Was John Wayne Seriously Almost Dirty Harry?


The world of film, much like comic books (and really any other media, not that I mention it) is a very much “monkey see, monkey do” deal, where one hit film can suddenly spawn a legion of imitators and that was certainly the case with 1971’s Dirty Harry, which starred Clint Eastwood as “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a “loose cannon” cop back when “loose cannon” cops were not actually a film genre of their own.

The film, which is primarily about Callahan hunting down a serial killer, is still extremely well known for a scene early in the film where Callahan breaks up a bank robbery while on his lunch break. He shoots one of the robbers and then trains his gun on the other robber, bluffing him into surrendering with the iconic lines, “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”

This started a whole new genre of action films starring loose cannon cops (four of the films in this genre were Dirty Harry sequels alone!) but the film had a surprisingly complicated pedigree and its complicated pedigree is what has made the question of who was offered the title role over the years very complicated, as well.


The finished film was directed by Don Siegel, who had directed Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood’s first major American starring role (Eastwood famously was a TV star on Rawhide, a series about cattle drivers, for eight seasons, as well as doing a few supporting film roles and small Western films before becoming a major star in Italy for his “The Man With No Name” Western films with director Sergio Leone. He was one of the only American actors to already be an international film star before he did a single major starring role in an American film production, as the “Man With No Name” films had just been released in the United States before Eastwood returned to the States to continue his film career in his late 30s). Coogan’s Bluff was also a famously violent film, much like Dirty Harry, which is likely what got Siegel the gig. The film was based on a screenplay by husband/wife writing team, Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink.

The Finks’ screenplay was called Dead Right, about a New York Cop named Dirty Harry Callahan who skirts the law in an attempt to bring a serial killer to justice. That’s basically the plot of Dirty Harry, as well, although Dead Right was much more about questioning where we draw the line in society when it comes to protecting ourselves – how willing are we to give into fascism if it keeps us safe? It was here where the role of Dirty Harry, then a much older detective at the end of his time as a cop, was offered to John Wayne, who turned it down.


Since producer Jennings Lang couldn’t get Dead Right produced, he ultimately cut a deal with ABC Television with the intent of turning the concept into a TV series. ABC Television, though, had too much trouble adapting the level of violence in the script into a regular TV series, so it then sold its option to Warner Bros., who again planned to turn it into a movie (as noted, by this point, Coogan’s Bluff had been a hit and the cultural zeitgeist was perhaps more accepting of a film this violent).

With Dirty Harry still an older man at the time, Warner Bros. approached Frank Sinatra, who had recently starred as a detective in the hit 1968 film, The Detective (as I noted in an old Legends Revealed, that film was based on a Roderick Thorp novel and Thorp’s sequel to that novel was also later adapted into a surprising hit action film). Sinatra turned the role down, as well.

It was then offered to a couple of other older actors (including Robert Mitchum) before the filmmakers decided to go younger and cast Eastwood and the rest, as they say, is history.


However, this casting process has led to a number of confusing reports over the years over whether John Wayne turned down Dirty Harry or not. It is true that he turned down the character of Dirty Harry, but it was before the character had evolved to being the character that he became in the film, Dirty Harry, and Dead Right and Dirty Harry are two very different films and Wayne was never offered a role in the second film.

Wayne himself muddied the waters, as he was quoted in Michael Munn’s 2001 book John Wayne: The Man Behind The Myth as saying about Dirty Harry, “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. The second reason is that 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.”

Sinatra was offered the role in the film Dirty Harry, but not Dead Right, so Wayne was recalling the timeline incorrectly. At the same time, people who say that Wayne was never offered the role in Dirty Harry, while correct, are still a bit inaccurate, in that Wayne WAS offered the role of Dirty Harry…just not in Dirty Harry.

Once Dirty Harry was a hit, Wayne did two “loose cannon” cop movies of his own, 1974’s McQ…and then 1975’s Brannigan…