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Key Grip Charlie Saldana Recalls His Long Career With Film/TV Greats

Interviewing Charlie Saldana in the quiet of his North Hollywood home, the 79-year-old working key grip still exudes the cool confidence of someone who’s spent a lifetime in partnership with one of Hollywood’s great directors: Clint Eastwood.

Saldana still possesses an actor’s looks, with a salt-white mustache and a full silver mane. He began his career building scaffolding for Disney’s “Pollyanna” in 1960, following military service in the 101st Airborne Division. Joining the grip union, he was employed by Hollywood’s blossoming TV industry on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Gomer Pyle, USMC” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “The Mod Squad.” The neophyte grip learned his craft well. 

Born in 1939 to Charles and Josephine Saldana (his dad was a freelance studio mechanic, his mom a full-blooded Native American from a tribe in California’s San Gabriel region), Charlie was raised with a strong work ethic that drove his rise in the industry. “Gaining grip skill was a layered, educative process,” he says.

Five years on the series “The Rookies” produced Saldana’s first break: keying for cinematographer Bruce Surtees on the 1978 film “Movie Movie.” Ensuing projects led to work with Clint Eastwood’s The Malpaso Co. (now Malpaso Prods.).

From 1979 to 1988, Saldana worked on a number of Eastwood films, including “Escape From Alcatraz,” “Firefox,” “Honkytonk Man,” “Sudden Impact,” “Tightrope,” “Pale Rider,” “Heartbreak Ridge” and “Bird.” Over the course of that time, a mutual respect developed between the director-star and his key grip. When pressed to talk about the helmer’s methodology on set, Saldana describes a dedication to excellence without endless discussion — or takes. “The boss is a focused professional,” says Saldana. “He taught me patience while in pursuit of good work, and appreciation when getting it.”

Riding on his reputation as Eastwood’s go-to action key in the 1980s, Saldana worked on Richard Donner’s “Lethal Weapon” movies, Walter Hill’s “Another 48 Hrs.” and Brian De Palma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” before returning for Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning Western throwback “Unforgiven.”

Recalling the director’s efforts to preserve period values, Saldana tells of being ferried to location by wagon teams so that no trace of modern wheel tracks would creep into a shot.

Saldana enjoyed the work of such early DPs as James Wong Howe (“Hud”) and Stanley Cortez (“Chinatown”) as well as Fleet Southcott, with whom he worked on “Mod Squad.” In his later partnerships with cinematographers Jack N. Green (“Bird”), Steven Goldblatt (“For the Boys”) and Tom Stern (“Mystic River”), Saldana has always stayed connected to the soul of motion picture craft: appreciation of performance.

As the person responsible for everything from lighting control and camera movement to safety, Saldana fondly recalls a beauty-light rig devised for Nicole Kidman on “Batman Forever” that employed opal diffusion and cast a heavenly light on the actress’s face.

Prodded at conversation’s end for the secret to his longevity, Saldana credits wife Melanie and recent Eastwood pictures like “American Sniper” and “Sully” — and his upcoming “The Mule” — as the stuff that keeps him young.

After 50-plus years in the trenches, that’s a happy run of movies indeed.

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