Clint Eastwood was cast almost as an accident as The Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy – several actors were almost cast as the now-famous character before him. The Italian three-film Western series was released between 1964 – 1966 and comprised movies A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Spaghetti Westerns (named by Americans referring to Italians) became a huge phenomenon in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, largely thanks to Sergio Leone, with over 600 films were produced over the two decades. However, despite this extensive legacy, few roles remain as iconic as Eastwood’s.
Leone’s first entry in his Dollars Trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, was a milestone for Spaghetti Westerns, introducing many elements that would become staples of Leone’s unique style. The narrative borrows most of its plot from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo: The Man With No Name (played by The Mule actor Clint Eastwood) arrives in an unsettled town looking for work. Pitting two rival groups against each other, he reaps the rewards, only to discover an innocent family trapped amid the conflict, so he decides to help their cause. Clint Eastwood’s character is always rough-and-ready and doesn’t change much throughout the trilogy. Much like Kurosawa’s rōnin, The Man With No Name is quiet, gruff, with an unorthodox sense of justice and extraordinary proficiency with weapons.
Clint Eastwood wasn’t the obvious choice for Leone’s trilogy. In fact, he wasn’t even among the first five choices. Back then, he was known as the TV actor in the series Rawhide (Clint Eastwood was also fired from Universal in the 1950s). Sergio Leone was looking for the perfect anti-hero, and there were several already-famous actors who the studio considered for the role in 1963.
Henry Fonda was Leone’s first idea for playing the Man With No Name: he wanted to cast Fonda against the American hero type he usually embodied. Leone couldn’t afford to pay for a major Hollywood star, though. Eventually, Fonda would go on to play the villain in Once Upon A Time In The West, Leone’s 1968 epic Western (a box office disappointment at the time, but now regarded as one of the best Westerns of all time).
After his Western role, Fonda’s casting types diversified, playing in movies like Yours, Mine and Ours as well as Midway. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his final movie role in On Golden Pond (1981), which also starred Katharine Hepburn and his daughter Jane Fonda.
When Henry Fonda was no longer an option, Leone decided to offer the part to Charles Bronson, but the latter declined. During the mid-1960s, Bronson was the leading support actor in Hollywood, playing mostly gunfighters, prisoners, and boxers (or the stubborn wagon master in the ABC Western series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.) Bronson reached international stardom by starring alongside Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West. Leone ended up referring to Bronson as “the greatest actor I ever worked with.”
Henry Silva rose to prominence in Hollywood with villain roles in movies such as The Tall T (1957) with Randolph Scott, The Bravados (1958), and The Law and Jake Wade (1958). He was one of the eleven casino robbers in the 1960 Rat Pack caper film Ocean’s 11, starring alongside Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. In 1963, right when Leone was looking for his Man With No Name, Silva played the lead role in the gangster film Johnny Cool, produced by United Artists and Chrislaw.
The Man With No Name would have continued Silva’s typecast as the villain, mobster, or anti-hero, so Silva turned down Leone’s offer. However, just two years later, he would star in The Hills Run Red, another Spaghetti Western. But this time, Silva played the hero. He also starred alongside Charles Bronson in Love and Bullets in 1979.
Rory Calhoun was Leone’s next-in-line, and his teenage years resemble the Man With No Name’s unorthodox style. When he was 13, Calhoun stole a revolver, for which he served time in California. He escaped while in the adjustment center, then began hot-wiring cars, after leaving his abusive stepfather’s home. He also robbed several jewelry stores, stole a car, and drove it across state lines, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. In his early twenties, Calhoun worked as a hard-rock miner in Nevada and as a cowboy in Arizona, before actor Alan Ladd discovered him while riding horseback in Hollywood in the 1940s.
Calhoun quickly went from one-line roles to famous characters in films like the Western The Yellow Tomahawk and noir crime film A Bullet Is Waiting. In 1961, Calhoun starred in Sergio Leone’s film The Colossus of Rhodes and he was robbed during filming. In the mid-1960s he returned to America, so he didn’t want to join Leone in Europe again.
After bodybuilder Steve Reeves also turned down Leone’s offer for The Man With No Name, Leone turned to James Coburn, who also declined the offer. Coburn had the perfect physique for playing tough guys, starring in more action films and Westerns than all the previous actors. But in the mid-1960s, he had turned his head towards comedy, with roles such as super agent Derek Flint in the James Bond parody film Our Man Flint, orLieutenant Jody Christian in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, Blake Edwards’ wartime comedy.
Sergio Leone lastly asked Richard Harrison to be the main character in his Dollars Trilogy. Harrison had appeared in one of the very first Spaghetti Westerns, Gunfight at Red Sands (Duello nel Texas). Harrison refused the role but suggested Eastwood instead. Harrison later stated, “My greatest contribution to cinema was not doing Fistful of Dollars and recommending Clint for the part.” In perhaps one of Leone’s most honest moments, he commented on why Clint Eastwood was right for the Man With No Name part: “More than an actor, I needed a mask, and Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.”