Was Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ Inspired by Real-Life Zodiac Killer?

by Lauren Boisvert

Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films have thrilled audiences for years. There’s a reason Harry Callahan’s catchphrases have always been so popular in the American lexicon. But some may not know that the first 1971 Dirty Harry film came from an unlikely source.

The Zodiac killings, perpetrated from 1968 to late 1969, were actually a primary inspiration for Dirty Harry. Think about it: the setting, San Francisco, where the Zodiac did his deeds; the no-nonsense, dedicated, unorthodox cop; the Scorpio Killer, I mean come on, how on the nose can you get.

Scorpio Killer’s crimes even mirror the Zodiac’s; The Scorpio leaves taunting notes for the police, just like the Zodiac left his puzzles. At one point, Scorpio wears a mask, emulating the Zodiac’s go-to disguise. One of the final scenes is even based on a threat the Zodiac made, claiming he was going to kidnap a school bus. Scorpio actually follows through with it in the film, though.

As for Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood’s character was based on former San Francisco Police Detective Dave Toschi. Toschi was the lead investigator on the Zodiac case and had a strictly professional attitude. He was thorough and efficient, and Harry Callahan followed that model. While he didn’t take his personal style from Toschi–the real-life detective was known for wearing bowties and loud plaid suits–Eastwood took a page from his professional book for Callahan.

Additionally, David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac even has a nod to Dirty Harry‘s inspiration. In the scene, Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo, is in a theater watching Dirty Harry with his wife. Cartoonist Robert Graysmith comes up to Toschi and tells him he’s going to catch the Zodiac. Toschi responds, “Pal? They’re already making movies about it.”

What It’s Like Working With Clint Eastwood

Actress Sydney Penny starred alongside Clint Eastwood when she was 13 in the 1985 film Pale Rider, and she had some great memories of the process. Front and center were her memories of working with the legend that is Eastwood.

I have so many wonderful memories both professionally and just personally,” she recently said in an interview. “The whole cast and crew were spectacular, spectacular people and craftspeople and technicians. It was a beautiful location where we were shooting up in Idaho and the biggest image of it is Clint right in the middle.”

Penny went on to say how much everyone loves Clint Eastwood, his legacy, and his skill as an actor and director. “I am probably just one of several million people that love him, love his work, and I’m so honored to have known him and to have seen him up close his style of working, his ethos, and his kind consideration for everyone he works with.” Penny concluded with an honest, succinct, “He’s kind of awesome.”