In the late 1950s two young guys named Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman set out on a road trip. Hackman, who'd just dropped out of the Pasadena Playhouse, was headed to New York to give Broadway a try. Hoffman, a fellow struggling actor, hitched a ride only as far as Colorado, where he was going to do summer stock. Well along the way, as the elevation climbed, Hackman got stuck behind a clunker. After he finally managed to squeeze past on a muddy mountain road, his wheels skirting the edge of the highway, Hoffman yelled out: "Damn, that was good driving."
"In reality, it was stupid," Hackman now says. "But I think that exemplifies Dusty: always the positive thinker and, best of all, an encouraging friend."
Five decades and many blockbuster films later, Dustin Hoffman pulls up in his Toyota Prius for our meeting at Santa Monica's The Broad Stage, a newly opened playhouse he's spent much of a decade championing. His enthusiasm for this grand steel, glass, and stone theater is due in no small part to its affiliation with Santa Monica College, where Hoffman studied before deciding he just didn't have the goods to realize his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. With more than four dozen movies, and two Oscars, to his credit, Hoffman, 71, now says, "If God was to say to me, ' You want to play really good jazz piano, you have to give up what you are doing,' I would do it in a minute."
Life is fleeting, Hoffman says. “There is not a moment that I take any of my life for granted.”
Wearing a denim work shirt and jeans, he helps me—my arms full with a tape recorder, notebook, magazine—by carrying my purse to a small room backstage, where we will talk. Several times during our chat, he looks off, crinkles his nose, and says, "That's a really good question," and I am reminded of his cheering Hackman along that winding highway.
He enthuses about his latest movie, Last Chance Harvey, a romantic comedy in which Hoffman plays a washed-up, divorced jingle writer who has traveled to London to attend his daughter's wedding. His character is estranged from her, and, seemingly, the rest of the world—until he meets Kate, played by Emma Thompson. She's an employee of the Office of National Statistics, and as much of a lost soul as Harvey.
"In this film," Hoffman explains, "Emma and I said, 'What if we play as close to ourselves as we can?' In other words, 'Do not play. Just be yourself.' "
Really? Dustin Hoffman, among the most popular of Hollywood stars, a last-chance Harvey?
"I have never been a man's man," Hoffman confesses. "I go in a restaurant, see that long table of men with cigars, and I do not understand it. And I have never been a [sports] fan, either. Ultimately I'm for whoever the underdog is."
Hoffman's identification with the underdog explains a lot about him: he always thought of himself as the quintessential black sheep. The son of a pianist and a Columbia Studios prop man turned furniture salesman, he endured what he describes as a loveless upbringing. "I really think my brother and I grew up in a house with two people who should not have had children," Hoffman says. He read his first play, Death of a Salesman, at age 16 and now says, "It was a blueprint of my family. I was the loser, the flunky, and my brother, a high-school varsity football player, was Biff."
Though he studied piano and plays beautifully to this day, Hoffman made a fateful decision. "I just was not gifted. I did not have an ear." At Santa Monica College he took an acting class to get an easy passing grade—he says he had always had difficulty focusing and was on the verge of flunking out—and caught the acting bug. For the next ten years he struggled for acting work, and he was far from surprised when he didn't hit the big time just out of the gate. "I was a peripheral person," he explains. "I was never invited to the parties. I did not go to the prom. So I was certainly comfortable as an actor hanging out with people that were also unemployed and struggling."