Clint Eastwood first moseyed into the Mission Ranch when he was a raw recruit at nearby Fort Ord looking for a place to kick back, have a couple of sodas, and a good cheap meal. The cluster of buildings at the outskirts of town next to the Mission San Carlos Borroméo in Carmel, California, had been a dairy farm and the Fort Ord officers’ club before becoming a lowkey restaurant and hotel.

For the twenty-one-year-old Eastwood, who had been a lumberjack before he was drafted and didn’t know what he wanted to do when he got discharged, it was love at first squint. “The first time I saw the place I thought it was terrific,” he says. “Visually it was something else, and I thought it was the place I’d like to call home. So I kind of adopted Carmel.”

Set above a stretch of lush wetlands where the Carmel River flows into the Pacific at Point Lobos, the Mission Ranch property, with its dramatic views of the sea, the rocky Monterey coastline, and a gleaming curve of beach, is one of the most scenic spots on the scenic northern California coast. Horses, goats, and a flock of sheep graze in the marshy pasture under stands of live oak and eucalyptus, ducks and heron fish in the long rushes at the riverside, and in the distance where cypress trees lean away from the wind, the great Pacific combers explode against the coastal rocks in wild bursts of foam. Now, some forty years later, Eastwood is one of the most successful film stars and directors in the world.

His chiseled grin and grizzled chin have appeared in dozens of influential roles, from detective Harry Callahan of Dirty Harry to the carny performer of Bronco Billy and the dying singer of Honkytonk Man. He’s an Oscar winner for his revisionist western Unforgiven—and he’s the proud new owner of the recently reopened and lovingly restored Mission Ranch.

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By the 1960s, when Eastwood had moved to Los Angeles and was starring in the television series Rawhide, he had acquired his first house on the Monterey Peninsula, and “eventually I just migrated here permanently,” he says. A zealous golfer, he took to the greens of the Pebble Beach Golf Course on Carmel Bay and brought his handicap down to fifteen. The first movie he directed, Play Misty for Me, was about a Carmel disc jockey, and Eastwood shot it in Carmel and on the rocky Monterey peninsula.

“I just gradually became part of the community,” Eastwood says. “Carmel gave me a different perspective from the movie business.” Then in the 1980s, Carmel’s city council refused Eastwood permission to renovate a building he owned downtown. Eastwood discovered that many other Carmelites, residents without his resources, had also been stymied by the city council.

Just like in the movies, he rode to the defense of the powerless and the protection of the weak. The enforcer took the city council to court and won. A year later he ran for mayor. “We couldn’t get anyone else to do it,” he says, “so after a few glasses of wine I said I’d do it. Being a very determined person, I decided to win.” He knocked on doors, schmoozed at coffee klatches, and rallied meetings. In 1986 he was elected by a landslide.

But as Eastwood prospered the Mission Ranch floundered. Its foundations had been eaten away by rot and termites, its walls cracked, its screens rusted and torn. Eastwood watched from his new house in Carmel, with views of the Pacific Ocean, as the wetlands encroached on the old officers’ club swimming pool and polo field, and the hotel became a seedy refuge for traveling salesmen and illicit couples.

When he dropped by he noticed the peeling paint and broken windows, some of which had been painted black during World War II when residents expected the Japanese to land at Carmel Bay and attack over the marshes.

First settled by the Spanish in the eighteenth century when they made Monterey the capital of Alta California—territory that stretched from San Diego and Baja California to the northern redwood forests—Carmel became the spiritual center of Alta California in 1771 when Father Junípero Serra built his Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, now the graceful neighbor of the Mission Ranch.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Carmel became a refuge for the most important community of artists and writers in the West. Robinson Jeffers built his Tor on the rocks above the Pacific, and everyone from Upton Sinclair to Sinclair Lewis lived and wrote in the piny, bohemian Carmel atmosphere.