Did John Wayne almost star in Dirty Harry? Conflicting reports have surfaced over the years, with some implying that the Western icon never received an offer because of his age, and others noting that he passed on the opportunity because of the film’s questionable morals. Clint Eastwood ultimately headlined the 1971 movie, of course, and reprised his role as Harry Callahan in four sequels.
The character Dirty Harry was inspired by Dave Toschi, who worked for the San Francisco Police Department from 1952 to 1987. During that stretch, he evaluated the Zodiac Killer, and also became the archetypal model for Steve McQueen’s titular in Bullitt. The original Dirty Harry movie follows Inspector Harry Callahan as he investigates a sniper known as Scorpio in San Francisco.
As noted in the 2013 book Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (via Yahoo!), Frank Sinatra was initially cast for the main role but left the project because he couldn’t hold a Magnum pistol comfortably, the result of breaking his wrist while filming The Manchurian Candidate earlier in the decade. Warner Bros. then targeted other A-list stars who could convincingly portray the 50-something lead character, but actors like McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster passed on the role.
When 41-year-old Eastwood eventually committed to the movie, he was already an established Hollywood star after collaborating with Sergio Leone for the Dollars Trilogy, a series of Spaghetti Western films about a nameless character who shares personality traits with Dirty Harry.According to a 2011 article (via Art of Manliness), Wayne reported passed on Dirty Harry because he didn’t like to be offered “Sinatra’s rejections.”
However, the film’s IMDB page tells a much different story, evidenced by this trivia note: “Contrary to some sources, John Wayne was never offered this movie due to his age. He later starred in his own cop movies, McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975).” In general, most online articles suggest that Wayne turned down the role because he didn’t agree with Dirty Harry’s methods, but, frustratingly, sources are not provided.
However, Michael Munn’s 2001 book John Wayne: The Man Behind The Myth does provide clarity from none other than John Wayne himself, indicating it was a combination of the aforementioned reasons:”I turned it down for what seemed to me to be three very good reasons. The first is that they offered it to Frank Sinatra first, but he’d hurt his hand and couldn’t do it. I don’t like being offered Sinatra’s rejections. Put that one down to pride. I thought Harry was a rogue cop. Put that down to narrow-mindedness because when I saw the picture I realized that Harry was the kind of part I’d played often enough; a guy who lives within the law but breaks the rules when he really has to in order to save others.”