy who returns.
At 77, Eastwood continues his journey into new territory. "This is his time of life to spin the gold out of what creative talents he's got," Gourlie says.