Clint Eastwood’s Harrowing Event In The Army Foreshadowed Iconic Role

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When Clint Eastwood was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, he experienced a harrowing event in shark-infested waters that “foreshadowed” his iconic film role in Escape From Alcatraz.

Clint Eastwood (Credit: YouTube)

Long before Clint Eastwood became known as a legendary actor, he was drafted into the US Army in 1951 and was stationed at Fort Ord in Northern California. This would be a pivotal time for the then-twenty-one-year-old. Although Eastwood never saw combat, he did live through a terrifying event that foreshadowed his role as Frank Morris in the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz.

According to the Department of Defense, while serving as a swimming instructor at Fort Ord, Eastwood found himself involved in a horrendous plane crash. He was returning to California after a trip to visit his parents and girlfriend in Seattle when he boarded a US Navy AD-1Q Skyraider headed for Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento County, California.

Clint Eastwood in the 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes (Credit: YouTube)

During the flight, Eastwood and pilot Lt. Francis Coleman Anderson began to experience plane troubles, culminating in the AD-1Q torpedo bomber running out of fuel and crashing into the Pacific Ocean near Point Reyes, which is known for icy tumultuous currents. Luckily, Eastwood and Anderson had access to a life raft and were able to swim through the cold, rough waters, War History Online reported.

As fate would have it, the crash foreshadowed the future actor’s role in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, in which he portrayed Frank Morris, one of three men to escape Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary by swimming across the San Francisco Bay. It was those strong currents and frigid waters that made an escape from the prison virtually impossible. The film is a dramatization of the real-life escape attempt by Morris and fellow inmates Clarence and John Anglin in 1962. Whether they succeeded still remains a mystery.

Clint Eastwood in the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz (Credit: YouTube)

The veteran actor spoke about his real-life harrowing event. “In those days, you could wear your uniform and get a free flight,” Eastwood said. “On the way back, they had one plane, a Douglas AD. Sort of a torpedo bomber of the World War II vintage, and I thought I’d hitch on that. Everything went wrong. Radios went out. Oxygen ran out. And finally, we ran out of fuel up around Point Reyes, California, and went into the ocean. So we went swimming,” he recalled.

“It was late October, November. Very cold water. Found out many years later that it was a white shark breeding ground, but I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time or I’d have just died,” Eastwood declared. The Army private also told Earl Foster, a radio operator on duty at the station the night of the incident, that each time he advanced toward the shore, the strong breakers would carry him out to sea again. At one spot, he said, he was almost drawn down by the undertow.

Clint Eastwood
Army Private Clint Eastwood (Credit: Dept. of Defense)

It was also during his stint at Fort Ord that Eastwood met an Army veteran named Chuck Hill, who had contacts in Hollywood. After being honorably discharged in 1953, Eastwood was snuck onto the Universal Studios lot by Hill, who then introduced him to cameraman Irving Glassberg, who got the young Army private an audition. However, that didn’t go so well.

Although very impressed with Eastwood’s appearance and 6’4″ stature, director Arthur Lubin disapproved of his acting, remarking, “He was quite amateurish. He didn’t know which way to turn or which way to go or do anything.” Lubin suggested that he attend drama classes and arranged for Eastwood’s initial contract in April 1954, at $100 per week. After signing, Eastwood was initially criticized for his stiff manner and delivering his lines through his teeth, which became a lifelong trademark.

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood in Rawhide (Credit: YouTube)

Clint Eastwood used the GI Bill to attend LA City College, where he studied drama. As with other actors, he began his career with smaller parts and eventually became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors. Among his most notable roles are Rowdy Yates in Rawhide (1959-65), Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971), and Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway in Heartbreak Ridge (1986).

The Academy Award-winning director also played a number of military personnel. He starred as Army Ranger Lt. Morris Schaffer in 1968’s Where Eagles Dare, which follows a British Commando team’s attempt to pull off a dangerous rescue mission, and as the titular character in 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes. He portrayed Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski in 2008’s Gran Torino, which he also directed. Eastwood is one of the most critically acclaimed actors and directors of our time and knows how to appeal to audiences by using patriotic themes and the struggles of the common man. He chooses not to preach or lecture Americans but to show us a reflection of ourselves.