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.
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.