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Frazetta & The Gauntlet

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Frazetta & The Gauntlet

by Arnie Fenner

By 1977 Frank Frazetta was, arguably, at the peak of his commercial art career. His first book published by the Peacock Press in 1975, The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta, was enormously popular and had gone through multiple printings to keep up with demand; the mainstream press had shone a spotlight on him with features in American Artist, Newsweek, and Esquire; Ellie’s poster business was booming and the Peacock Press had just released a second Frazetta book and it was selling gangbusters, too. Things were going well, their bank account was brimming, and Frank wasn’t interested in doing a lot of work.  Frazetta’s most lucrative jobs had, since 1965, been painting movie posters; fees averaged somewhere around $4000 or $5000 per assignment (depending on Frank’s and Ellie’s memories and moods on the day they were asked), which was the equivalent of nearly $50,000 in today’s dollars. The median family income in the United States during the mid-1960s was $6500 and Frazetta, who was painting paperback and magazine covers for $250 to $400 each, cheerfully described a first check from the ad agency as “an entire year’s salary for one job!” However, despite the money, Frank was never particularly happy about actually doing movie posters; from the beginning he was pigeonholed as a humor artist, much like Jack Davis and Jack Rickard, and the majority of his assignments featured a crowd chasing after the film’s star. Besides being frustrated by the repetition of the

situations Frazetta also bristled at the extensive art direction and changes that were part of working in the world of advertising: the client is always right. While drawing a rough for the poster for the 1969 film adaptation of the Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon he got fed-up and quit: Ron Lesser and Peter Max eventually provided posters for the movie, neither producing anything that was remotely similar to the direction Frazetta had been going. Frank had said that Paint Your Wagon was his last movie work, but his memory, as it often was regarding the dates and details of his career, was playing him false: he actually produced the posters for Mrs. Pollifax—Spy and The African Elephant documentary (unused) in 1971 and Luana in 1973—and, of course, others some years later.  Still, by 1977 Frazetta was doing just fine financially without painting movie posters and he wasn’t seriously interested in doing any more, no matter who asked. Until Clint Eastwood called.

Thanks to the Sergio Leone Man-With-No-Name Westerns, the Dirty Harry series, High Plains Drifter, and many other films, Clint Eastwood was one of the world’s most popular actors in 1977. The Gauntlet was originally supposed to star Marlon Brando and Barbara Streisand; when Brando dropped out Steve McQueen was hired as the male lead, but disagreements between he and Streisand quickly led to both leaving the production. Eastwood was brought in as both star and director of the film and he hired his companion Sondra Locke (who had first worked with him in The Outlaw Josie Wales) to co-star. Eastwood had read the Esquire article about Frazetta and decided to contact him about painting the poster for his new movie. Over the years Frank told two slightly different versions of the story: the first was that Ellie answered the phone and hung up when she didn’t believe the caller was Clint Eastwood while the second was that one of the kids picked up the phone and hung up at their father’s direction. Regardless of who answered and hung up, Eastwood called back, spoke to Frank, and arranged for a visit. Many of the details of that meeting have been lost over time: Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke did visit the Frazettas in East Stroudsburg and Frank did take the job, but beyond that the specifics get a bit murky.
In an interview conducted by Steven Ringgenberg for Comics Interview #42 in 1984 Frazetta said, “The Gauntlet: [Eastwood] said ‘I want it to look like that,’ and he’d specify a certain painting, you know, and just go on and on—but how am I going to do that? And that was the one, ‘Dark Kingdom,’ that’s the one, the one that had that look. How can I have Clint standing in front of a bus, looking like a barbarian? I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’ll try.’  So I made, oh, five or six little sketches, very unclichéd Clint Eastwood actions, and it wasn’t the typical standing tall Clint. See? If you want something different, these are different. Really! Moving quickly—and there’s lots of action in spite of that bus just sitting there in the background, and then for good measure I threw in the standard Clint standing tall and that’s the one they liked. Ellie said, ‘Don’t send that. That’s the one they’ll pick.’ I said, ‘I can’t see how. I can’t see how...’ because the others were so good. That’s the one they picked. I should have known better.” Frazetta told similar versions of this story (with slight embellishments and variations) to other interviewers over the years, including me, but in looking at the roughs it seems that Frank’s memory wasn’t entirely accurate. In what I’ve been able to find there are two roughs reflecting Frazetta’s preferred direction (along with a pair of reference photos of himself working out the pose) and two different ones of “Clint standing tall” that are similar to the finished painting and would appear to be more than a last-minute toss-off. If there are any other thumbnails, I haven’t seen them.

