Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is set in 1969 when the crimes of the Manson Family loomed over Southern California. The film focuses on fading western television star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his companion and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton's career is stalled as New Hollywood's shaggy anti-heroes begin to replace the macho men and heartthrobs formerly adored by audiences. The film also nods to the tight relationships between actors and stuntmen less prevalent in modern, CGI-enhanced movies.
Thanks to Tarantino's vast knowledge of pop culture history and his intricate layering of authentic detail, DiCaprio was able to draw from many inspirations for his role as Dalton, including television western stars, teen heartthrobs, and actors dedicated to their stunt-performing counterparts.
According to Tarantino, Pitt compared the relationship between Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton to another famous actor-stuntman duo: "...[Pitt] immediately was like, 'Oh, this is like Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins,'" Tarantino remembered. "Which means, you know, Leo's character is sort of the poor man's McQueen."
McQueen also got his start with small television roles. He made a name for himself appearing in action-oriented movies which featured extreme stunts, most famously jumping a fence on a motorcycle in The Great Escape and engaging in car chases through San Francisco in Bullitt.
Although the actor completed many of his own stunts, stuntman Bud Ekins performed many others, including the motorcycle jump and some of Bullitt's driving. Ekins's friendship with McQueen began as a shared love of racing and led to Ekins's Hollywood career, as well as the films the two men made together.
Pitt and Tarantino were both fans of a 1970s televison western called Alias Smith and Jones, which starred Pete Duel. The actor took his own life in 1971, and Tarantino wondered if Duel's tragic end could inspire some aspect of Rick Dalton, saying:
...Maybe Rick has a drinking problem. I had not written him in that way, but there always was this... swing of his emotions. Now there was a rooted cause, and that was the one Leo responded to.
Duel started his Hollywood career in the mid-1960s, starring in both film and television before finding fame with Alias Smith. He didn't enjoy his popularity among teenagers, however, and admitted to others, "The quantity of work is Herculean and the quality is often non-existent."
Duel channeled his unhappiness into drinking. "Fame in show business is not in proportion to actual achievement," he once said, a sentiment with perhaps inspired some aspects of DiCaprio's Dalton.
- Photo: True Grit/Paramount Pictures
John Wayne's self-assured swagger and macho American hero persona made him famous for his roles as cowboys and soldiers, so much so that he's practically synonymous with the western genre. Unlike DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, however, Wayne was able to adapt and break out of the western genre to take on more dramatic and action-oriented roles.
The late '60s were a period of change in both film and culture, and values behind movie heroes changed. "Now, in 1969, the new leading men are the exact opposite," Tarantino said. "They are skinny, shaggy-haired guys. There's a pansexuality about them."
Along with Wayne's True Grit, movies like Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid transformed America's perception of manliness and westerns as a whole. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood attempts to capture this change and what it means for a star whose career is based on a persona that is no longer appealing.
DiCaprio said, "Brad [Pitt] and I are watching Hollywood change, but we're in the grind. And we have this connected relationship where we have each other's backs."
When discussing male actors from the 1960s, Tarantino noted, "To be a young leading man is to be macho and masculine and sexy and handsome and chiseled... And that's how you got on a western show back then."
One actor Tarantino considered part of this trend was Burt Reynolds, who Pitt remembered "...was the guy. Virile. Always had something sharp to say - funny as sh*t. A great dresser." Like Rick Dalton, Reynolds also shared a friendship with his stuntman, Hal Needham.
Reynolds began his career in a series of television westerns like Gunsmoke before transitioning to film. Appealing to both men and women, he became the epitome of cool in the 1970s, resulting in a particularly notorious spread in Cosmopolitan.
Reynolds also found companionship with his stunt double. "I was really happy that it was Burt and Hal, not just Burt or not just Hal. I was happy that it was the two of us together," Reynolds said. The two men grew so close, Needham lived with Reynolds for five years. Reynolds remembered never feeling any career competition toward his friend, recalling they were "two guys that thought that the other one was great."