Written By: Ben Cosgrove
Clint Eastwood, now internationally acclaimed as a directer as well as actor, was known mostly as a star of Westerns when LIFE by photographer Bill Eppridge trained his camera on him in 1971. The images here were made on the set of a movie that would introduce a character with whom, for better or worse, Eastwood has been associated ever since: the brutal, gun-happy rebel cop, “Dirty Harry” Callahan.
But what’s also revealing and all these years later, somehow kind of sweet, is the way LIFE talked about Eastwood in the cover story that ran in the magazine in July 1971, five months before Dirty Harry hit theaters and, quickly, became a controversial cultural touchstone. Right there, on the cover of the issue, is the (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek words observation that sets the tone for the profile inside: “The world’s favorite movie star is—no kidding—Clint Eastwood.”
Then there’s the title of the piece: “Who Can Stand 32,580 Seconds of Clint Eastwood? Just About Everybody.” (The number refers to the time it would take to watch all the films in a nine-hour film festival of early Eastwood “spaghetti Westerns” that was running at the time.)
But even back then, Eastwood’s singular appeal as a Hollywood stud with far more going on under the surface than most of his hits up until then might suggest comes through. While his biggest fans (among moviegoers and critics alike) in 1972 could hardly have envisioned the esteem and the affection he would enjoy into his 80s, the Clint in the LIFE profile, and in these pictures, is a man clearly and fully at ease with himself. He’s a star who knows, as he says in the article, that “you have to give people good entertainment … If I started to pay too much attention to what the reviewers say, I’d have an ulcer.”
Four decades later, the reviewers are still trying to decipher Eastwood. And it’s clear that, four decades, later, he still doesn’t much care if they ever succeed.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.