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Golden age of design

Henry Bumstead, 89, reflects on bringing up 'Baby' and buddy Clint

You’d think that legendary production designer and art director Henry Bumstead, who turns 90 in March, would by now be resting on his laurels. But he’s not.

What keeps him at it and still doing some of the best work in his 67-year career is Clint Eastwood. “I wouldn’t have worked this long if it wasn’t for Clint,” says Bummy, as he’s usually known. “We just get along great and he trusts me. We have a certain chemistry.”

He has collaborated with the director on nine films. Their latest pairing is “Million Dollar Baby,” an emotionally wrenching tale of a female boxer and her trainer, starring Hilary Swank and Eastwood, who also directed. Highly praised by critics, the film is considered a front-runner for Oscar nominations in top categories.

There could even be another nomination awaiting Bumstead. His design of the “Hit Pit,” the training gym where much of the action in “Million Dollar Baby” takes place, plus some two dozen other boxing venues, bear his inimitable stamp: Sets so real they don’t look like sets. “I’m a stickler for aging so things don’t look too fresh and this film I think had all that in it,” he says.

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He’s already received two Academy Awards — for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Sting” — and received nominations for “Vertigo” and “Unforgiven.”

1992’s “Unforgiven,” also brought Eastwood two Oscars for director and picture. (The helmer-actor also garnered the Irving G. Thalberg career honor from the Academy.)

Eastwood is fulsome in his praise of Bumstead. “What really makes him invaluable is that he has a great reservoir of memory and technique of working with everybody from Hitchcock to (Billy) Wilder,” he says. “Of that era he’s the last man standing.”

Eastwood handed him a higher accolade in 1998 when Bumstead received the lifetime achievement award from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors. “You take the BS out of filmmaking,” Eastwood told him.

Over the years, Bumstead and Eastwood have developed a rapport that almost transcends words. “I think we kinda think alike — it’s just something I’ve noticed time and again over the years,” says Eastwood.

That makes for a quick and easy way of working together. “After I get the script, I talk it over with Clint,” says Bumstead. “He reads my plans, and then I show him photos of a possible location. Sometimes he’ll go look at them, but other times not. He trusts me so much.”

On “Million Dollar Baby,” his longtime location scout, Kokayi Ampah, found a building in South Los Angeles that could be turned into the training gym. “We don’t make sketches anymore for Clint, we don’t have to,” says Bumstead. “I showed him the plans for the Hit Pit. I showed how I put his office up high, and he would be looking down, which he liked.”

Working for him is always fairly rushed. This one took six weeks. While working on the film, Bumstead ran into some health problems. “Doing ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ I found out that I had prostate cancer,” he says. “Clint furnished me with a car and driver and a wheelchair. I went through radiation and chemotherapy, but I was still able to work for him.”

He got a CT scan a few weeks that gave him a clean bill of health, Bumstead says, but he’s continuing to be monitored. “Clint loves the progress I’ve made.”

Bumstead got his start when he was a sophomore at USC and through an acquaintance got a job with John Arkright, the assistant to impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. He joined Paramount in 1937 and had the benefit of being trained under Hans Dreier, the talented German-born art director (“Sullivan’s Travels,” “I’m No Angel,” “Sunset Boulevard”).

Directors he’s worked with include Cecil B. DeMille, Michael Curtiz, Anthony Mann, Franklin Schaffner, Hal Walker and Martin Scorsese. He did four films with Alfred Hitchcock, and six with George Roy Hill including “The Sting.”

But his longest-lasting professional relationship has been with Eastwood. The two first hooked up on 1972’s “Joe Kidd,” which was directed by John Sturges. That was immediately followed with “High Plains Drifter” and then 20 years passed before their next collaboration on “Unforgiven.” He’s done every Eastwood film since, except for “The Bridges of Madison County.”

“Working for Clint is like the old studio system,” Bumstead says. “He works with the same people all the time. So even if you go two years and you don’t get a Clint Eastwood picture, when you arrive for a new one, they’re all there –wardrobe, editor, cameraman, everyone. It just makes it wonderful.”