Why Gene Hackman Almost Turned Down Clint Eastwood Film ‘Unforgiven’

by Taylor Cunningham

At the request of his daughters, Gene Hackman nearly turned down his Oscar-winning role alongside Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.

When Hackman was offered a spot in the infamous Western, he had just starred in a string of gruesome action flicks. And coming off the trend, the actor’s daughters, Elizabeth and Leslie, we’re growing tired of the violence.

So when Eastwood presented Hackman with the script for Unforgiven, the girls had a look. And after learning that the movie would once again be filled with guns and death, they begged their dad to decline the part.

In the movie, Hackman plays Little Bill, a power-hungry sheriff who has limitless brutality. Throughout the story, the character proves time and time again how ruthless his badge makes him by committing disturbing acts that will make even the most stoic person cringe —especially Hackman’s daughters.

And because of that, Gene Hackman initially planned on turning down the part, according to Unforgiven writer David Webb Peoples

“Things could have been different,” Peoples told New York Daily News in 2017. ” Gene’s daughters didn’t like all the violent movies he was doing … He was at a stage in his career where his family was more important than his work.”

How Clint Eastwood Convinced Gene Hackman to Join ‘Unforgiven’

And Clint Eastwood remembers the situation vividly. During a 2009 interview with the American Film Institute, the actor said that Gene Hackman personally called him up to decline the movie.

“I submitted it to Gene Hackman,” he said. “And Gene I’d known for many years, but we had never worked together. He was in a mood at that time and he said ‘I don’t want to do any more violent pictures. I’m tired of it …’”

But Eastwood knows that Unforgiven isn’t just another movie made for the sake of shock and awe. It’s a story about how greed, power, and violence can change a person and turn them into a character like Little Bill. So in an effort to persuade Hackman, he explained the philosophical meaning behind the film. And it worked.

“I said, ‘You know, I know exactly where you’re coming from, but read it again because I think we can make a great statement against violence and killing if we do this right,’” he continued. “It’s all in the execution, you gotta execute it right, or else nothing means anything. He re-read it and came back and said, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll do this.’”

And the decision was a career-changing move for Gene Hackman. Not only did the actor win an Oscar for his supporting role, but the movie also brought in three more Academy wins, including one for Best Picture. And it is now etched in history as one of the greatest movies of all time.

“God bless Gene,” Peoples added. “He listened to Clint and together they produced something awesome. Gene was a revelation.”