A Clint Eastwood Coincidence Convinced Richard Harris His Unforgiven Casting Had To Be A Prank

"Unforgiven" is a Western that speaks not only to the greater state of the genre at the time it was released, but sums up Clint Eastwood's career and the films that would come to define him. How "Unforgiven" manages to be such a provocative and engaging Western with hardly any action shows Eastwood's capability as both an actor and director. The story centers mainly on the forgotten gunslingers of the past who come together for a low-stakes bounty, deconstructing the myth of the legendary gunfighters of the past and the myth of the Western genre itself.

One particular gunfighter that best exemplifies this point is English Bob, portrayed by Richard Harris. In "Unforgiven," English Bob is touted as a dangerous marksman, with a biographer following him around and writing down his exaggerated exploits. It isn't until English Bob is detained by the sheriff, Gene Hackman's Little Bill, that the myth is broken — Bob backs down from a gunfight with the sheriff, knowing he'll lose. 

The role of English Bob is a small but critical one in "Unforgiven" and helps to exemplify its themes. So when it came to cast the part, Clint Eastwood needed a legendary actor like Richard Harris. And the timing of his offer makes for a great story.

The perfect timing of a phone call

In an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Clint Eastwood recounted the incredible coincidence that occurred when he called Richard Harris on the phone to talk about him potentially playing English Bob:

"I was doing 'Unforgiven,' and I wanted Richard Harris to play the character of English Bob in the movie. So, I called him, and I called his house, and the lady answered, and she said, 'Just a second,' I said, 'Tell him Clint Eastwood's calling.' And all of a sudden, she comes back and says, 'Who is this?' And I said, 'It's Clint Eastwood calling, tell him Clint Eastwood's calling.' And all of a sudden, he comes on, and he goes, 'Is this Bob? Joe?' Because the irony is he was downstairs in the TV room watching 'High Plains Drifter' on the television. So he tells me this story, and of course, he was flipped out that I wanted him because he loved doing westerns."

Imagine Richard Harris at that moment, watching a Clint Eastwood Western, and then receiving a call from Clint Eastwood to be in a Western — it makes sense that he would automatically assume the call to be a prank of some sort. Thankfully, Harris wasn't being tricked, and his casting in the movie as English Bob would lead to one of the film's best and most important scenes.

Deconstructing the Western myth

English Bob's confrontation in jail with Little Bill in "Unforgiven" perfectly encapsulates the story Eastwood is telling with the film, putting on display powerhouse performances from Gene Hackman, Saul Rubinek, and of course, Richard Harris. As English Bob lies bloody and beaten in a jail cell, Hackman's Little Bill deconstructs the myth Bob had created for himself. Bill tears down the legend and offers a gun to Bob in his cell to try and give some semblance of credit to him as a fearless gunslinger. English Bob promptly declines the weapon.

The tension in the scene grows as Rubinek's character slowly puts the pistol within reach of English Bob and Bill, watching closely to see whether he'll go for it. It's one of the most intense moments in the film. More than that, it gives Harris' character a distinct purpose as a symbol of what "Unforgiven" thinks of the Western myth. Beaten bloody and humiliated, English Bob's brief appearance in the film serves as a nihilistic message about the romanticism of old Western stories and helps establish what's in store for Eastwood's William Munny when it's his turn to collect that bounty. 

As small as the role is, Richard Harris delivers an unforgettable performance. And it came about from a phone call that was almost too good to be true.