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An Anniversary for the Rest of Us

As we all know from slogging through the Chronicle's bloated, meandering, zillion-part "oral history" of City Lights Books, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the seminal gathering place for Beat poets. But Lawrence Ferlinghetti's literary sweatshop (Six-dollar-an-hour wages? Are you kidding, Larry?) isn't the only local cultural landmark celebrating an anniversary. And the Chron isn't the only paper in town that can whip out a tape recorder and transcribe quotes.

Here then is SF Weekly's oral history of the McDonald's at Third and Townsend streets -- one of the most iconic spots in SOMA. It was here that Clint Eastwood uttered perhaps the most famous line in American cinema -- "Go ahead, make my day" -- in Dirty Harry 4: Sudden Impact. It's been 20 years since that film vaulted Eastwood's words into the pop-culture lexicon, but fans and filmmakers still flock to the historic intersection seeking the remnants of Hollywood magic. And as our oral history makes clear, their pilgrimages have transformed the spot into a mecca in its own right.

SONDRA LOCKE, ex-lover of Clint Eastwood and his co-star in Sudden Impact: I don't like Clint anymore, but I think everyone who was there that day will never forget the moment. Clint was waving around that big Magnum .44, making everyone nervous. He liked to shoot pigeons between takes. ... Anyway, we'd been drinking all night and, to be honest, most of the morning, and Clint is not a very talkative person even in his sober moments. When we arrived on set, he was a tad uncomfortable with the idea that he'd actually have a line that day -- he thought he was just going to be squinting. When it became clear that he would, in fact, have to memorize some dialogue, Clint went from uncomfortable to enraged. He insisted on speaking to the director, and everyone tried to remind him, gently, that he was the director. Poor Clint. He shot a gaffer before we could calm him down.

CLINT EASTWOOD, star and director of Dirty Harry 4: Sudden Impact: There was a Dirty Harry 4?

PHYLLIS POE, onlooker, 1983: I was standing across the street when they shot the "make my day" scene. I couldn't actually hear the dialogue, of course, but I could just tell Clint was saying something cool. I remember like it was yesterday: The cops were holding back traffic, everyone was holding back Clint, and the whole corner smelled really, really bad -- just like it does today. As soon as Clint gathered himself, they got the scene done in one take. But the best part was, after the shoot, I got Clint to sign the Captain & Tenille shirt I was wearing. And I'm still wearing it.

EASTWOOD: I played who?

OTTO VON STROSTEIN, film historian: Not many people beyond myself know this, of course, but the line in the original script was actually, "Go ahead, monkeyboy, make my day." I don't know whether it was Clint's decision to excise "monkeyboy" -- I suspect it was -- but it's safe to say that had he left the line intact, America would not be the same today. Would President Reagan have used the line if it included "monkeyboy"? Would we see the phrase on bumper stickers, T-shirts, mugs? I think not. That's part of Clint's genius: He knows the power of dialogue depends on its simplicity, and when he says "make my day," he's really speaking to all of the societal, cultural, and political changes transforming the world in the early 1980s. "Monkeyboy" would have cheapened that message. Although, to be honest, it still might have sounded cool coming from Clint.

EASTWOOD: Wait a minute, wait a minute, I remember this Dirty Harry picture you're talking about. I played a space cowboy, right?

BENNY STEVENS, manager of Bosco's Burger Barn (a McDonald's forerunner), 1983-85: This corner has always had a burger joint on it. When Eastwood and all those fancy-asses were here that morning, it was Mike's. Eastwood asked me if they could shoot on the sidewalk, and I said, "Shoot who?" I never knew Mr. Eastwood to ask permission for something like that. It took him a while to explain what he meant -- he speaks very quietly, as you know -- but once I understood, I agreed right away. He ate two of my burgers, too. It wasn't until the movie came out a few months later that people started dropping by, asking about Mr. Eastwood and the scene he'd shot here. I mostly told 'em to buzz off, unless they ordered a Coke. I got tired of it after a few years, so I closed the place down -- this corner was never the same after that movie came out.

