Hoffman landed in New York, where he intermittently lived with pals Hackman and Robert Duvall. To pay the bills, he waited tables and worked odd jobs. "Dusty and I shared a certain joy in going to auditions," Hackman remembers. "The idea that either of us would do well in films simply didn't occur to us. We just wanted to work."
"Then suddenly this freak accident happened," Hoffman says. When the still-struggling actor was 29, director Mike Nichols cast him as an angst-driven 21-year-old who was having an affair with a friend of his parents. His title role in 1967's The Graduate changed Dustin Hoffman's life.
From the start, he viewed the celebrity part of acting as a compromise. AfterThe Graduate, Hoffman briefly went on the presidential campaign trail for Eugene McCarthy, visiting college campuses around the country. "The students would be kind of looking at me in awe," he remembers. "I would say, 'I'm 30, and I'm not anything like that character.' It was like saying, 'Do not look at me as a movie star.' "
He told his friends he'd never do another movie, that he was going back to the theater. Then he read the script for Midnight Cowboy and changed his mind. Against the advice of Hollywood colleagues, he took a supporting role in the movie as the consumptive street con Ratso Rizzo—beginning a string of memorable parts in such landmark films as Little Big Man, Lenny, All the President's Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man. He won Best Actor Oscars for the last two, after having been nominated seven times. One of those nominations was for his turn inTootsie, as actress Dorothy Michaels (the female alter ego of Michael Dorsey), a character he holds a special fondness for and who he is said to have modeled after his mother. "In a sense," says Hoffman, "you try to be autobiographical with your work if you can. In my mind's eye I would have done what Dorothy did. She loved her work and did not want fame."
But Hoffman himself wasn't able to avoid it. Film audiences adored him. Hackman encapsulates his friend's popular appeal this way: "People see in Dustin possibilities: the little guy who can represent the way they feel in a variety of situations." Emma Thompson says his strength lies in being true to who he is. "So many actors make you think of other actors, but Dustin is completely original. He doesn't make you think of anyone but Dustin."
He also worked extremely hard and gained a deserved reputation for being exacting; at times, difficult. Still today, Last Chance Harvey writer-director Joel Hopkins says, the actor is as self-critical as ever: "He often wanted to try things stripped down, because less is sometimes more. He worries about every little detail." Which is in part why Hoffman was able to carry on, through the late '80s and the '90s, winning another Best Actor nomination forWag the Dog, despite some box-office flops-among them, Ishtar and Hook.
It was in 1999, when he was awarded the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, that all the success—and the melancholy behind it—hit him in the face. "There was this reel of pictures, me playing all these different roles," he says. "I had my first—and only, thank God—panic attack. What followed was depression, but I was not aware of it. I told my wife, Lisa, 'I do not want to act anymore.' It had to do with a central core in me, which was that I never felt I deserved success."
Hoffman again decided, 32 years after The Graduate, that he would stop acting in movies. He would spend time with his children, maybe write a screenplay, maybe direct.
The actor has always put a lot of stock in his relationships with women. "I always wanted to just find the girl that I could be with," he says.
In 1969 he married for the first time, to a New York ballerina named Anne Byrne. Hoffman adopted her daughter Karina, now 43, and the couple had another daughter, Jenna, now 38. (She is the mother of Hoffman's two grandchildren.)