Moments before Clint Eastwood approached the podium at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, he asked a stagehand to get him a chair.
Everyone just assumed he was going to sit in it.
Fans that night may have expected to hear from Dirty Harry: the cool, controlled enforcer, as deft with a quip as with a gun, effortlessly and eternally hip. Instead, they got something closer to Walt Kowalski, the grizzled old cuss of Eastwood’s 2008 movie Gran Torino: raw, unpolished, a little angry and suddenly much older than you realized.
Senior campaign aides said Friday that the unscripted routine by the actor-director – easily the biggest showbiz heavyweight to stand up for a GOP candidate since Frank Sinatra did it for Ronald Reagan – was something of a surprise.
The Oscar winner, 82, spoke off-the-cuff, having discussed a few talking points with campaign advisers and sketched out some rough remarks but preparing nothing for the prompters. Organizers were comfortable with this set-up: At the early August fundraiser in Idaho where Eastwood first came out publicly for Mitt Romney, he delivered suave, impromptu remarks that had other guests raving.
Instead, Eastwood’s wacky conversation with the empty chair (standing in for President Obama) became an instant Internet meme. His rambling style triggered snark about his health and his age. His old-timey lawyer jokes brought on a wave of triumphant fact-checking/rebuttal (Romney, like Obama, has a law degree).
Inside the Tampa convention hall, the crowd roared with delight at Eastwood’s humor. But as Thursday night turned into Friday, Twitter and talking heads piled on the mockery, some claiming Eastwood had managed to upstage and undercut the Republican nominee’s acceptance speech. Ann Romney coolly deemed his performance unique Friday morning on CBS This Morning.
I didn’t know it was coming, she said with a tight, nervous laugh.
Don’t look for Eastwood on the campaign trail this fall. His longtime manager said Friday that the star will not speak to the press at all until he hits the promotional circuit for his next movie, The Trouble With the Curve, opening Sept. 21.
He’s busy selling that and not talking to anybody, manager Leonard Hirshan said. When Eastwood gives his next interviews, he’s speaking about the picture, not everything else.
On Friday, the Romney campaign expressed gratitude for the support of a beloved screen icon – no matter how quirky his delivery.
He went out and did what actors do sometimes, he did a little improv, said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist.
Convention producers warily eyed the clock as Eastwood ran over his allotted five minutes of speaking time by six or seven minutes. And the empty-chair gimmick was a complete surprise.
This was an idea, a moment that moved him, I would say, and he went with it, Stevens said.
He said Romney, standing backstage, laughed appreciatively through Eastwood’s talk. And Stevens praised Eastwood for hitting key talking points: For him to go out there and to say that there’s a need to change presidents and that he supports Mitt Romney and talk about 23 million people out of work as he did and talk about when someone doesn’t do their job you need to change, that’s a powerful message.
Despite dabbling in politics for years – most notably as the nonpartisan mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., from 1986 to 1988 – Eastwood’s evolving and hard-to-pin-down views have added to his superstar mystique.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday in November, Eastwood happily talked politics but made no pretense of being a wonk.
They all come up now and they all say the same thing, he said of politicians, Republican and Democratic alike. They tell you what they want to get in, and when they get in, they all do something different, so you get the futility aspect of it all.
Although he endorsed Republican John McCain in 2008, Eastwood said he felt good about Obama’s election, at first. I thought, Well. that’s cool. ... That’ll be nice for the country, and maybe it’ll settle down a lot of racial issues.’ Instead, it kind of went the other way, he told Hornaday.
Romney didn’t seem to be on Eastwood’s agenda last fall. (I liked that fellow from New Jersey,
He really wowed both audiences in Sun Valley, and could not have been more gracious to the attendees and to Mitt Romney and to the staff, one guest, a fundraiser who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly, said.
As for his speech Thursday night, the fundraiser said, I think the nature of Clint Eastwood is he is unpredictable.