TIMMY FEY, president, International Dirty Harry Fan Club: For the past 18 years, the International Dirty Harry Fan Club has held its annual convention in San Francisco. In fact, we hold an opening-night ceremony at the corner of Third and Townsend. I won't lie: It's mostly a bunch of 40-year-old accountants pointing plastic Smith & Wessons at each other, but the cops have gotten used to it, and the neighbors don't even seem to notice anymore. I actually live in an apartment across the street so I can look at this spot -- or, you know, come down and touch it -- whenever the mood strikes me. Unfortunately, many of our club members don't have that luxury, so the convention is really the one time during the year when they can stand in Harry Callahan's shoes. Except, of course, for those members who've bought his shoes on eBay ... I expect they stand in them most every night.

EASTWOOD: Was I still mayor of Carmel then? That was a really weird period for me.

VINNY JONES, Burger Island manager, 1991-1996: Yeah, when we bought the place we had no idea. It was an endless parade of jackasses coming in and asking, "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Look, I liked Dirty Harry, too, especially the one with Tyne Daly, but there comes a point when enough is enough. Of course, it was always great when an actual movie star came in. Nic Cage swung by when he was shooting The Rock on Alcatraz -- he's a nice kid. The cast of Suddenly Susan practically lived here. Just paying their respects to history, I guess. And drinking out of paper bags.

STEVEN SPIELBERG, director: I first heard about Third and Townsend when I was executive-producing An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West. I was searching during that time period, just searching. I thought a trip to the scene of "make my day" would recharge my spiritual batteries, which are immense, and I couldn't have been more right. I cried. I mean, that line is such a piece of Americana, such an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness, and to stand as close to that spot as my limo and security detail would allow ... it changed me. I know there was quite a bit of hand-wringing among my fellow Dirty Harry devotees when the restaurant changed from Burger Island to McDonald's in 1996, but I, for one, was ecstatic. I respect anyone who knows how to manipulate their customers into thinking brainless, unsophisticated, mass-produced crap is somehow good for them.

EASTWOOD: How many people did I kill in that movie? That's the only way I can keep 'em straight.

MARTIN SCORSESE, legendary director: Great, great moment in movie history. Now there's a McDonald's there. Whatisthat? Crass commercialism. Crasscrasscrass. Dirty Harry stood for Everyman. McDonald's stands for what? Grease. Speaking of grease, what a movie. Travolta's never been better.

PHIL SCHWARTZ, McDonald's employee, September 2001 - November 2001: I guess it was really controversial when the McDonald's came in. But I think the neighborhood has warmed to us over the years. One of the things I was proudest of was our tradition of putting signs in the windows that reflect our thoughts on world politics. After 9/11, a lot of people in the neighborhood were watching us very closely. It was a sensitive time, a very troubled time, so as employees, we thought about the various issues, debated them long and hard, and within a few days we put up a sign that spoke to all the controversy and confusion. It said, "America: Open for Business."

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, local filmmaker: They shot Dirty Harry 4 here? Shit, I just come for the Quarter Pounder.

HERM, panhandler at Third and Townsend, 1981-present: Jesus, I just got through telling this to the Chronicle. Yes, I have a long white beard, I ride around town on a bike, and I like to get high and write bad poetry. But I have nothing to do with City Lights. Do you see any honorary streets named after me? ... Oh. You want to talk about Dirty Harry? Yeah, I know him. He works Sixth Street.

GEORGE PLIMPTON, veteran oral historian: The intersection of Third and Townsend is really an intersection of the American soul. In front of you, magnificently, lies the sidewalk, long and vast and flat, blindingly gray after the stark red and white of the McDonald's. Against the looming buildings the fine symphony of honking cabs and screaming bums is disturbed only here and there by the occasional passer-by who comes to bask in history. How so, how so. Everything great about the American Dream, the very foundation of its power, is encompassed in this one corner, in the magic that once happened here, in the symbolic intonation of manifest destiny, "Go ahead," and the simple plea in a world gone mad, "make my day." When I return to this spot, as I often do after a summer sojourn abroad, I am reminded of many of my books, which include Out of My League, Paper Lion, The Bogey Man, Mad Ducks and Bears, The Best of George Plimpton, Shadow Box, and The Curious Case of Sidd Finch. I have also appeared in numerous films, such as When We Were Kings, Good Will Hunting, Little Man Tate, Pumping Iron II: The Women, L.A. Story, and the television miniseries Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony. Did I mention The Paris Review yet? We're also having an anniversary.

EASTWOOD: 1983 is a long time ago. You've got to realize, in some of my movies I co-starred with monkeys. I can't be expected to remember every goddamn cop picture I made. -- Matt Palmquist


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