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Clint Eastwood, Daring Director

Clint Eastwood is laughing. And why not? At an age when most of his Hollywood peers are focused on grandkids and golf swings, the man known for the withering squint and whispery call to "make my day" is working harder than ever. Says Eastwood: "You get to a certain point and you go, 'I'm the last man standing.' "

The award-winning actor turns 80 in May, but each decade he somehow gets better—more focused and more ambitious. With 55 remarkable years in film and television (nearly 40 of them as an acclaimed director), four Oscars, and generations of fans, Eastwood would be excused for holing up quietly at home in Carmel, California. But the star of Dirty Harry, Unforgiven, and Million Dollar Baby, to name a fistful of classics, is now equally admired for producing quality, meaningful work for mass audiences at an age Hollywood typically chooses to ignore.

"Eighty? Really? Unbelievable!" Morgan Freeman, Eastwood's longtime friend and collaborator, says with genuine awe. "The man absolutely shows no signs of slowing down or losing traction. He's so sharp, so efficient. I hope this won't make him mad, but when I grow up, I want to be like Clint."

"The main thing is not how long you're on the planet, but the quality you have while you're here."

Eastwood's 30th directorial effort, Invictus, with Freeman in the starring role, is one of his most provocative. Like his other recent movies—Gran Torino, Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers—it pushes audiences to think about difficult, sometimes uncomfortable issues. Set in South Africa amid the fall of apartheid, Invictus is the true story of Nelson Mandela's release from prison and his determined plan to use World Cup rugby as a path to racial harmony.

"I'm always trying to tackle subjects that tax me and make me think," Eastwood says. "The brain has to be exercised the same as the rest of the body." With a nod to Walt Kowalski, the Gran Torino character whose lifelong racism gives way to understanding and compassion, Eastwood believes "the never-too-old-to-learn philosophy" is a rich topic at this stage in life.

At every age, Eastwood has challenged himself to learn and grow. Born in San Francisco in 1930, he watched his father struggle through the Depression and World War II as a salesman and steelworker while the family crisscrossed California, a one-wheeled trailer loaded with their belongings in tow. Eastwood was soon working hard himself, first playing piano for free meals at an Oakland nightclub while in high school, and later as a lumberjack and firefighter, before becoming an actor. An Army stint in the Korean War was a formative part of a full American experience that included a two-year term as mayor of Carmel and associations with Republican political candidates, even while his steadfast libertarian views led him eventually to decry the Iraq war. Along the way, Eastwood became a father of seven children by five women. "You come to realize that marriage is not just about love," he says of his current happy marriage of 14 years to former TV reporter Dina Ruiz, 35 years his junior. "It's about like as well."

Today Eastwood is the picture of understated dignity. He doesn't dress up his conversation with pretenses or self-aggrandizement, and he sticks to clean, spare observations and choice clips of wisdom. "Follow what you think," he says. "You want to do something? Just do it the best you can, whatever that is. I'm not saying everyone makes a phenomenal thing. But you can fail on your own terms."

Above all, Eastwood appears to savor life. "You don't have to rush down the hill," he says. "You can walk down." And despite unimaginable success, he does not confuse his fame or fortune with meaning.

"He's someone who never gets wrapped up in himself," Freeman says. Eastwood's ability to stay grounded may come from his many high-flying interests outside show biz. He pilots helicopters, speaks fluent Italian, and is an accomplished jazz pianist and composer.

He's also refreshingly low-tech. "You see a couple in a restaurant, and both of them will be texting at the table," Eastwood says. "Don't people talk anymore?" As he sees it, "the main thing is not how long you're on the planet, but the quality you have while you're here. That was always the only thing that really mattered."

A statement like that could be read as an epilogue, but Eastwood clearly wants to keep working. "My dad was always talking about retiring and sitting next to a stream with a couple of beers in his hand," he says. "Sounds like a commercial, but [retirement] is not for me." Eastwood exercises vigorously every day and stays up till midnight many nights reading scripts and fine-tuning his material. He's already working on his next movie, the supernatural thriller Hereafter. And Invictus is an early front-runner for an Oscar nod this year.

Of course, if he were in it only for the awards, he could have quit ages ago. "The reason I don't retire is that I learn something new every day," Eastwood says. There is humility in his voice, and perhaps a bit of wonder. "It's about expanding, constantly pushing yourself." He challenges audiences by challenging himself—and inspires us all in the process.

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