And then there are some unanswered questions such as: since the bus is the centerpiece of the film’s climax, was Frazetta given an outline and decided to use it as a prop or was he directed to feature it prominently in the background? Did Eastwood and Locke pose for reference photos or was Frank given pictures from the set to work from? Since there was no FedEx or home Fax machines or email at the time, how did Frazetta submit his roughs for approval? Were they mailed Special Delivery or did Frank drive them into Warner Bros.’s ad agency in New York? Was Eastwood staying in East Stroudsburg or in NYC so he could pick up the art when it was completed? How long did it take to do the painting? Did Frank complete it in a few days or did he have a longer deadline? And how did Russ Cochran (who lived in southeastern Missouri) wind up being present to take photos when the actors picked up the finished art in Pennsylvania? 


I have no idea. When asked any of these questions directly neither Ellie or Frank had answers, usually impatiently shrugging and saying they didn’t remember. And when the Frazettas didn’t want to answer questions...they didn’t. Whatever the details, the job was completed, Eastwood and Locke picked it up at the Frazettas’ home, and Clint and Ellie negotiated the sale of the original on top of the commission fee, reportedly $5000. But then...there are more nosey niggling questions. In his excellent article, “Frank Frazetta: Motion Picture & Television Advertising Artist” that was first published in Fanfare #2 in 1978 (and which was updated and featured in Icon in 1998, though some omissions and errors still slipped through), William Stout wrote that Frazetta asked for and received $20,000 to do one painting, four times his standard rate and at least double what the poster superstars of the day—Frank McCarthy, Howard Terpning, Bob Peak, and Robert McGinnis—were being paid to do ads for blockbusters.

 I’m sure Ellie or Frank gave that figure to Bill when he asked…but is it true? It’s hard to say.Russ Cochran had been selling paintings for them and prices at the time ranged between $2500 and $3500 so the $5000 Ellie asked for wasn’t out of line. But $20,000 in 1977 was equal to over $97,000 in today’s dollars—which would have been an unheard amount for any movie poster, much less one for a film that had a total budget of $5.5 million, including advertising. Eastwood and his production company, Malpaso, were renowned for delivering on time and on (or below budget), so paying Frank far above the standard rate for a poster would seem uncharacteristic. And, honestly, the Frazettas were prone to exaggerate sometimes, especially when it came to money, and they would toss out outlandish figures to either impress listeners or to see if potential clients flinched. In conversations over the years Frank or Ellie told me prices both lower and significantly higher than the $20,000 they supposedly got for The Gauntlet job, leaving me scratching my head and wondering which was correct. l don’t think I’ll ever know for sure.

Locke and Eastwood drove away with the painting in the trunk of their rental car and that concluded their relationship with the Frazettas: they never spoke or saw each other again and Frank wasn’t hired to do any more posters for him. With only a few exceptions, most of the actors or directors that contacted or visited them were clients or potential clients, not friends, and it was rare if there was ever more than a single conversation: Frank and Ellie were never part of the Hollywood social scene, even during the year they lived in California while Fire and Ice was in production. And yet…people continue to spin fantasies on social media about Frazetta and Eastwood and other celebrities hanging out and being close pals, particularly whenever The Gauntlet poster or any of the photos included with this essay pop up. And if I’ve read that Clint and Frank could be twins once, I’ve read it a hundred times. I was talking with Frank and Ellie one night about The Gauntlet and Ellie exclaimed, “I hate it when fans say Frank looks like Clint Eastwood! I hate it! Are they blind? Look at him! They look nothing alike!” Frank joked in response, “I’m better looking!” “It’s ridiculous,” Ellie continued. “If Frank looks like Clint Eastwood, I look like Vanna White!” Before I could say anything, she fixed me with her best icy stare and said, “And. I. Don’t!” I knew better than to argue.


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